Friday, February 27, 2009

Virtualize me

I've had our new machines sitting behind me for over 4 weeks now, but there's never been a window in the tech support to build a new image up for the year. Finally IE8 died a nasty death at the start of the week, and that was enough of a catalyst to get the new one out.

I'd been thinking for a while about how to set up my new rig. Since the virtualization of the main server room I'm certainly doing more from here than I used to. My typical day end up with these windows open:
- 4-5 remote desktops
- the support ticketing webpage
- personal webpage with gmail / hotmail / Fb / Twitter / QGL forum in different tabs
- the ISD wiki
- Virtual server control webpages (4 tabs)
- 1 or 2 personal virtual machines.
- 2-3 IE windows with ~5 tabs on each from researching certain issues.

The previous system at 2Gb just couldn't cope. It would regularly run out of virtual memory while exploring on the web. The issue isn't actually the romte desktops or personal VMs, but IE itself. Even with nothing else going I can only get 5 or so windows open with a couple of tabs on each whereas last year I could easily get over 25 windows open. Tabbing certainly has added to the overall weight as it's very easy to google a topic, + click on 4-5 likely hits and by that time the first and second are downloaded and ready for reading. But even a one tab page (such as the ticketing window) can easily get out over 200Mb of virtual memory by the end of the day. I'm using Firefox at home and it's just as bloaty, so moving browsers isn't going to solve it (I do use chrome, but only for google services).

With the 3Gb limit on 32 bit windows, there was a definite need to go 64 bit to get at least 4Gb available on the main system. I've also been wanting to go dual screen to give space for VMs or remote desktops doing lengthy work to still remain visible and not get ignored until the end of the day. Since our SOE desktop is 32bit, I also wasn't looking forward to testing every single app on 64 bit just to move to a bigger memory footprint.

The solution seemed to be to install a virtual server on my own machine. Have the main OS barebones and simply servicing the standard RD and VM windows with my main working environment on a large local VM with the SOE installed.

First up was server 2008. I'd set up the backup server on that OS and it looked clean. With new changes to allow native viewing inside a VHD, and shiny new Hyper-V functionality it would have been a good baseline. Unfortunately it didn't like the Mobo or chip settings and couldn't install Hyper-V. Strike 1.

Next up was server 2003. All our other virtual servers are of this vintage, so I knew it would accept that role, however the drivers provided didn't have support for server 2003, and without video drivers dual screen just wasn't going to work. Strike 2.

Next up was Vista Businees, the abandoned child in Microsoft's family. I had seriously thought of going to Windows 7 before pulling this one out. Loaded fine, drivers Ok, but licensing seemed the issue. Vista had always had something against volume license keys, and my testing back at the start of last year poo-poo'd vista as an alternative OS purely because of the changes to the licensing. I'd definitely seen VLK support for Vista in the last couple of iterations, but it wasn't showing up on the license list for our Microsoft Select Agreement. Strike 3.

Back to my only option. XP 64bit. I pretty much knew this on would work, but was hoping for some Hyper-V goodness instead of relying on Microsoft's freeware Virtual PC 2007. I know of at least 2 programs that won't make it onto 64 bit (including the security agent), so it's still going to have to stay as a base environment for VMs.

Apart from a few little niggles, it's up and going. Just waiting on the virtualized SOE. Enough time to blog it up.