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Playing together nicely: Windows and Linux

  • October 4, 2000
  • By Jason Compton
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"For stable, reliable Windows networking programs, VMware is the better choice, and the only choice if you need to run server applications or operating systems."
VMware ( www.vmware.com ) is currently the biggest name in commercial-grade Windows compatibility for Linux. In addition to full support for all versions of Windows since 95 (including NT4 and 2000, as well as experimental support for Windows ME), VMware also allows emulation of most major versions of Linux as well as FreeBSD and Novell NetWare. DOS and Windows 3.1 are partially supported, and some users have even successfully booted Solaris in a VMware window.

VMware makes a very conscious design decision to shield as much of the real Linux PC's resources from the emulation sessions as possible. For example, it is not possible to directly mount your Linux filesystem, or any disk partition currently mounted by Linux, in a VMware session. You need to use a network file system protocol like NFS or SMB over a virtual Ethernet link created in software instead. On the plus side, this helps shield your main Linux session from any unhealthy activities that the emulated OS might be asked to perform (like a trojan horse that tries to delete every file it can see.) However, this can be remarkably inconvenient at times. Unless you're a Samba wizard, you need to install VMware's customized Samba server in order to swap files between Linux and a live VMware Windows session--and the Samba server tends to interfere with any other SMB activity you may be running with real Windows PCs on the outside network.

VMware charges $299 for a commercial license (or $99 for noncommercial users.) A full-featured 30-day trial license is available. The program can be downloaded from the company's Web site, or purchased on a CD-Rom from Linux distributor SuSe Inc.


Win4Lin ( www.trelos.com ) is easier on the budget, with developer Trelos charging just $49 for a license after a 15-day trial period. Trelos squarely targets the consumer segment, supporting only Windows 95 and Windows 98 (including Second Edition.)

Win4Lin does not rigidly try to emulate every single nuance of a Windows PC's hardware. This makes it considerably faster and easier to install. Mounting portions of your Linux filesystem (or, indeed, the entire thing) in the Windows emulation is as easy as tweaking a Win4Lin GUI settingno virtual networking required. When a new Windows session is configured, Win4Lin's setup program automatically installs a custom WinSock networking emulation that can piggyback a Linux PC's LAN and Internet connection, as well as a video driver that supports full color in an X-window. VMware uses a special virtual Ethernet card and authentic AMD Ethernet driver, and a custom Windows video card driver, respectively, to achieve the same results, but those take longer to install.

These convenient shortcuts come with a price, however. If you accidentally install a Windows VxD driver in a Win4Lin session, or even allow a program to install real Windows networking components, you can cripple Win4Lin's networking capabilities or even put the emulation in a state where it won't boot properly until you manually remove the offending driver. Also, Win4Lin cannot run network server applications, and some clients, such as Netscape SmartDownload, seem to have a difficult time operating through the emulated WinSock.


Neither VMware nor Win4Lin can perfectly replicate a true DOS/Windows environment, and sometimes the lack of feature overlap is bitterly ironic. For example, VMware offers restricted VGA graphics capabilities in DOS mode, and cannot support EMS memory, making it difficult at best to run many advanced programs outside of Windows. Win4Lin has EMS support, but lacks sound support and has even more limited video support in DOS, hampering its potential as a DOS/Windows gaming platform. And neither system supports DirectX under Windows.

Despite the drawbacks, both are excellent choices for general Windows productivity software, with configuration GUIs far superior to the cluttered .config files employed by their open-source rivals. For stable, reliable Windows networking programs, VMware is the better choice, and the only choice if you need to run server applications or operating systems.

Nothing runs Windows programs as well as a dedicated computer running Windows alone. Dual-booting, while enormously inconvenient, is still the best, if not the most interactive, way to share a single computer between two operating systems. But if you find the time you waste on shutdown/reboot cycles mounting, or you simply want the best of both worlds, gaining Windows compatibility without leaving the confines of Linux, relief is just a download away.

Jason Compton is an Evanston, IL-based technology journalist, and the author of the forthcoming book " VMware for Linux ." He is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, Linux Magazine, and Smart Business.

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