Introduction to Virtualization for the Home and Small Business User

December 10, 2009DavidVirtualization0

Virtualization is a current buzzword around the computer industry.  This article will briefly describe what virtualization is, as well as its advantages and disadvantages from the perspective of a home or small business user.
In a nutshell, virtualization allows you to run a “virtual computer” as an application on your desktop alongside your other applications.  A virtualization program will allow you to run an instance of an entire operating system such as Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Linux as a individual program – just as Word, Excel and Firefox are individual programs.

The easiest way to explain this conceptis with an example.  Let’s say you are running Windows XP and you’d like to see if one of your commonly used applications would run on Windows Vista.  You could purchase a computer with Windows Vista installed, and then test the software.  If it works — great.  If not, you’ve spent a lot of money for nothing.

Let’s now do the same thing with virtualization.  By installing a Virtualization program and a Windows Vista image  (we will discuss both of these topics later) you can run an instance of the Windows Vista operating system right on your Windows XP desktop – without having to purchase additional software.  You can install the application on the virtual version of Windows Vista, and now evaluate your software without having to purchase new hardware.

The image below is an image of a Windows Vista desktop running Microsoft Word, Firefox, and Microsoft Virtual PC – notice that the Virtual PC application is running Windows XP.


To clarify, Microsoft Virtual PC is the virtualization software that is running in this example, and virtual pc  is, in turn,  running a Windows XP image.

II. Terminology

Virtualization Software – an application that allows you to run a virtual operating system on your computer.  Examples of virtualization software programs are Virtual PC, VMware Player,  and VirtualBox.  Think of the virtualization software as a brand-new computer that has no operating system installed on it.

Virtual Image or Virtual Machine – in order to use virtualization software, you need to install an operating system such as Windows XP or Linux.  Virtual Images are pre-fabricated operating system images.  You would download, for example, a Linux image for Vmware Player, and use the Vmware Player software to run the Linux image.  You can think of the virtual image as the actual operating system software.

So to run a virtual operating system, you would install a virtualization program such as Virtual PC, you would then install a virtual image (e.g. a Windows XP image), and then you would install any applications you need on the XP image.

III. Advantages

  1. Because a virtualization software work as if it were in it’s own “container” you can freely test software such as alpha and beta releases without worrying about affecting your actual operating system.
  2. Running virtualization software and virtual images can save a significant amount money because you do not need to worry about additional hardware costs to run the virtual operating systems.  Note that you still need to follow appropriate licensing laws for OS software where applicable.   Microsoft, however, does provide time-limited Virtual PC-compatible image for Windows XP.
  3. You can easily delete and reinstall a virtual image.  If you install programs on your Virtual PC Windows XP installation, and accidentally corrupt the system, you only have to quickly re-setup the image, and not have to spend hours reinstalling the operating system.

IV. Disadvantages

  1. A reasonably powered computer is required for virtualization.  If you use an underpowered machine to run a virtual machine, you will find the performance sluggish and it will be frustrating.
  2. If you do allow your virtual machine to have access to the internet, (and especially if you allow the virtual machine to also access your actual operating system) you MUST take the normal security precautions by installing the appropriate anti-virus and anti-malware software.

Get Started.
I encourage you to test out virtualization software for yourself to see if it’s right for you.  Once of the easiest ways to get started is with the free Microsoft Virtual PC and one of the free, time-limited Windows XP or Windows Vista virtual images (also known as VHD’s or Virtual Hard Disks).

Remember that this article only covers the basic introduction to the concept of virtualization.  In the enterprise environment, virtualization technology can be extremely powerful in leveraging and maximizing use of resources, servers, and remote access among other things.


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