Increasing my Productivity With Virtual Server R2 on Windows XP

I learned recently that not only was Virtual Server now free, but that it worked on Windows XP. Given that so many people now have access to this technology, it;'s the latest and greatest in terms of Microsoft Virtualization, and that I make such heavy use of Virtual PC for my day to day developing, I thought that I should find out how life would be if I moved all my work to it.

My main machine, which runs Windows XP, I keep it as clean as possible. As well as the usual anti virus I have only Office 2007, SnagIt and Virtual PC on this machine; for everything else that I need (like VS2005) I run Virtual PC's - usually XP as well but also Server 2003 when required. This very effectively reduces the amount of junk on my machine and also makes starting a new project very fast - I keep pre-built VPC's ready-to-go for the various projects I am likely, as a Microsoft Consultant, to find myself on.

So first of all I grabbed my free copy of Virtual Server and installed it. The first problem I hit was that I need to install IIS - which I have no need for on my main machine so I didn't actually have. This was a bit annoying as I don't use IIS for anything else so felt this might be a bit of a waste of precious system resources that I would rather have devoted to whichever Virtual machine(s) I happened to be running. I noticed there is an option for not installing the Administration interface of Virtual Server, which meant that I didn't have to install IIS! So that was what I tried first, and it worked. That is, Virtual Server installed and started without a hitch.

It was several minutes before I realized that this meant I had not way of loading up any of the hard disk images I had built using Virtual PC as there is no other way to Administer Virtual PC except via the Web Interface. So I was going to have to install IIS after all...

Having done so, I was able to very easily load up the various Virtual Disks into Virtual PC and start them. One of them was actually in a suspended state; I was able to get it to resume under Virtual Server but it displayed an error shortly after starting and I had to reboot that particular Virtual Machine so I used Virtual PC to shut down all the Virtual Machines I had before trying to start them in Virtual Server. Once that was done I had no problems migrating any of them over.

Virtual Server provides a SCSI interface that is supposed to be faster than the IDE interface that is the only option under Virtual PC. I tried hooking an existing Virtual Hard Disk to the SCSI channel but the machine wouldn't fire up (as the drivers weren't loaded for the SCSI device). I put this machine back to IDE and then fired it up; it came up ok and then "discovered" it had a SCSI adaptor available, for which it installed the drivers via plug and play. Rebooting and switching back to SCSI enabled me to use this new feature for that Virtual Machine.

Initially, I used the Remote Control applet provided as part of Virtual Server to interact with my Virtual Machines and they seemed very snappy under Virtual Server. However I quickly missed the Virtual Folders capability of Virtual PC, which allows me to view local drives on my host Windows XP machine as network shares within the Virtual Machine. The solution to this problem is simply to enable remote desktop (by right clicking on My Computer in the Virtual Machine, selecting the Remote tab, and checking the box at the bottom of the form) and access the machine that way, as Remote Desktop allows you to bring all your local drives to the remote machine; also as shares. Using Remote Desktop has the added advantage of being able to work full-screen; not something I was able to do on my Virtual PC. You are able to remote desktop in to a Machine hosted in Virtual PC but it seems silly to have two windows open (Virtual PC itself and the remote Desktop); like it wastes resources somehow! In Virtual PC, the Virtual Machines all run within the Virtual Server process and so you don't need anything else running (e.g. IIS!) which feels a lot more efficient, somehow.

I've been so pleased with the performance improvement under Virtual Server, and the convenience offered, that I have uninstalled Virtual PC and I don't miss it.

If you have Windows XP and have never tried playing around with a Virtual Computer, now is the time! Install Virtual Server and give it a try; I highly recommend it. It also runs particularly nicely on a dual-core machine, as if you have more than one Virtual Machine running at a time Virtual Server will share out the processing between the cores (Virtual PC will only use one of the cores no matter how many Virtual Machines you are running.) And you can't beat the price!