With Windows Vista and Office 2007 now at beta 2, I figured that it’s time to test them out on a decent PC. I’d also like to dual-boot with a Linux distro as the only way to really get to know an operating system is to use it on a daily basis but the problem is that I’m running out of hardware. Most of my PCs are around 3 years old, with 1.5GHz Pentium 4 CPUs and between 256MB and 512MB of memory. I could buy some more memory for the older PCs, but I’m hoping to buy two new machines later this year instead. Meanwhile, the Fujitsu Siemens Lifebook S7010D that my employer has provided for my work is a 1 year-old machine with 1GB RAM – plenty for my testing (although I haven’t checked if the graphics card will support the full Aero interface).
My problem is that I can’t just wipe my hard disk and start again. The Lifebook is joined to a corporate domain and has VPN client software installed so that I can access the network from wherever I happen to be. That’s where virtualisation comes in… I thought that by performing a physical to virtual (P2V) conversion, I could run my Windows XP build inside a virtual environment on a Windows Vista or Linux host.
I’m also co-authoring my employer’s virtualisation strategy, so I called PlateSpin in Canada (because I’d missed the end of the business day in the UK) and they agreed to supply me with three evaluation licenses for their PowerConvert software. The good news is that I completed my P2V conversion. The bad news is that my experience of the product was not entirely smooth and it took a fair chunk of last week and most of my bank holiday weekend too.
The software installation was straightforward enough, detecting that there was no SQL server installation present and installing an MSDE instance. PowerConvert Server doesn’t show up as an application on the Start Menu as it is actually just a set of Microsoft .NET web services and a separate client is required to perform any operations, downloadable from http://servername/powerconvert/client.setup.exe.
Once everything was installed, I got to work on discovering my network infrastructure. PowerConvert automatically located the various domains and workgroups on the network and when I ran discover jobs it found my Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2 installation (but didn’t see my VMware Server beta 3 installation). It also struggled for a while with discovering server details for my Windows XP source machine (even after a reboot and with the client firewall disabled) – I never did find the cause of that particular issue (even after following PlateSpin knowledge base article 20350) but after taking the PC to work, hooking up to the corporate LAN and bringing it home again that night, everything jumped into life.
With all PCs discovered, I was ready to carry out a conversion. The basic process is as follows:
- Discover the source and target server details.
- Create a virtual machine on the target server.
- Boot the virtual machine into Windows PE and load the PowerConvert controller.
- Take control of the source server, boot this into Windows PE and load the PowerConvert controller.
- Copy files.
- Restart the target virtual machine, and finalise configuration.
- Tidy up.
That sounds simple enough, until considering that PowerConvert also handles the changes in the underlying hardware – something that’s not possible with simple disk duplication software.
Everything looked good up to the point of loading the controller on my source machine which just couldn’t connect (and didn’t seem to recognise the network). I tried various conversion job settings and after various failed attempts, including stalled jobs which refused to be aborted (once an attempt is made to abort a job, PowerConvert doesn’t check to see if it was stopped successfully – it just refuses to allow a subsequent attempt to abort the job) and consequential removal and reinstallation of PowerConvert as detailed in PlateSpin knowledge base article 20324 (to free up the source machine and allow another attempt at conversion), I re-read the text file supplied with the installation. It turns out that the out-of-the-box installation didn’t recognise my Broadcom NetXtreme gigabit Ethernet card (not exactly an uncommon network interface) but once the physical target take control ISO packages were updated, that particular issue was resolved (as confirmed using the PlateSpin Analyzer tool – see PlateSpin knowledge base article 20478). Rather than having to manually apply updates, I’d prefer to see the installation routine check the PlateSpin website for updates and install them automatically.
It looked as if I finally had everything working and I left a conversion running overnight but came down the next morning to see the target machine rebooting with a STOP 0x0000007B error (blue screen of death). It turns out that although I’d configured the PowerConvert job to convert my single physical hard disk with two partitions into two dynamic virtual IDE disks, it had still configured a virtual SCSI controller on the target virtual machine and not surprisingly that couldn’t read the IDE disks. I tried various resolutions, including rebooting the virtual machine into the Windows XP Recovery Console but without the administrator password (I had access to an account in the Administrators group but not the Administrator), I couldn’t do much. Unfortunately, the software is licenced on a per-conversion basis (althere there are other options) and “PowerConvert will burn a license once the file transfer step of the job has been completed” (see PlateSpin knowledge base article 20357) so that was one of my evaluation licenses burned.
Accepting that my failed attempt was not recoverable, I aborted the job and tried again, this time converting my two physical partitions to two dynamic virtual SCSI disks. This time the job completed successfully.
I now have a working virtual corporate notebook, still joined to the domain, still with the same security identifiers and disk signatures but with a different set of underlying hardware. I still need to get my VPN client working inside the virtual environment but if I can clear that final hurdle then I’ll be ready to ditch the source machine and reach my dual-boot Vista/Linux goal.
In summary, PlateSpin PowerConvert tries to do something complex in a simple and elegant way, using modern technology (web services, the Microsoft .NET framework and Windows PE). Unfortunately, I didn’t find it to be very robust. I’m no developer but I am an experienced Windows systems administrator and infrastructure designer and this was hard work. The product may be better with VMware but I didn’t get a chance to try as it didn’t recognise my VMware Server beta 3 installation. One thing’s for sure – PowerConvert has stacks of potential – if PlateSpin can sort out the reliability issues. If not, then I might as well take a look at the VMware P2V assistant, or Microsoft’s Virtual Server migration toolkit (VSMT).