IT professionals often have to deal with users who, in the course of their jobs, must install and demonstrate software on their production computers. When these users aren't technically savvy, the IT staff often must rebuild these systems on a regular basis. My company recently faced that situation when we set up computer systems for several new salespeople. As part of their jobs, salespeople demonstrate our software, which requires a network for the installation and deployment of agents. The project presented tricky design criteria: good salespeople with limited IT skills, a requirement for multiple systems to properly demonstrate the products, and a need to minimize the load on a limited IT staff.

We decided to use high-performance notebooks, with a lot of memory for each salesperson. We configured the notebooks (1GHz CPU, 512MB of RAM) with a boot partition that holds the OS, Microsoft Office, and our customer relationship management (CRM) tool. The remaining system resources are dedicated to Virtual Machine (VM) software so that we can emulate a small network on one machine. This setup also let us use system policies to lock down the system partition, while giving the sales team full administrator access to the virtual computers we created for their demonstrations.

The PC VM market currently has two major players: VMware and Connectix. To address the needs of our sales team and IT staff, we evaluated VMware Workstation 3.0 and Connectix Virtual PC 4.2. Our evaluation environment used Windows XP Professional as the host OS with two Windows 2000 Server VMs and one Windows NT 4.0 Server, Terminal Server Edition VM. For 2 weeks, we tested all our product-demonstration scenarios, which include actions such as installing applications, dynamically updating data between machines, removing automated services, starting and stopping low-level services and processes, and generating report data. Testing also included setting up Microsoft SQL Server 2000 and Office automation applications to run on a virtual server.

Both VMware and Virtual PC worked well in our evaluations; neither product produced any significant problems. I would recommend either product to someone needing a VM environment. I've configured several of my beefier test machines with multiple VMs, each hosting a different OS, so I can quickly switch among the OSs I regularly write about. This setup also lets me install beta software in a VM without accidentally destroying a working environment. I've also set up two identically configured VMs on the same hardware so that I can apply patches and fixes to one system and compare both systems to see which files the changes affected and to determine whether any application behaviors have changes.

VMware is more enterprise-focused than Connectix, offering multiple versions of its software targeted at the server consolidation market. Connectix seems content to focus on the client side of the market, offering Virtual PC for both Windows and Macintosh environments.

So which product did we put into production? Connectix Virtual PC for Windows 4.2 won the budgetary battle, coming in at 62 percent of the cost of VMware Workstation 3.0 for the 20 licenses I needed to buy.