Updated: June 5, 2010
Desktop users with geeky tendencies are mostly familiar with the VMware line of products and VirtualBox, which has changed parenthood three times in the past few years, from innotek via Sun to Oracle. Then, Linux users also have KVM and Xen, which are a little more complicated and not quite so mainstream; a big thing in the enterprise world to be sure, but not something most home users will try. Microsoft also has a product called VirtualPC, but it's not quite on par with VMware or VirtualBox. Now, there's another competitor on the rapidly growing virtualization market.
It's called VMLite. Truth to be told, it's not a brand new technology; VMLite is based on VirtualBox. But its goal is a bit different. Rather than being an all-around virtualization program, VMLite caters mainly to Windows users looking for an improved productivity, sandboxing applications securely and bridging compatibility issues between Windows XP and Windows 7, all without having a fancy, modern CPU with VT extensions.
Moreover, VMLite is nevertheless a fully fledged software package, with all of the goodies that VirtualBox has, including 3D support for virtual machines, both DirectX and OpenGL, an ever-improving network stack, Seamless Mode, and many additional, cool features. Well, sounds quite interesting. Let's have a look at VMLite.
To download VMLite, you will have to register. The registration is free. Next, you will have to choose from a range of VMLite products available, which, at the first glance, can be a little confusing.
VMLite offers VMLite XP Mode, VMLite Workstation, MyOldPC, VirtualApps Studio, and a few other solutions. What we want is the VMLite Workstation, the virtualization software package.
Still, as a brief overview, let's mention some of the other candidates; we may have additional reviews soon.
MyOldPC lets you convert old Windows XP installations into a virtual machine that you can run on more modern operating systems like Windows 7. In this regard, it's similar to VMware Converter. VirtualApps Studio is similar to VMware ThinApps and is mainly intended for businesses and developers. VirtualApps Player is a sandbox utility that lets you run individual applications sandboxed from the rest of the system. VBoot has not yet been released, but it is intended to allow you to boot physical machines from virtual hard disks. Lastly, VMLite XP Mode offers the same functionality as the Windows 7 XP mode, except that it works on any processor, including those without virtualization extensions.
As you can see, VMLite is more than a single program. It's range of interesting, exciting technologies, which we shall definitely explore in the future. In the introduction article, we'll focus on the Workstation - and the built-in XP Mode.
Let us begin with the installation.
The installation is very simple. It's point and click. A no-brainer, by all means.
After you install the program, the real fun begins.
The first thing the program will offer for you is to setup the VMLite XP Mode. This is not a mandatory step, so do not feel obliged to complete the wizard. You can close it and then launch the main program as you normally would. You can always restart the setup if you want.
This step is intended only for Windows 7 users, who want to try the new feature or replace the built-in XP Mode with the VMLite solution. After we complete this step, we'll go back to playing with the main program, the Workstation.
This sounds confusing, I admit. This package is an official Microsoft solution that can be downloaded from the Microsoft site. It is intended to work with the VirtualPC, but it will also run with VMLite.
Note: Please remember that the XP mode package is not an additional operating system that you can use for free. It is meant to allow you to run incompatible software with your installation. It will use the same hostname and license as your installed machine. The EULA specifically lists the package as intended only for users of Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate.
You have three options to choose - specify a folder containing the package, specify an existing disk or download from the Internet. The last option is only available for Windows 7 users, and only if you're not behind a proxy. Like VirtualBox, VMLite does not cope well with proxies, an inherited flaw.
I have started testing the software on Windows XP, but since demonstrating the XP Mode requires Windows 7, I repeated the step with the appropriate operating system in place.
After you select the package, the wizard will extract it and convert the machine. You will be asked to accept the EULA, provide your password and configure updates.
The setup will take a few moments:
And that's it, you have Windows XP running:
Well, it's Windows XP all right. However, there were a few things amiss. Take a look at the System Tray. It's alight with warning signals, which do not bode well for less experienced users.
There were three separate problems. From left to right, the NAT did not work well and the virtual machine was unable to obtain an IP address. Whether this is an issue with unsigned drivers and Windows 7 or another thing, I can't say. Trying other variations of networking did not work, either. Checking the host machine, I noticed the network adapter was too have a problem obtained an IP address. Not sure why this happened, but it got me a little baffled and less confident in VMLite Workstation capabilities.
The second problem was the duplicate host name. This could be the fact XP Mode is not a separate license, but an extension of the existing system, hence the duplicate entry. In fact, this could be the reason why the virtual machine was unable to obtain the IP address.
The third problem is the usual warning from the Security Center. Not a problem per se, but it could alarm people expecting a smooth, unattended setup. Well, at least you're spared the rather useless Windows XP Tour. On a positive side, you do get the VirtualBox Guest Additions installed, albeit rebranded with the VMLite logo.
You can also run isolated applications outside the virtual machine using the Seamless Mode. The setup creates an icon for Internet Explorer. You can identify it by a green border, which signifies this is a sandboxed, virtual application.
But it is VirtualBox Seamless Mode through and through. While sandboxing Internet Explorer does seem like a nice promo stunt, it misses the point of running the XP mode, since Internet Explorer 8 is already provided by the host operating system, which offers tabs, better built-in support for CSS and W3C standards and some extra security features. But if you've seen it once with VirtualBox, you've seen it all.
Well, if you do have a valid Windows XP license that is currently unused, you can setup your own Windows XP virtual machine any which way you want, regardless of which product you are using, without the additional restrictions. The benefit of the XP Mode is to permit users without an extra license to enjoy max. backward compatibility. The installation is also much easier.
I do think the emphasis on security misses the point slightly, especially since sandboxing Microsoft components kind of undermines the whole concept of not being able to run legacy applications.
Back to our product. VMLite is VirtualBox, almost to the last bit. It looks and behaves the same. And even suffers from the same ailments, like the proxy issue. When it comes to virtualization, the added benefits of VMLite are in the extra features rather than the ability to create and run virtual machines.
The added layer of functionality comes at a price. More complexity, which in turns leads to more problems. VMLite has all the problems VirtualBox does, which are, frankly, not that many, namely the proxy and unsigned drivers issue, but it adds a few new ones.
The networking was not working properly. On top of that, if you're not very versed with VirtualBox, you might get a little alarmed by several system tray icons indicating this or that problem. There was the Security Center icon, which is expected considering the fact I have set the Windows Updates off, but then there was the duplicate host warning and the network problem icon, both of which could frighten away a new user.
If you're asking me, I think a combination of a fully licensed Windows XP plus the compatibility mode in Windows 7 seem like the best idea. If you need help learning how to install Windows XP, I do have a long tutorial available. Lastly, VMLite can be installed alongside VirtualBox, but you may experience unexpected behavior.
VMLite Workstation seems like an interesting concept. It is not a revolution. However, it aims to become a refinement of an already fine product. The additional features make VMLite line of solution an appealing idea for less knowledgeable users who want quick and easy setups as well as advanced users looking to squeeze more juice from their VirtualBox package. However, network-related issues do pose a problem, especially for the intended audience of less skilled users.
VMLite bears keeping an eye on. I shall definitely be exploring its features and abilities and report back with additional reviews and tutorial as time and opportunity permits. Oh yes, I do hope the problems get smoothed out. Well, this review was kind of a baptism of fire. I was not sure what to expect.
If you're a Windows user fond of virtualization, you should definitely give VMLite a try. It seems fairly stable and robust and works well, although it requires some polish. The unique angle of extra capabilities is surely a bonus. Who knows, the new kids may grow into a handsome neighborhood bully. Only time, further development and bug fixing will tell. See ya around.