Run VMware Virtual Machines from a USB Drive


Run VMware Virtual Machines from a USB Drive

Virtual machines have a variety of users ranging from developers who may use them to safely test different operating systems to students needing to use a Windows application from their MacBook. Disk space is a limitation that you may come across in the host machine, especially when running multiple VMs. For me, being able to run VMs from a USB drive is the best and most economic option to get over this hurdle.

Can you run VMware virtual machines from a USB? In short, yes. You have multiple options to run VMware VMs from a USB drive.  For the simplest tasks, you can even utilize a VM from a traditional USB 2.0 flash drive.  For more intensive tasks, the practical solution is to use an external SSD or HDD with a USB 3.0 connection.

This solution is not limited to solving storage space issues. In fact, utilizing your USB port to run VMware virtual machines is more versatile than you may realize. Let’s investigate some advantages and disadvantages with using different external drives in relation to your specific virtualization needs.

Getting VMware Virtual Machines to run on USB

The first step to relocating your virtual machine(s) to an external USB drive is learning where VMware stores them. For example, in VMware Workstation, the default location is:

C:\Users\username\Documents\Virtual Machines

The VM file that needs to be copied over will have an “.vmdk” extension. Make sure the desired VM is powered off when making this move. If using Fusion on a Mac, the default location is:

/Users/AllAboutGadgets/Virtual Machines.localized/   (similarly, look for the “.vmdk” extension)

Once these simple steps are completed, find the VM within VMware and change its destination location accordingly so that it is pointing to the correct USB port.

The type of USB drive to run your virtual machine on depends on the task at hand. While VMs use the host machine’s resources, the chosen external drive plays a role in performance as well. That said, it is important to take into consideration the objective of your virtualization tasks when choosing between a traditional USB 2.0 flash drive, an external HDD and an external SSD.  

Primary factors to consider when it comes to USB external drives are their read-write speeds and storage space.  The other major performance attribute that doesn’t come from the host machine is the external drive’s USB technology – essentially, their traffic capability. Technological advances have seen the connection go from USB 1.1 to USB 2.0 and currently USB 3.0 (with reference to Type A connectors).

While it plays a major role in performance, the USB speed throughput is limited by your laptop or computer’s USB hardware compatibility. USB technology is backwards compatible. This means that a USB 3.0 drive can connect to a host machine that is only compatible with a 2.0 connection, but it is important to realize that the maximum traffic throughput is limited to USB 2.0 capabilities.

It is imperative to know the differences in the older and newer USB technologies with relation to traffic throughput. This could be the difference between being able to complete tasks in a practical manner or the cause of poor productivity.  We will only consider USB 2.0 and newer drives since even the 2.0 technology is becoming outdated.  I have referred to USB flash drives as “traditional” because they are solid state drives – or SSD – and I want to make sure to differentiate between these older drives and the newer external SSD’s using USB 3.0 technology.  

As I mentioned before, the range of virtual machine users is wide.  For this reason, the VMware suite has many products that are suitable for specific personal level solutions to much larger scale solutions like those for corporation level IT. In cases covering the whole spectrum of solutions, there is a likeliness that a need arises to use an external USB drive to run virtual machines from. As we covered, running a VMware virtual machine is indeed able to run from a USB drive. 

Ultimately, choosing the external drive type to run from will determine how practical this method is.

Considerations and Comparisons of External USB Drives for Running Virtual Machines

Traditional USB 2.0 flash drives are versatile with their physical size, portability and capability combination.  They are capable to store more than enough space to run virtual machines.  While fulfilling the space requirement for at least running a single VM, it will struggle with the read and write variable of the performance equation.  Due to the speed limitation of flash drives, this is the least powerful USB option to run your VM from.

External USB hard disk drives are an excellent option for just about any of your virtualization needs. They are virtually the same physical drive that you currently have in your computer or have had in the past.  HDD’s are capable of storing the most data among common external USB drives – you can find one with 10TB of storage without too much trouble. 

These drives, unlike flash drives and SDD drives, are mechanically functioning using a spinning platter.  Ultimately, the higher functioning the platter, the better the performance will be.  Being mechanical, durability is a cause for concern and should be taken into consideration when choosing an external drive.

Finally, we have external USB solid-state drives. These provide the best qualities of the above options.  They are like the traditional flash drives in being solid-state and with their physical convenience.  Like HDD’s they are powerful performers with high storage capabilities.  For the most demanding virtual machine jobs, this is your pick as the most capable USB external drive – it will cost the most as well.

Traditional USB Flash Drive (USB 2.0)

– Read/Write Maximum = 60MBps (megabytes)

– Realistic Read/Write = 30-40MBps

– Storage = Smallest capacity among options

– Strength = Portability + durability

– Weakness = Limited speed + storage

External HDD (USB 3.0 and newer)

– Read/Write Maximum = 5GBps or 640MBps

– Read/Write Realistic = 100-200MBps

– Storage = Largest capacity among options – 2TB (terabytes) is easily found

– Strength = Space + price

– Weakness = Durability

External SSD (USB 3.0 and newer)

– Read/Write Maximum = 5GBps or 640MBps

– Read/Write Realistic = 400MBps

– Storage = Good amount, but less than external HDD – 1TB is easily found

– Strength = Speed + space + portability + durability

– Weakness = Price

Practical Application for each of your Options to Run your Virtual Machine using a USB

Let’s say that you are working in IT for a small company with a handful of machines.  You could set each employee PC or laptop with VMware and carry a virtual machine of the company used operating system on an external drive for troubleshooting purposes.  

An employee may have a virus in a file and a simple, but effective task, would be to test that file on the VM without risking harm to the physical host. The most practical option here would be to carry around a traditional USB 2.0 flash drive.

I would go with an HDD to run virtual machines for a couple of reasons.  First would be to clear up space on my local hard drive.  The second reason would be if I needed to test a large amount of VMs and it was not practical to use up my local hard drive’s resources.

If affordable, I would go with an SDD for any and all instances. To get the best bang for your buck, then perhaps only pay the extra dollar if you have the more demanding virtualization jobs.  This is the option for someone like a developer.

Related Questions

Is it better to run virtual machines from the host machine’s local drive?

Almost always. Running VMware virtual machines from a USB is not ideal, but it could be necessary.  It should not be your first option.

Are SSD’s the same as flash drives?

Mostly, yes. They are both solid-state drives using flash memory. You just need to remember that when we think of USB flash drives, we think of the USB 2.0 connection and this is where there is quite a bit of difference. Otherwise, a USB 3.0 flash drive is the same as an SSD.

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