Configuration of a development environment can be very time consuming, error prone, or difficult. This is especially true when investigating or getting up to speed on a new technology or framework. In a corporate environment this is a also a drain on resources and existing developer staff who must take the time to prep a new developer.
One approach to mitigate this is to use a Virtual Appliance.
Virtual appliances are a subset of the broader class of software appliances. Installation of a software appliance on a virtual machine creates a virtual appliance. Like software appliances, virtual appliances are intended to eliminate the installation, configuration and maintenance costs associated with running complex stacks of software.
A virtual appliance is not a complete virtual machine platform, but rather a software image containing a software stack designed to run on a virtual machine platform which may be a Type 1 or Type 2 hypervisor. Like a physical computer, a hypervisor is merely a platform for running an operating system environment and does not provide application software itself. — Virtual Appliance
Creating a Virtual Machine Applicance
The available VM software such as Oracle VirtualBox and the VMware VM have facilities to generate appliances. Thus, when a functioning development environment is created by a lead tech or group, an appliance can be generated for the rest of the team. This appliance can even be provided using a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI).
Open Virtualization Format
While a VM system can be used to create individual VM instances that can be reused, a more recent technology (supported by some vendors) is the use of OVF:
… is an open standard for packaging and distributing virtual appliances or more generally software to be run in virtual machines.
The standard describes an “open, secure, portable, efficient and extensible format for the packaging and distribution of software to be run in virtual machines”. The OVF standard is not tied to any particular hypervisor or processor architecture. The unit of packaging and distribution is a so called OVF Package which may contain one or more virtual systems each of which can be deployed to a virtual machine.
An OVF package consists of several files, placed in one directory. A one-file alternative is the OVA package, which is a TAR file with the OVF directory inside. — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Virtualization_Format
Using ready made appliances
Each VM vendor can/does make available an appliance marketplace. Thus, one can find ready-made LAMP based environments with a development software stack, for example.
Alternative 1, an installable virtual disk
Where resources are constrained, such as places where developers are still on 3GB of ram and ancient PCs, a Virtual Machine is just not going to cut it.
One easy alternative is to create a dev environment on an installable soft hard drive. TrueCrypt can be used for this purpose. One simply create a true crypt volume, which is just a single file. Then creates the desired dev env in that volume, and that file can now be copied to load into other dev’s workstations as a new hard drive.
TrueCrypt is really for security and privacy concerns, it encrypts data, so may not be ideal for this application. Since TrueCrypt is so useful as a virtual disk, it would be great if it had the option of not encrypting content. But, that would perhaps be outside of its feature space. For that the next alternative is available.
Alternative 2, use VHD files
An alternative is using something directly targeted at virtual disks such as the VHD file format. However, this does not seem to have easily useful public gui or command support (for the end user: developer).
On Windows following the instructions here and using these Send To scripts will allow one to seamlessly use vhd files as mountable hard disk volumes.
Note that Windows 8 will support native mounting of ISO and VHD files.
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