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VMware Workstation 8 overview: Why should I upgrade?

VMware Workstation 8 has an improved interface, 64-bit operating system support, and better integration with vSphere. Check out the new features to see if you should upgrade.

VMware Workstation 7, the company’s host-based virtualization platform, was stable and reliable, but a lot of administrators felt it could use some jazzing up visually and functionally. In the new VMware Workstation 8, VMware touts more than 50 improvements and new features.

So the question is: Should you upgrade to VMware Workstation 8? It’s easy to get swallowed up in upgrade madness -- the constant struggle to stay current without considering whether an upgrade actually makes sense. Before you decide, ask yourself this: How will VMware Workstation 8 affect the work I am doing right now, and will it make my life easier? Then weigh the cost and effort it takes to upgrade against the potential benefits of VMware Workstation 8.

Here are some important new VMware Workstation features to inform your decision:

Support for 64-bit operating systems

VMware Workstation is basically the ultimate IT experimenter’s lab. You can build an entire VMware test lab on a high-powered laptop, saving you money on hardware and other equipment.

One of the slickest uses of VMware Workstation is the ability to install vSphere as a guest VM, then run VMs within vSphere. Think of it as a nested VM within a nested VM. With earlier versions of Workstation, this process was limited to 32-bit VMs inside vSphere, but VMware Workstation 8 supports 64-bit OSes. This addition greatly improves the testing functionality for vSphere VMs.

Integration with vSphere

VMware Workstation used to be considered more of a sandbox for development and testing, as it was not very well integrated with vSphere. Now, VMware Workstation 8 lets administrators build test VMs, then drag and drop them into the vSphere enterprise infrastructure. This new feature eases the transition of development and test VMs into the production environment.

This feature should also help Workstation break out of the reputation that it’s only for people who refuse to work with carbon-based life forms -- real-life production environments, that is. VSphere integration in VMware Workstation 8 allows you to collaborate with other teams on building, deploying and maintaining new systems in the virtual infrastructure. To quote Rick from Casablanca: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

GUI updates: Workstation 7 vs. 8

The graphical user interface in VMware Workstation 7 emphasized function over form (Figure 1). It got the job done, but there was definitely room for improvement.

Figure 1
This is the Workstation 7.1.4 interface.(Click image for an enlarged view.)

These are the VMware Workstation 7 GUI features I thought needed improvement:

  • The sidebar on the left lacked a clear way to organize your virtual machines (VMs).
  • Favorites was a list of all VMs you’ve created, some of which I would hardly call Favorites.
  • Some of the top menu icons were confusing. I found myself using the menu list far more often than the icons.

The same VM console in VMware Workstation 8 is much more organized and clear (Figure 2).

Figure 2
This is the new GUI in VMware Workstation 8.(Click image for an enlarged view.)
These are the GUI improvements I immediately found useful in VMware Workstation 8:

  • The sidebar has been replaced with a Library panel, which allows you to create folders and drag and drop VMs into them. This greatly improves the organization of VMs.
  • You can easily mark and unmark “favorite” VMs, and you can also star certain VMs to keep track of which ones you are actively working on at a given time.
  • The cryptic icons in the top menu bar have been removed and have been replaced with fewer, clearer icons.
  • The Suspend function is represented as a down arrow, which can be clicked to bring up other common VM management functions such as Power On, Power Off, Suspend, Resume and Reset. Furthermore, in VMware Workstation 8, the available functions change depending on the state of the VM. For example, if the VM is suspended, the only option available to you is Resume.
  • The Thumbnails panel at the bottom of the screen, which displays the VM you are currently running, can be turned off to save you valuable desktop screen space. (You can also view the VMs displayed by folder.)

Another improvement in VMware Workstation 8 is the Home tab (Figure 3).

Figure 3
This is the Home tab in the Workstation 8 interface. (Click image for an enlarged view.)
The Home tab redesign in VMware Workstation 8 seems to have taken its cues from vCenter. The eight tasks displayed in the Home tab are well arranged, with icons that actually make sense. Previous versions buried those tasks in menus and tabs within sub-menus.

As you decide whether to upgrade to VMware Workstation 8, remember: Don’t upgrade an application just because a vendor suggests it. There has to be a practical, tangible reason to make your time and money worthwhile. In this case, VMware seems to have done a good job improving some key features, and that makes a solid case for upgrading to VMware Workstation 8.

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