VMware software provides a completely virtualized set of hardware to the guest operating system.
VMware software virtualizes the hardware for a video adapter, a network adapter, and hard disk adapters. The host provides pass-through drivers for guest USB, serial, and parallel devices. In this way, VMware virtual machines become highly portable between computers, because every host looks nearly identical to the guest. In practice, a system administrator can pause operations on a virtual machine guest, move or copy that guest to another physical computer, and there resume execution exactly at the point of suspension. Alternatively, for enterprise servers, a feature called VMotion allows the migration of operational guest virtual machines between similar but separate hardware hosts sharing the same storage. Each of these transitions is completely transparent to any users on the virtual machine at the time it is being migrated.
VMware Workstation, Server, and ESX take a more optimized path to running target operating systems on the host than emulators (such as Bochs) which simulate the function of each CPU instruction on the target machine one-by-one, or dynamic recompilation which compiles blocks of machine-instructions the first time they execute, and then uses the translated code directly when the code runs subsequently (Microsoft Virtual PC for Mac OS X takes this approach.) VMware software does not emulate an instruction set for different hardware not physically present. This significantly boosts performance, but can cause problems when moving virtual machine guests between hardware hosts using different instruction-sets (such as found in 64-bit Intel and AMD CPUs), or between hardware hosts with a differing number of CPUs. Stopping the virtual-machine guest before moving it to a different CPU type generally causes no issues.
VMware's products predate the virtualization extensions to the x86 instruction set, and do not require virtualization-enabled processors. On such older processors, they use the CPU to run code directly whenever possible (as, for example, when running user-mode and virtual 8086 mode code on x86). When direct execution cannot operate, such as with kernel-level and real-mode code, VMware products re-write the code dynamically, a process VMware calls "binary translation" or BT. The translated code gets stored in spare memory, typically at the end of the address space, which segmentation mechanisms can protect and make invisible. For these reasons, VMware operates dramatically faster than emulators, running at more than 80% of the speed that the virtual guest operating-system would run directly on the same hardware. In one study VMware claims a slowdown over native ranging from 0–6 percent for the VMware ESX Server.
VMware's approach avoids some of the difficulties of virtualization on x86-based platforms. Virtual machines may deal with offending instructions by replacing them, or by simply running kernel-code in user-mode. Replacing instructions runs the risk that the code may fail to find the expected content if it reads itself; one cannot protect code against reading while allowing normal execution, and replacing in-place becomes complicated. Running the code unmodified in user-mode will also fail, as most instructions which just read the machine-state do not cause an exception and will betray the real state of the program, and certain instructions silently change behavior in user-mode.