Tuesday, October 30, 2007

(NYSE:VMW) VMWare Converter 3 - Awesome Product!

I just finished using VMWare's Converter program (which, for the VMWare Converter Starter Edition, is FREE by the way) to quickly create a virtual-machine from a physical machine at a client site, and it worked flawlessly. The free VMWare's Converter 3.02 download (latest release version as of 10/18/2007), enabled me to create a completely software-based clone of a running physical web-server in only about 1/2 an hour, and copy the resulting two files (a VMX file, which is a text file with the virtual machine's configuration information; and a VMDK file, which is the VM's virtual-disk file) over to a notebook computer where I quickly verified the results using VMWare's other awesome (and FREE) product, VMWare Player 2.0 (dowload VMWare Player 2.0 here - latest version is VMWare Player 2.0.2 as of 10/18/2007).

I can't fully express how awesome these VMWare Products are, especially when used in conjunction to fully realize the synergistic power of software virtualization coupled with hardware / physical-machine conversion to a virtual entity. And, these are the free software products from VMware! VMware (NYSE:VMW) also has the more robust VMware Workstation 6.0 series, as well as other desktop and server-based hardware virtualization products targeting software developers, individuals, small business and enterprise applications.

In my personal use yesterday, I needed a way to take a company's live web-server off-line to test connectivity to a new DB machine and verify some new web-server code that was to be deployed soon, but I did not want to impact up-time to the customers which use the production web server around the clock. So, I installed the VMWare converter product on the live web-server (which didn't require a reboot or anything!) and proceeded to "convert" the physical machine to a Virtual Machine (the files mentioned previously, that run as a virtual computer using VMware Player or Workstation) without any reboots or downtime at all!

I copied the resulting VMware Converter output files (a single directory with the two files as noted above) to my notebook computer, and then used that virtual computer, running with VMware Player, to pre-test the new database-server-connectivity, a Windows 2003 Service Pack 2 install on the web-server (which, did in fact reveal an IIS change made by the Service Pack that would need to be quickly changed in production after applying the Service Pack), and a new COM+ component install and some ASPX (ASP DotNet) code. All of this testing was done with no interruption to the production web-server!

Having just pretested my implementation strategy using a virtual machine, I minimized the likelihood of any unforeseen delays and installation issues when working with the production web-server. In fact, I was able to provide my client with a quick estimate of down-time to expect to repeat the same thing in production - which, was likely not to exceed even one hour to do it all.

One thing I am pushing for at this particular client site is they go a step further and turn the production web-server into a virtual machine. Then, since no data is persisted on their web server machine (it's all stored in separate SQL Server 2005 on another firewall-secured server), I could simply take a copy of the web-server's virtual machine files when it needs updated, apply any updates and test them thoroughly, then reinstall the updated VM copy back into production, bringing down-time to as low as a couple minutes - hardly any more than a reboot of the web-server. For that, VMware workstation (a for-cost product, but extremely reasonable price of under $200!) will serve as my virtual-machine manager of choice on the physical server. and I will also consolidate another one of the client's web-sites to that same box as another VM.

Bottom line: virtualization products can be a huge time and expense saver, and VMware's products are the best out there from my personal experience. I can not emphasize enough how helpful these products can be in testing out deployment plans and scenarios BEFORE doing a full production upgrade or install. But yet, I continually encounter IT (information technology) people that have never even heard of the products, or have not tried them, or have said they can't justify the cost (uh, hello guys, these things are FREE for the most part, or quite reasonably priced). Instead, I have seen people waste countless hours (and dollars) working around NOT using virtualization software -- perhaps once upper company management and owners learns the full potential of virtual machine products, any resistance in the IT area will be met with an unwillingness to employ those with such resistance.

By the way, have you seen VMWare's stock price (NYSE:VMW) lately!? Last I looked, it now has a higher p/e multiple than Google. Some of this may be hype, but much of it is the realization that server consolidation (i.e., less physical hardware) and the resulting energy, equipment, and space savings is a huge way to save money! And, on top of this, the simplicity and flexibility of managing virtual machines (compared to physical ones) offers all sorts of savings potential - some of which I have described herein. Fact is, given how few IT people have yet to work with virtualization technology, there seems to be plenty of growth left in this industry. Check it out!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ubuntu / Kubuntu Linux 7.10 Review - Fantastic!

I recently wrote an entry here on my technology blog about Windows Replacement with Linux, and specifically how I was looking forward, with great anticipation, to the final release of the Ubuntu and Kubuntu 7.10 Linux distributions. I have been watching the evolution of the Linux Desktop for years now, and have paid special attention to the standout distributions from Ubuntu and OpenSUSE, eagerly awaiting the day when I could declare a distribution fully capable of replacing the everyday Windows machine. Some have come close, but until now, no single distribution could completely claim the Windows-Replacement title.

In regards to the Ubuntu series, prior releases showed considerable promise, and with every step forward - versions 5.10, 6.04, 6.10, 7.04 (version numbers essentially being the year/month released) - there was steady progress towards Windows replacement, but always some important, and for me show stopping, features were still amiss. Version 7.10 promised the new features that would finally make the Linux desktop a viable alternative to Microsoft Windows, not just for recreational or part-time computing but also for an everyday corporate desktop environment.

I can now report that after reviewing the Final Ubuntu "Gutsy Gibbon" 7.10 release (in particular the KDE desktop flavored Kubuntu 7.10 distribution), a Windows desktop-replacement is finally here! Those critical features such as fully automatic printer installation, whose prior absence was enough to frustrate me to the point of not using Linux daily, are built into the product. The graphical-configuration tool for the X-windows environment is finally smart enough (i.e., properly designed and implemented) to allow me to alter my screen resolution without performing manual hacks to the xorg files, which I could not expect anyone in a corporate setting to do unless they happen to be a technology junkie!

Printing is one of the most important operations from any desktop computing environment - period. Fact is, the promise of a paperless office has been nothing short of a dream, and paper hard-copy output still rules the land. As such, you need a quick a simple way to get connected to your printers (output devices) and put them to use. Ubuntu 7.10 finally made printing from Linux a breeze - even through a Windows 2003 Server shared-printer!

What I did for a test was not just print using a trivially simple setup such as a USB-Connected printer or other locally attached printer, but rather I printed to a Hewlett Packard (HP) Officejet Pro K550 Series printer that was setup as a shared printer installed on a Windows Server 2003 domain server on a TCP-IP network. Yes, a Windows domain shared printer accessible from Linux with ease!

This particular printer, in prior releases of the Linux desktop products, continually thwarted my progress and has become a nice test-case to evaluate the robustness of Linux distributions in regards to printing. With the new Kubuntu 7.10 printer-setup wizardry, I no longer had to do any sort of manual configuration, but rather I just walked through the steps presented to me in a series of graphical dialog boxes that made the process quite simple. I was prompted every step of the way and simply clicked my way through the process, aside from typing in the display-name/label of the printer, the Windows server name, the domain user and password to connect with, and the printer's network-share-name.

After just a few minutes, I was clicking the "print a test page" button, and getting a nice printout that says "Printer Test Page - Printed Using CUPS v1.1.x" featuring a color wheel and 1-degree radial lines test, plus information about imageable-area (that displays page size, print-resolution, and more) and printer interpreter-information (which showed my printer using PostScript Level 3 and GPL Ghostscript). Although this may not sound very exciting, it thrilled me with the simple fact that the Ubuntu 7.10 series product delivered, as promised, simple printer setup, and more importantly, allowed my evaluation of the potential Windows desktop replacement product to move forward - having proven itself in phase-I of my "absolutely essential functionality" tests. Great job Ubuntu team!

Display Adjustments:
In previous releases of Ubuntu, it seemed I was always finding it necessary to "hack" my display settings manually to get the system to recognize my preferred display configuration. I have a Dell Dimension 9150 machine sporting an NVidia GeForce 6800 adapter coupled to a Dell 24" 2405FPW (Digital) LCD flat-panel running at 1920x1200 resolution. This is my primary desktop setup of choice, and an absolute requirement for Linux to support.

I am pleased to report that the latest Kubuntu 7.10 delivered on the promise of a graphical configuration tool for "X" (X-Windows), which allowed me to quickly and simply change my resolution to the 1920x1200 setting and make use of my favorite LCD display device, all without hacking any xorg.conf files or whatever. Whew, what a relief! And, the Linux as a Windows replacement test goes a step further without any show-stopping issues... Excellent!

Microsoft Windows and Domain Connectivity:
Although a goal is to be able to replace the Microsoft Windows operating system (as the standard desktop operating system) with a "FREE" operating system, the fact is I will still need to connect to a Microsoft Windows Domain Controller / Server (especially Windows Server 2003), and other Windows desktops (generally Windows XP) , for the foreseeable future given the fact I write software that runs on these environments for my clients. So, needless to say, Windows network / machine connectivity is quite important.

It will probably come as no surprise that connectivity to Windows was quite simple to achieve - especially, if you noticed above in the discussion about printing how I connected successfully to a Windows network-share printer. Full read/write support to Windows is built-in. I used Konqueror (or was it Dolphin?) to browse my Windows Domain network using Samba, and easily authenticated to my file stores on Windows 2003. I was also delighted to be able to click on Windows Office documents (like Word docs and Excel spreadsheets) and have them open in their respective OpenOffice 2.3 equivalents. Oh, and the folder-browser showed neat little file-preview thumbnails of what was in the Word documents and Excel files before I even opened them -- most cool!

This latest round of Linux distributions, in particular the Ubuntu and Kubuntu 7.10 releases, show all signs of being completely capable of a full Microsoft Windows desktop replacement operating system product. And, I think most common tasks, like setting up printers, changing display settings, and so forth, are now simple enough for an average user to perform. If you absolutely need access to Windows applications yet, you can always run Windows as a virtual machine on occasion from within Linux, but the more you use Linux, the less likely you'll be to "need" Windows.

After seeing the power and simplicity of this latest distribution release, I really don't know why so many people have never even tried Linux. Perhaps it has most to do with the fact that Microsoft has worked deals with nearly ever major manufacturer to include it with ever piece of PC hardware shipped, since otherwise if new computer buyers had to go out and choose an operating system (and actually pay for it separately), I have a feeling they'd quickly discover that not only can you save money on an OS, but also enjoy similar features, power, and flexibility without being tied to Microsoft forever. And, I haven't even discussed all the great free software that comes with these Linux distribution, or can be freely downloaded for use - there a many great products out there.