Redmond Diary

By Andrew J. Brust

Blog archive

Windows Virtual PC: I Can't Stand the Way You Tease

There are a lot of things to like about the new version Virtual PC. Compared to its predecessor, it has added support for USB devices; allows individual applications to be run from a virtual machine yet project on the host desktop; has terrific shell integration; and much better awareness of the host's power management, allowing users to hibernate their physical PC even while a virtual image is activated. When you add to that the new ability of Windows 7 to mount VHD files as physical drives and even boot from VHDs, the world of Windows virtualization really starts to look like an awesome party.

But can you get pas the velvet rope? If you didn't already know, Windows 7 Virtual PC runs only on machines with hypervisor/hardware virtualization support. Oh, and it still doesn't support 64-bit guests. So even if you're running Windows 7 on the latest and greatest 64-bit hardware, you will not be able to run a 64-bit operating system within one of its virtual machines. And given the increasing number of Microsoft products, like Exchange 2007 and 2010, SharePoint 2010 and even Windows Server 2008 R2, that run only on the 64-bit OS platform, this is a big deal.

Back in 32-bit land, you'll still need hypervisor support on your CPU. And here's where that gets interesting: in most cases, it can be difficult to determine if a PC you're interested in buying has the hypervisor support or not. Unless you can get physical access to the machine and run Steve Gibson's nifty Secureable utility, you may be out of luck. It's rarely mentioned in the machine's specs. And even if you're comfortable researching it, as long as you know the precise CPU model in the machine, that won't always help you. Sometimes the CPU model information isn't available. And even when it is, the OEM may have decided to disable the hypervisor support in its particular machines. Or it may be disabled by default in the BIOS settings.

How could this be, even in a time when virtualization is all the rage? I can't say for sure. But this is a prime example of Microsoft needing to corral its OEMs with greater agility and authority. Would it have been that hard to get Intel, HP, Dell, Lenovo, Asus and their resellers to agree to a standard designation of “virtualization capable” to make it easier for PC buyers to know the virtualization capabilities of their new PCs?

I think not. And even if you believe that almost all CPUs will be hypervisor-enabled within a year, that still doesn't help people now. Nor will it help those buying ever-more-common refurb units that will buck trends given their older hardware. I hope the industry can get it together and make a PC's virtualization capabilities discoverable, and easily so. The companies that do this right will win friends amongst tech influentials. The companies that don't leave themselves vulnerable.

Posted by Andrew J. Brust on 11/02/2009

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