Consolidating My Computers Onto A Single Laptop

It's no secret that I probably spend way too much time in front of my computer. I use them for work and for play. Over the years, I have accumulated a number of laptops and desktop that I have pressed into use for various projects and with each new machine, I had yet another box to manage not to mention the power and space requirements to hold all of this hardware. But I don't need separate hardware in most cases, especially when I am doing software development or proof of concept work. What I r

Mike Fratto

March 15, 2010

5 Min Read
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It's no secret that I probably spend way too much time in front of my computer. I use them for work and for play. Over the years, I have accumulated a number of laptops and desktop that I have pressed into use for various projects and with each new machine, I had yet another box to manage not to mention the power and space requirements to hold all of this hardware. But I don't need separate hardware in most cases, especially when I am doing software development or proof of concept work. What I really want is to consolidate my computer images onto as few machines as possible. I need a virtual desktop infrastructure. There begins my journey.

My goal is to consolidate to one piece of hardware. I want to be able to run as many VMs simultaneously as I can. Most of the VMs I run don't need lots of memory or CPU, but I want to have my work computer virtualized, and I will need some decent CPU power and RAM dedicated to it for that to happen. I will also most likely virtualize my corporate-issued laptop as well since I need it occasionally (shhh, don't rat me out!). Oh, and I like to play first person shooters to blow off steam, so good graphics and a lot of disk space are a must. I landed on a Dell Alienware M17x laptop with a Intel Quad Core 2Ghz CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 500GB, 7200 RPM disk running Windows 7. In the day of ever smaller computing devices like netbooks, iPhones, and MotorolaDroids, a 12 Lb laptop is ridiculously large, but I won't be traveling any further than the couch with it.

I also have some practical needs that have little to do with hardware or software. I want a VDI system that is going to be stable and reliable and will not require a lot of care and feeding by me. I absolutely don't want to waste time managing something that is supposed to make my life easier. Hey, I am a Windows guy and Windows 7 is pretty reliable and stable. I could install a Linux based OS like Ubuntu or CentOS as my base OS, but frankly, the application and hardware support isn't there for what I need to do. I've made Linux OSes sing and dance since the first time I installed Slackware on a 486 via floppies in 1993. I'd much rather dedicate my Linux time to building server images.

For my first pass at a VDI, I am using VMware's Workstation 7. I have a complimentary license (a tip of the hat to disclosure) and I have been using Workstation since 2.0. I am going to install VirtualBox on another system to learn how it works and migrate to it for awhile if all goes well. Basically the idea is to run workstation on my laptop and run virtual machines on top for doing real work and keep the base OS relatively clean.

The first step was to take physical to virtual (P2V) image of my current laptop using VMware's Converter and stored the resulting 83 GB image on a NAS. I have a lot of software installed and my work laptop is configured the way I like it. I didn't want to rebuild a new virtual machine from the ground up. I also wanted to have an easy recover process in case I found virtualizing my desktop was not going to work. P2V is the answer. After I copied the image to me new laptop and started it, the disk was thrashing like mad and both the VM and base OS were fairly unresponsive. I guessed that since the VM had VMware Workstation were installed on it, there might have been some weird interaction in nesting a type 2 VM inside a type 2 VM, so I removed VMware Workstation from the VM and rebooted it. The disk thrashing stopped. The next step was to uninstall all of the software and drivers that were no longer available. This also freed up some disk space.I am finishing up my first week virtualized. It's been largely a success. I have only been running a single VM in workstation and I typically work in either the VM or the host OS. The only impacts I have seen are in cases where some application in the host OS is performing a lot of disk IO. For example, Outlook tends to burn up disk IO when auto archiving email messages, so I set auto archive to the end of the work day. Microsoft's Desktop search also uses a lot of disk IO, so I changed the idle timer before it will begin indexing. And of course, back-ups will burn disk IO, as well. Since I selected a laptop, I am pretty much stuck with a single disk system and I knew disk IO would be a potential problem when I started.

There are some steps I am going to investigate and report back on. The first is running multiple VMs in a "work mode." That's typically multiple Windows VM doing things which will largely chew up RAM and disk IO. I don't know what to expect there. Also,after  talking with Rick Vanover, a virtualization specialist who wrote Right-size Your Virtual Platform for the November issue of Network Computing, I am going to try to off-load the VM image to my NAS to see what the impact might be, though initial attempts don't look promising. I am getting a disk-read error in the VM's Bios when it boots, and I haven't troubleshot it.

It could be a problem with the VM image. I am having difficulty copying the modified VM back to my NAS successfully via both CIFS and iSCSI so the image may be hosed. Or there could be a network problem. A cursory look at the iSCSI traffic shows a number of re-transmits and out-of-order packets, which I find odd, since both the NAS and the laptop are on the same switch. The network should be fairly clean. I may have to press my Catalyst 3750 into service instead of my consumer grade Netgear Gb switch.

We'll see how it goes. I know that I am using a big hammer to create my VDI and I am sure that there alternatives that I am overlooking. If you know of any, let me know and I will take that currently unused hardware I know own and test out VDI on those.

About the Author(s)

Mike Fratto

Former Network Computing Editor

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