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VMware overhauls desktop virt line

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VMware has upgraded its Workstation hypervisor for PCs and Fusion hypervisor for Macs, with the goal of giving them more native performance, particularly for graphics — notorious for being clunky enough to make users cranky.

VMware got its start virtualizing desktops and only gradually moved into the data center, and it still has a tidy business selling its Workstation hypervisor for PCs and Fusion hypervisor for Macs. With improved graphics, that business may become even tidier.

With Workstation 7.1, VMware says it has made tweaks to the hypervisor so that Windows Vista and Windows 7 guest partitions have up to twice the graphics performance supporting DirectX 9.0 protocols. Hardware acceleration for the OpenGL 2.1 protocol is now also offered through the WDDM driver for those two Windows variants.

When the beta for Workstation 7.1 came out in March, VMware's early tests showed something on the order of an 80 per cent improvement in graphics performance. Graphics performance is so much better, says VMware, that Autodesk is now recommending and supporting its AutoCAD 2011 design tools running inside of Workstation virtual machines.

The simple truth is that VMware's claimed high improvement percentage is probably due to the fact that virtualized graphics have been terrible up until now — the update should move them up to "tolerable".

Of course, it will be gamers who will put Workstation 7.1's graphics performance to the real test, as we all know.

The hypervisor in Workstation 7.1 has been optimized for the latest "Westmere" Core i3, i5, and i7 processors from Intel, announced in January, and uses the AES encryption features on those chips to more quickly encrypt and decrypt virtual machines running atop Workstation. The virtual machine guests atop the Workstation hypervisor — which is a type 2, or hosted one, meaning it has to run atop Windows or Linux — now can span eight virtual processors, up from four virtual processors in Workstation 7.0, and can have a virtual disk of up to 2TB. The amount of memory each VM can support stays the same at 32GB.

The new PC hypervisor from VMware can import and export virtual machines that support the Open Virtualization Format 1.0 spec. That means developers can create VMs inside of Workstation, test them, and deploy them directly to the ESX Server 4.0 hypervisor at the heart of the vSphere 4.0 server virtualization stack from VMware without making any changes to them.

And in a bit of polish, you can now embed Start buttons for applications running in various virtual machines in the Start menu of Windows 7 if you use that as the host operating system. Which means you don't have to go into VMs directly to start using applications running on them.

VMware Workstation 7.1 supports over 60 different operating system releases as guests, with the two latest ones being Ubuntu 10.04 and Fedora 12. It costs $189 per machine, just like the prior release, with upgrades from Workstation 5 or 6 costing $99. If you're running Workstation 7.0, you get the update to 7.1 for free.

The virtualization juggernaut also kicked out Fusion 3.1 today, which is VMware's type 2 hypervisor for Apple Macs that use Intel x64 processors. VMware says that Fusion 3.1 offers faster application launching, smoother scrolling, quicker resume, and better disk performance than Fusion 3.0. It claims that performance improvements average about 35 per cent, depending on the feature and its metric. Windows 7 and Vista guests running atop Mac OS X hosts are seeing a factor of five better performance on graphics, thanks to the OpenGL 2.1 support.

Fusion includes a feature that lets you suck your entire Windows-based PC onto a Mac (not new, but included in a prior release and useful). The Mac version of the hypervisor support eight virtual CPUs and 2TB virtual disks, just like the PC version.

VMware Fusion 3.1 costs $80, with upgrades from prior Fusion releases costing half that. ®

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