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Singing the praises of vmware

In the past few months, I’ve become a huge fan of vmware, the Workstation in particular. If you’re not familiar with this program, it provides a virtual machine in which you can host an operating system. If you’re developing on Windows, but targeting linux, you can run an emulated machine and deploy your software to it.

The biggest, benefit, however, occurs when starting a project. I remember at a company I worked at a few years ago, I was often one of the first people on a project. Since our technology stack often changed to meet the clients’ needs, I usually had to learn how to install and troubleshoot a new piece of server software (ATG Dynamo, BEA Weblogic, Expresso, etc). After spending a fair amount of time making sure I knew how to install and deploy the new platform, I then wrote up terse yet complete (hopefully) installation documents for the future members of the team as the project rolled into development. Of course, that was not the end of it; there were slight differences in environment and user capability which meant that I was a resource for the rest of the team regarding platform configuration.

These factors made me a strong proponent of server based development, where you buy a high powered box and everyone develops (via CVS, samba or some other network protocol) and deploys (via a virtual server for each developer) to that box. Of course, setting it up is a hassle, but once it’s done, adding new team members is not too much of a hassle. Compare this with setting up a windows box to do java development, and some of the complications that can ensue due to the differing environments.

But vmware changes the equation. Now, I, or someone like me, can create a development platform from scratch that includes everything from the operating system up. Combined with portable hard drives, which have become absurdly cheap (many gig for a few hundred bucks) you can distribute the platform to a new team member in less than hour. He or she can customize it, but if they ruin the image, it’s easy enough to give the developer another copy. No weird operating system problems and no complicated dev server setup. This software saves hours and hours of development time and lets developers focus on code and not configuration. In addition, you can actually do development on an OS with a panoply of tools (Windows) and at the same time test deployment to a serious server OS (a UNIX of some kind).

However, there are still some issues to be aware of. That lack of knowledge often means that regular programmers can’t help debug complicated deployment issues. Perhaps you believe that they shouldn’t need to, but siloing the knowledge in a few people can lead to issues. If they leave, knowledge is lost, and other team members have no place to start when troubleshooting problems. This is, of course, an issue with or without vmware, but with vmware regular developers really don’t even think about the install process; with an install document, they may not fully understand what they’re doing, but probably have a bit more knowledge regarding deployment issues.

One also needs to be more vigilant than ever about keeping everything in version control; if the vmware platforms diverge, you’re back to troubleshooting different machines. Ideally, everyone should mount a local directory as a network drive in vmware and use their own favorite development tools (Eclipse, netbeans, vi, even [shudder] emacs) on the host. Then each team member can deploy on the image and rest assured that, other than the code or configuration under development, they have the exact same deployment environment as everyone else.

In addition, vmware is a hog. This is to be expected, since it has an entire operating system to support, but I’ve found that for any real development, 1 gig of RAM is the absolute minimum. And if you have more than one image running at the same time, 1 gig is not enough. A fast processor is needed as well.

Still, for getting development off to a galloping start, vmware is a fantastic piece of software. Even with the downsides, it’s worth a look.