How To Use VMWare To Survive A Computer Crash

Computer CrashIn an earlier post I asked you how fast you could get back to doing business after a total computer failure.

If you followed the tips in that article you could easily cut your downtime by 75% … but there’s a way to cut it down even further with two free products from VMware. Read on to get the scoop.

What VMware is, and Why It Rocks

Though I’ll sound like a commercial (although it isn’t), I use VMware all week long at my day job. It’s indispensable for the software testing that I do – but it’s a solid tool for freelancers as well. If you’ve never heard of VMware, it’s simply an application that lets you run a virtual computer inside your regular “host” computer … and you can do anything you want to the virtual machine without hosing up your real one. And you can reset your VMware image to it’s pristine, original state any time you want.

But here’s how VMware can save your entrepreneurial bacon:

  • First, you set up a virtual machine that has everything you need to do your work – all the software, all the bookmarks, passwords and custom settings you want.
  • Second, you save that “Virtual Machine” onto a DVD (or USB Flash Drive).
  • Third, you save a copy of the free VMware Player and keep it handy.

When your computer gives up the ghost, here’s all you have to do to get back into business in minutes …

  • First, get your hands on another computer – even if you just have to borrow one (almost any machine will do).
  • Second, install that free VMware Player.
  • Third, copy the Virtual Machine onto that computer.

Then all you gotta do is fire up your image in the Player and you’re back in the saddle. All your software, settings and passwords are ready to use (just make sure you have your backed up data handy, of course).

Two Ways To Make This Happen:

  • Get the free VMware Converter and use it to make a Virtual Machine image of your existing machine. Simplest solution.
  • Download the VMware Browser Appliance. It’s a web-ready Ubuntu Linux image, though, so it’s not for everybody – but if you’re so inclined, all you have to do is get the Appliance, install all your open-source software, and keep the image handy.

One More Option: But It’ll Cost You

If you pony up about $189 you can get VMWare Workstation – a program that will let you create virtual machines from scratch. (Author’s note: Helpful Diggers have let me know that VMWare Server will let you create images for free. Huzzah!) Creating custom images can be useful if you want to make a lean version of your emergency image, with only the software you absolutely need to get the job done, or you want to make multiple images with slightly different configurations.

Remember, though – this is no replacement for a solid data backup – but it can be a lifesaver to getting your revenue-producing system back online in a hurry.

Hope this helps – and I hope it gets you back up to speed fast next time Murphy’s Law takes you for a ride.

So What Do You Think?

Have you tried any of these solutions before? Do you have any tips or tweaks to share? Join the conversation in the comments below.


  1. says

    I appreciate you giving a few details about this as well as sharing a few links. I would like to get this set up on my Ubuntu machine, but have yet to take the time to do it.

  2. says

    @Randy –

    Thanks for the kind words!

    @Anthony –

    I believe there are plenty of tutorials on linux boxes … just do this Google search:

    +ubuntu +vmware

  3. Glenn says

    Rather than pay for VmWare workstation, VmWare Server is free and an amazing product.
    It will run on Windows XP or Linux and doesn’t cost a dime.

  4. Information Security Guy says

    Just out of curiosity, why would you not use the most excellent VMware server ( It’s free. And just as good as Workstation. And it won’t run you $189. Did I mention that it’s free?

    Other than that, great tip. I’ve been running VM’s on my machines both at work and at home for primary usage for years. My VM’s reside on RAID storage systems, with the primary OS being fairly empty, except for the VMware server. The wife and kids even have their own VMs. That way, their crap doesn’t slow ME down (I just suspend their VMs when I need more horsepower).

    VMware rocks. Period.

  5. sys admin says

    @Virtual PC
    Why would you want the big overhead of running a virtual machine on top of windows when you could have a very light linux distribution running VMWare?

    M$ Virtual PC isn’t a good option if you want things to run fast

  6. says

    @Glenn / Information Security Guy / Digital –

    Point taken. Article amended. Thanks to you all.

    @Virtual PC
    Thanks for the tip. I test video intensive apps and will give this a try.

  7. says

    Actually, rather then paying for Workstation (which I don’t think exists anymore) you can get VMWare “server” (which isn’t the same as their enterprise ESX product).

    It’s a free product (you just have to register for license keys) and you can create and edit guests (which you can’t do with VMWare player).

  8. captain_brainiac says

    I love VMWare and have used it for many years. However, the steps to go through to back up the data following your routine seems like too much work. Too much work=doesn’t get done. However, maybe my data is much less static than yours.

    I think a better option (unless you’re going to be changing hardware up frequently) is to just image the drive/partition with Acronis, Ghost, or any of the others. I can perform a bare metal restore in the amount of time it takes to transfer the data from one drive to the other; in other words, not long.

    And to be quite truthful, you could boot to your vmware workstation in a matter of a couple of a couple of minutes. I could get my system back to full operational status in less than an hour. FULLY operational and most likely with a more current set of data.

    Another option is to use an application like Leapfrog Software’s FirstDefense-ISR. I don’t like their documentation all that well, but their software rocks. You could export a snapshot to another physical drive and again, be back up and running in no time. Additionally, you can boot back and forth into different snapshots. I have one for work, one for gaming, one for testing, one for Vista 64, etc. And guess what…on one of those snapshots I have VMWare installed with numerous VM’s. :-)

    Just my $.02. :-)

  9. Kalle Kula says

    I use scheduled incremental ghosts once every night of my machine to an external HD. Rolls the backups once every 10 days. I can go back to the state my machine had any of those 10 days. This way my windows installations lasts for 3 years :)

    You may also use wmware converter if you’d like to boot one of those ghosts as a virtual machine. Qutie cool.

  10. Richard says

    My favorite about vmware server was to have a dualboot win+lin laptop where i had vmware server installed twice, once in Win and once in Lin and this allowed me to start any of the two in native mode and the second OS as a VM. But requires a bit of tweaking. :-)

    I recommend use always linux as your host OS and i guarantee that one day you forget that you have some Win around.

  11. says

    If you’re concerned with backups, take a look at the new Windows Home Server OS, and some of its hardware incarnations (HP has a nice one). This will backup all your computers every night, archive them to an external disk however often you decide, and let you restore any PC by booting on a restore CD.

    At last count, I have 10 PCs at home, and this is the only solution that makes sense.

  12. Adrian Onsen says

    Good beginner intro to virtualization. I have used VMserver for a long time to allow me to run WinXP in a linux environment. Worked like a charm.

    Now I’ve moved to a XEN based virtual environment and am running 4 VM at the same time on my main server.

  13. Roger says

    @Kalle Kula: How do you schedule the ghosts incrementally? For most machines I’ve worked with the VMWare converter takes a couple of hours – do you do this nightly? Also I don’t think I saw an “incremental” option. Thanks in advance.

    We run many Windows Servers as VMWare virtual machines, which itself is running on a Linux (Gentoo) server. We were trying to figure out how to script a nightly pause of the VM, followed by a copy to backup (on another server), then resume the VM automatically. However, since Linux doesn’t seem to lock files, we settled on simply “cp”ing the VM folder to the backup machine without pausing the VM. Seems to work…

    Thanks for the great article, Dave.

  14. Terry Munro says

    Great intro to VM. I am the SysAdmin for a small company (30 LAN users) and I use VM Converter to create regular backups of our 10 critical Windows servers. These images are created and backed up to tape so in a Disaster Recovery scenario, I can get our servers up and ready in a few hours by purchasing a few new servers, installing VM server on them and starting up the VM servers.
    This will recreate the complete Domain (including AD, DNS, etc) so the infrastructure can be recreated in a very short time.

    Physical servers will then be ‘introduced’ and the VM decommissioned. Then simply use file restoration for data.

    SImple, effective, fast and no cost to the company.

  15. Dave says

    I tried using VMWare converter once, but when I attempted to use the new virtual machine it asked to validate Windows XP. How do you get past that, short of calling up Microsoft?

  16. Lee says

    All of you who are suggesting people download the free and excellent VMWare server to run on Windows machines are missing one important fact — VMWare server requires Windows Server 2000 or 2003 to run. It won’t run on Windows XP or Vista.

  17. says

    Over the years I worked for different companys and some used VM Workstation so I am familure with the Workstation but not the server version. I missed out on an excellent opertunity because I did not have any experance with VM Server. Now I will!

    Thanks for the tips.

  18. Adi Graham says

    I have Windows XP and Vmware server so I would update your version!

    Great article btw and vmware converter looks phat!

  19. says

    I’m not really a fan of Xen for a few reasons the easiest to defend it the belief that “Kernel Virtual Machines” (KVM) will overtake it in popularity.

    Also, something to consider for data backup is VMWare snapshots. I’m less familiar with this feature but you cna have VMWare take periodic snapshots of your filesystem. That way you can rollback / restore at the full filesystem level rather then relying on any other utility.

  20. says

    Virtualisation is the way to the future..

    We ran into a “problematic” situation a few weeks ago at work..

    Our exchange server had completely crashed.

    We were back up and running under 20 minutes, thanks to vmware.. :)

  21. Nick says

    I have tried creating a VM of my desktop using the free VM converter. It works but windows asks me to activate when I load the system. Any ideas?

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