Monday, February 1, 2016

Redeploying An Old System As A Virtual Computer

I have spent a great deal of my spare time the last few years learning about virtual computing and building a virtual computing lab at home.  This has become my favorite part of the iTinker network – which I will talk about a bit more in the days ahead.

A few weeks ago my dear friend Mike asked if we could build a virtual computer to host a Windows NT 4 server that one of his clients uses.  While this is a project that’s still in process, we recently reached a major milestone.  We took a fresh install of Windows NT 4 running on some old hardware and turned it into a stable and very fast virtual machine.  The virtual system is meaningfully faster than the physical system.  In retrospect that’s not surprising, but it’s really good to see. 

I shared the results with Vladan Seget, a virtualization expert with a great web site and twitter feed.  I’ve relied on his work for many things.  Today he posted my work on his site together with some kind words on twitter.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Before talking about this task I want to set the stage and pay homage to my best friend.

I met Mike 40 years ago while in high school.  Our high school had a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8/e.  We programmed it in Basic and, on occasion, in assembly code.  While there was a teletype device with a tape reader in the computer room, most student programming was done on hand-marked Hollerith cards and processed in batches each afternoon.  Mike helped run that computer.  He saw my programs and commented on the print-outs.  From his comments I could tell that he was very smart and more than a little bit of a wise-ass.  My kind of guy.  We met and have been close friends ever since.  That’s the start of my journey with computers and how I met my best friend.  While Mike and I share many interests we are also polar opposites in many ways.  He has been a balancing force in my life and helps me to keep perspective on things.

Mike is a jack of all trades.  He’s a can-do guy.  One of the things he does is provide all manner of technology consulting and support to small businesses.  He has patiently listened to me in recent years drone on about linux and open source software as well as virtualization technology.  I have been convinced that while not working with big data centers and server farms, his business and clients could benefit from virtualization.  He agreed in concept.

Now, back to the story.

Mike explained that his client’s server runs custom software that could not be readily ported to a newer operating system and, due to the passing of time, even reinstalling Windows NT on fresh hardware would be a challenge.  Finding spare parts for the computer has also become a challenge.  I pressed him to consider porting the software to a newer operating system or even doing a clean install on new hardware.  Those approaches were simply non-starters. 

Most of my virtualization work has been with virtual machines running current operating systems and built from the ground up as virtual machines.  I had toyed around with VMware Work Station Stand Alone converter and converted a few Windows 7 computers to virtual machines, but nothing more than that.  I was game to help Mike deploy a virtualization environment and to tackle the NT P2V challenge.

We have met with considerable success so far.  The specific steps are described on Vladan’s site.  We expect to complete our work on the production server very soon and then move on to a few other older systems – but none as old as the NT server.

There is a lot of useful information to be found on the web from when these specific P2V conversions were routine.  Trying to accomplish the conversion today into a current VMware environment presents some different challenges as the tools used before are not readily available and they wouldn’t necessarily work well with current virtualization environments.

I’m pleased with what we have done so far and hope that by writing everything down and sharing it publicly we can make things at least a little easier for others who choose to go down the same road.  It’s proving to be a great way to learn more about virtualization environments and also to test out some performance monitoring tools (Cacti in particular) that I finally got up and running on one of my virtual machines.

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