Virtual fun with Fusion 4

Fusion 4

Jon Honeyball takes a look at the new VMware Fusion release

I’ve been having considerable fun with the latest virtualisation tools recently.

My particular chosen poison in this arena is VMware’s Fusion running on OS X, but I’m also using VMware Workstation running on Windows – and, of course, VMware’s server products too.

Microsoft isn’t left out in the cold: my primary core test servers are in the process of migrating from VMware to Hyper-V in preparation for Server 2012. And let’s not forget that a Hyper-V client is lurking away inside the Windows 8 build, which promises to make for an interesting year ahead...

In the meantime, VMware has updated Fusion from release 3 to release 4. Much has been changed, including most aspects of the UI – I suspect that someone “had a go” at the design, because there really wasn’t much wrong with it before, and now it’s just gratuitously different rather than better in a meaningful way.

I suspect that someone 'had a go' at the design, because there really wasn’t much wrong with it before, and now it’s just gratuitously different rather than better in a meaningful way

Still, they tell me this is progress. So what’s significant in this new release? Well, of course you’d expect it to be shinier, faster, better and more efficient, and it’s all of those things – VMware claims it’s up to 2.5 x faster than Fusion 3; it certainly feels snappier, especially during the loading and unloading of virtual machines (if you like to dive in and out of complete VMs, that is).

It’s certainly better integrated into Lion, and the company also claims that it’s better at doing the fully integrated screen mode, where your Windows applications seem to float on the OS X desktop like any other OS X application.

I’ll confess that I’ve never been a fan of this feature, preferring to keep virtualised applications within their container OS-framed windows: I guess I’m just not clever enough to work out that a Windows app can float within another OS’s desktop.

Take a snapshot

One feature that’s of particular interest to me is the snapshot facility, which has been significantly improved. Snapshotting lets you take an instant view of a running VM and store it on disk, which is useful since it enables you to install a new application, decide that you don’t like it, and then roll back to the VM state that existed before installation.

This feature can also be a big help if you find yourself in the throes of handling a virus – roll back immediately to a known good state before the virus took hold.

Working with OSes inside a VM is so much better on every level than working on a bare-metal OS that I can’t believe there are still any power users working in the old-fashioned way.

Fusion can automatically take snapshots as you work, and these just happen for you – again, great if you’re working on a precariously OS-munging code build or debug session. In Fusion 4 these snapshots are more friendly to Time Machine backups, which is a help.

Downsides? Well, I installed the first release of Fusion 4 as soon as it was made available, and then did a little rejigging of my stored VMs.

For example, I had some that were configured to split their virtual disk storage into 2GB slices; Fusion can turn these back into one large VM file if you like.

On one of these VMs I did a bit of reconfig, and then told Fusion to glue the 2GB chunks back together, but when I tried to restart that VM I found it had been completely shredded and everything had gone.

This happened only once, but it still made me wary. With the recent update, I can report that I’ve now used Fusion 4 for more than a terabyte of VMs without any issues.

Friends swear blind by Parallel’s alternative offering, but I prefer to stick with what I know

Updating from Fusion 3 to 4 is simple, especially if you change the versioning on the VM before you first boot it – I also had issues with the first release of Fusion 4 when running the Windows driver updater, but that too was fixed in the later release.

New tricks

There’s one other trick that Fusion 4 has up its sleeve. Not many people know that Fusion 3 could run OS X Server within a VM, but this was banned by Apple.

With Fusion 4, you can run an OS X Lion desktop within a VM – which can be a bit confusing if you have a smallish screen – and it doesn’t require the installation of the OS X Server add-on (which costs a meagre £34.99 if you want to add it on to a Lion installation).

Should you be looking at Fusion? Well, it works for me. Friends swear blind by Parallel’s alternative offering, but I prefer to stick with what I know.

Whatever you choose, getting a hypervisor onto your desktop or laptop is the best move you can make – and I promise you’ll never look back.