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The Ultimate Workstation

Saturday, July 16, 2011 in Technical Articles (Views: 4983)
A while back, I put out a blog about Virtual Machines and IO. Recently, I was doing some work on my labs and really came up with the idea for the ultimate workstation. But what does that look like?

The ultimate workstation looks different for everyone. Some people are gamers, and have the high end graphics cards, insane amounts of memory, and processors. In this case, the ultimate workstation is much more simple. My vision is that this machine is both a work and personal machine, seperated, data safe, and can hold labs. This machine can play games, although maybe not just any game, and can work in a sandbox away from other machines. It also provides portability and easy movement between boxes in case of failure.

So, how is this done? I prefer Windows 7 Ultimate (or Enterprise) for a host OS. This provides less overhead than a server OS, and for the VM software, Windows 7 is best (at the time I write this).

I am using VMWare workstation for the Virtualization platform. Why? There are a lot of reasons, but here are a few key ones:
- It runs on a desktop OS
- It supports x64, and the Server based OS
- For resource sensitivity, it supports sleep / hibernate functions
- Very good USB passthrough support. You can expect everything USB, even a smartcard to work.
- It's well optimized for Windows 7 and 2008 R2
- For the gamer in us, some pretty nice 3D graphics are emulated
- Even though VMWare has its own encryption, I am not going to use this to keep the virtual disks safe. This could be a second layer, but not necessary, and could slow down resources a little more.

Of course, VMWare costs some money, but not that much - about $150 or so, considerably less if you upgrade and it has a 30 day trial. They do run specials from time to time.

So, here are my labs:
- The Host OS is Windows 7 Ultimate or Enterprise, not domain joined, no additional software but VMWare Workstation.
- Several Windows 2008 (and R2) servers running in several different VLANs. This is mostly for the sake of a SCCM Lab, so I have primaries, secondaries, and even a SCCM v.Next lab up and running.
- Windows 7 VM for work
- Windows 7 VM for home

Some various notes from the installs:
- Using Unity, I can keep all the VMs up at once, and run their apps seamlessly to the desktop.
- Most games will work, as far as the ones I play, when I actually play them.
- For labs between servers, I use multiple NICs and RRAS to connect them all to the internet (at least the ones that need to be).
- If you need encryption, I use Bitlocker, which requires (for Windows 7) Enterprise or Ultimate. Coupled with a TPM chip, this is a pretty good solution for data encryption of all your VMs. Although you may only need a couple of the VMs encrypted because of data, this provides whole disk encryption.
- For a second layer of protection, you can use VMWare's encryption on the actual Virtual Machines as well.
- Remember, that a good locking mechanism like BitLocker won't work if you leave your keys in the door. For your backups to removable media, use Bitlocker To Go on the backup disks.
- When doing media playback in Unity, and not sure if this is a video card issue, but the full screen is a little choppy, as to be expected in about any remote session. A window is much more doable. Within the VMWare console, full screen looks much better. Also, the audio can be a bit choppy. Looking to see if there is a way that this can be cleaned up.

Overall, I was able to combine everything - my home and work laptop, my labs, and everything into one system. The beauty of this, of course, is that the host OS is clean, so there is nothing competing for resources except Bitlocker and the default Windows install. This is my idea of the ultimate workstation - everything in one place, and virtualized and seperated from each other. Snapshots are a great thing if anything fails. Of course, keep backups of your VMs, which should be a no-brainer.


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