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Scenario 3: Using Ready-to-Run VMware Appliances With WMware Player

So far we've made the process of installing and configuring a guest operating system using a virtualization utility look easy. But getting a more complicated desktop or server OS working in a virtual machine can be more frustrating, particularly if you're not yet familiar with all of the OS's configuration options. What if you could just plug one in, boom, and see what it looks like?

WMware Player makes it easy to run preconfigured installations of a variety of operating systems. This setup can save a lot of time, especially if you want to run an OS that's notoriously hard to configure, such as OpenBSD.
VMware makes one of the leading free virtualization programs, VMware Server 2.0. For a brief tutorial on how to install VMware Server under Windows, see "Run a 'Guest' OS on Your PC" in the article "12 Great Do-It-Yourself PC Projects."

You don't have to go through all those steps to take an operating system or server application out for a spin, however. VMware's Player allows you to run preinstalled and preconfigured OSs and other software "appliances" as if they were movies or PowerPoint presentations. Player doesn't allow you to make changes to the virtual machine's configuration, but using it is a great way to assess a particular application's features quickly.

VMware hosts hundreds of these applications on its Virtual Appliance Marketplace, ranging in size from a few megabytes (for some of the smaller Linux distributions) to several gigabytes. Though Linux distributions abound--a VMware appliance is a great way to sample a prerelease version of your favorite distro, for example, without giving it free rein over your PC--the majority of appliances are open-source server-based applications, including network backup utilities, content management systems, network security and traffic analyzers, mail servers and spam filters, firewalls, PBX and VOIP servers, and SAN and NAS servers.

To run an appliance, first download and install VMware Player, and then download the virtual appliance you'd like to run (I chose a recent version of the OpenBSD Unix OS). VMware Player's interface offers options for both downloading and launching appliances. Exiting the player saves the appliance's state by default, but there are very few other options. Press Ctrl-G to allow the appliance to capture keyboard and mouse input, and Ctrl-Alt to release input to the host OS.

Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World.

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