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VMware, a well-known player in virtualization, offers a free tool named VMware Player 3.0 for Windows and Linux PCs. VMware Player lets you not only run virtual machines (VMs) and access removable devices connected to your PC, but also create VMs, which is new to version 3.0. (This version has other new features as well, which you can read about in the VMware Player 3.0 Release Notes.)

You can download VMware Player 3.0 from the VMware website or the Major Geeks website. You have to identify yourself and answer a few questions to download the package from VMware but not Major Geeks. (The package is 89.5MB.) You can also download it from the CNET website. However, as of this writing, CNET has only version 2.5.2, which doesn't include the ability to create VMs.

Installing VMware Player is simple. You can find the installation instructions in the "Getting Started Guide". You need to reboot after installing it. Note that VMware Player 3.0 requires a minimum of 1GB of RAM in the host system to operate.

If you don't have any VMs that you want to initially test VMware Player with, I suggest that you try VMware's free Browser Appliance, which is a virtual appliance (i.e., a prebuilt software application packaged along with an OS in a VM). Browser Appliance is a Ubuntu Linux-based VM installed with Mozilla Firefox. It lets you securely browse the Internet without leaving a trace on the physical computer. This is a good VM to test drive initially as well as use later on.

You can download Browser Appliance by going to www.vmware.com/appliances/directory/80. (The download size is 258MB.) To install it, unzip the download file on your local hard disk.

After you've installed the Browser Appliance VM, open VMware Player. In the UI, click File, as Figure 1 shows.

 In the File menu, note the Download a Virtual Appliance option. If you select this option, VMware's Virtual Appliance Marketplace web page opens. This marketplace contains hundreds of virtual appliances, some of which are free, that you can download.

To run the Browser Appliance VM, select the Open a Virtual Machine option from the File menu. (Alternatively, you can click the Open a Virtual Machine button in the main UI.) Browse to the directory where you installed the Browser Appliance VM, highlight the Browser-Appliance.vmx file, and click the Open button. On the VMware Player virtual machine page, click Play Virtual Machine. At this point, the VM will automatically boot Ubuntu. After a few minutes, you'll see the Browser Appliance screen in Figure 2. To use the Firefox browser, you just need to enter a web address in the field at the top of the browser and click Go.

By default, the Browser Appliance VM is configured to preserve changes (persistent mode). You can make it to revert to its original state on shutdown (autorevert mode) by editing its configuration file. VMware VMs consist of two main files: a .vmdk file (which is the VM's virtual disk) and a .vmx file (which stores the VM's configurations). The configuration file for the Browser Appliance VM is named Browser-Appliance.vmx.

You can edit Browser-Appliance.vmx using Notepad. To do so, follow these steps:

  1. Open Notepad, browse to the directory where you installed the Browser Appliance VM, and open the Browser-Appliance.vmx file.
  2. Add the lines in Listing 1 to the end of the file. Save the file, then close Notepad.
Listing 1: Code to Add to Browser-Appliance.vmx
 
scsi0:0.mode = "independent-nonpersistent"
snapshot.action = "autoRevert"
snapshot.disabled = "TRUE"

With this configuration, all actions performed in the Firefox browser will be erased each time you shut it down. So, if you want to personalize the browser, do it before you change the Browser-Appliance.vmx file.

In VMs, you can connect to and use different types of removable devices, including DVD and CD-ROM drives, floppy drives, and network adapters.

DVD and CD-ROM drives. You can connect to one or more CD-ROM or DVD drives. You can also connect to disk image (ISO) files.

Floppy drives. You can connect to one or two floppy drives or floppy image files (e.g., .img, .flp).

Network adapters. You can connect to network adapters, which let you control how the VM communicates. You have three options:

  • Bridged. The Bridged option gives the VM a virtual network that works like a real one. The VM will be able to connect to your router if you have one and receive its own IP address.
  • Network Address Translation (NAT). The NAT option is useful if you don't have a router. The network card of your physical machine will be used to access your network. The VM acts as if a standard network card is installed.
  • Host-Only. The Host-Only option prevents the VM from accessing your network, but the VM will be able to connect to your physical machine. This feature is useful for testing software in a completely isolated mode.

As I mentioned previously, you can use VMware Player to create VMs. You can find instructions on how to do so in the VMware Player's Help file and on the VMware Player Documentation web page. You can also use third-party utilities, such as Devfarm Software's free VMX Builder to create VMs.

VMware Player 3.0 is a versatile tool that's good for virtualization novices and experts alike. It's hard to believe that it's free.