Virtualization in a mobile environment

Last week a colleague was taking the opportunity to revisit his development environment. In light of the availability of Windows Server 2008 R2, Win7, and Beta 1 of Visual Studio 2010, Eric was interested in pursuing a heavily virtualized setup. As he knew I am a proponent of doing all development (including the IDEs) in virtuals and that I had converted to a Hyper-V-based development environment, we started discussing what approach he might take. Eric travels a lot, so he’s opted to work entirely on mobile devices. His primary notebook is a beast: Core 2 Quad, 8GB RAM, 17″ 1920×1200 display, 1GB nVidia Quadro FX 3700m, all in a svelte 11 pound package (including power supply). You’d think it’d be great for the developer who wants to virtualize, or the conference presenter who wants to demonstrate the latest and greatest to a crowd.

Unfortunately, Microsoft’s professional-level offerings for virtualization on notebooks are nonexistent.

At first, Eric wanted to go the Hyper-V R2 route. He installed Server 2K8 R2, installed VS2010 in the host partition, and TFS2010/SQL2K8/MOSS2007 in virtuals. He had heard me complain about the graphics performance problems with Hyper-V in the past, but wanted to see for himself. Sure enough, Visual Studio ran quite slowly. However, as it was his first time using the beta, he didn’t know if the lack of speed was just because it was a beta, or if Hyper-V was the cause. Temporarily disabling the Hyper-V role caused a severalfold speedup in the application, going from painful to pleasant. Permanently fixing this would require running XP-level (or, ugh, VGA) drivers for his top-end video card. On top of this, Hyper-V completely disables all forms of sleep in Windows. This was not an acceptable solution to a mobile user.

Frustrated, he decided to resort to Virtual PC. It’s free and easy to use, but that idea was shot down when he realized that not only does Virtual PC not support multiprocessor guests (annoying, but something he could cope with), but it won’t run 64-bit guests either. Given that many of the latest Microsoft server releases (including Windows Server 2008 R2 itself) are 64-bit only, this was a dealbreaker.

What’s left? I suggested VMware Workstation 6.5. It supports multicore guests, 64bit guests, and letting the host computer sleep, all without painful graphics performance. It’s not free, but if you’re looking to get the job done, it’s the best solution. If you want free, VirtualBox is a good option, although not quite as polished as VMWare Workstation. If you want Microsoft, you’re out of luck.

Eric went with VMware Workstation.

Finally, I should note that Intel is releasing the next round of mobile cpus in 1Q2010. As they’ll be Nehalem chips, many of them should have improved hardware virtualization support that matches what we can get on the desktop today. While it won’t fix the Hyper-V sleep mode problem, it will at least alleviate the Hyper-V graphics performance problem.

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Can I mount IMG files in Hyper-V?

The vast majority of the software I use on a regular basis is packaged as either standalone executables, MSIs, or ISO images. However, the Team Foundation Server client for Visual Studio 2005 (yes, I still have to use 2K5 regularly) is in an IMG file. With VMWare Workstation, this wasn’t a problem; IMG images could be mounted just as easily as ISO images. Hyper-V (and R2), unfortunately, is limited to mounting ISOs. So how do I get the VSTF client installed on my Hyper-V guest?

Given the rarity of IMG files nowadays, I decided to settle for a one-off workaround, and convert my IMG to an ISO that would be broadly compatible with any image mounting software, including Hyper-V.  Several options are available for this; I used MagicISO to do the conversion.  The entire process, from download to new ISO, took only a few minutes, and I was able to successfully mount what had originally been an IMG image.

Which virtualization platform is right for me?

As a developer working primarily with Microsoft technologies, I would love for Microsoft to provide a proper desktop virtualization solution, i.e. a virtualization platform that can be used directly on a desktop computer.  I started with various versions of Virtual PC and Virtual Server, but they have all had significant shortcomings.  Even the latest Virtual PC is still essentially useless for developers, as it still doesn’t support 64-bit guests, much less several other desirable features such as multiple CPUs per guest.  Thus, I’ve been using VMWare Workstation for my primary virtualization solution for a while now.  It supports 64-bit and multiple cpus per guest, and sports a reasonably slick interface.  I don’t really have any complaints about it other than the two-CPU-max-per-guest limitation.

However, a lot of my recent work has involved writing code that scales well to 4 or 8 threads.  That’s hard to test properly in an environment that supports only 2 threads.  Plus, I work around mostly Microsofties, so I would like some reason to get off a VMWare platform, or at least be able to explain why the Microsoft solutions were all inferior.  So, now that Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 are RTM, it’s time to try using Hyper-V for my desktop virtualization platform.  I’ve already run into (and solved) several problems; I’ll detail those and any future problems that pop up here.

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