GeekJabber is a site dedicated to casual gaming and tech enthusiasts. You may be querying why I am discussing the topic of Virtual Machines. After all, most people would first think of servers and infrastructure when talking about virtual machines.
There is a reason why people would think this. The Virtual Private Server is of course a form of virtualisation that some computer technicians use to manage their fleet of servers. There can be benefits of doing this on your own computer as well.
So what is a Virtual Machine?
A “Virtual Machine” shares many of the characteristics of a real computer. It is an entire operating system, such as Microsoft Windows or Linux, that is allocated a certain amount of memory, hard drive space and CPU resources and runs as if it were on a real PC.
The difference between a Virtual Machine and a normal computer is that all these resources are completely defined in software, so you can often increase or decrease them as required, and the output of the virtual machine appears as a window on top of your normal operating system rather than take over your whole computer.
Of course, you can’t really assign more resources to the virtual machine than your computer actually has. However running a virtual machine can offer a few advantages to those that are somewhat technically inclined.
Why would you want to use a Virtual Machine?
There are a number of different scenarios where a virtual machine might be useful to the more technically inclined user.
Testing new versions of an operating system. If you’re considering upgrading to a new version of the operating system you use but aren’t sure whether you wish to commit to it yet, a virtual machine can provide a way of testing the new version without destroying your current machine. This is particularly the case for something like the upcoming version of Windows 11. There are some that are excited for the new version, and there are some that are a little more cautious. When Windows 11 is released, a virtual machine can allow you run a trial version of Windows 11 without committing to an upgrade so you can see how it works and decide whether you wish to upgrade. Once you’re ready to do an upgrade, you can then go ahead and install the new version to replace your existing installation.
Running an alternative operating system on demand. Many people use Microsoft Windows or Apple’s MacOS as their primary operating system. However there is a growing interest in the Linux operating system. A virtual machine allows you to run your normal operating system while exploring the world of Linux by running it in a virtual machine and see if it’s right for you before replacing your existing operating system. Alternatively, you can run Linux as your primary operating system, and use a Virtual Machine to run Windows for any applications that you want to continue using but do not have native Linux versions. This opens options to those considering alternate operating systems but aren’t quite sure whether they can get everything working or if they want to try things out before they commit.
Running a vintage operating system. The retro computing scene has become more prominent over the last couple of years. There are those that are interested in reliving games and software that they grew up with. Some will turn to virtual machines to set up an old version of Windows, such as Windows 95, to relive the operating systems and games of old. They can then relive the experiences they grew up with, without the complexities of sourcing and maintaining older hardware. It should be noted that there is also emulation, which is where your computer can pretend to be an entirely different computer (such as a Commodore 64). While on the surface this is similar in appearance to virtualisation, under the hood there are some differences so it’s technically not quite the same thing.
Running specialist applications. While rare, there are some specialist applications that have been written for older machines that do not run well on modern hardware. Often these are programs designed to perform very specialised tasks where the cost of upgrading to a newer version or rewriting it for a modern computer is sometimes substantially more than it would cost to run it in a virtual machine. This scenario would be very rare outside some specialised business applications, but this can be a way to run these vintage applications on modern hardware. If oyu have na older application or game that you want to continue using, virtualisation can be a great way to try and get it running on a modern system.
What options do I have for setting up virtual machines?
For home usage, there are a number of systems that are freely available that you can use to set up virtual machines.
VMWare and VirtualBox both have versions that are free to use for home non-commercial use, as well as having paid commercial offerings. These are often the two that people reach for, as they’re relatively easy to set up and use and have the backing of a large company.
For those that are looking for an open-source solution, QEMU offers an open-source alternative.
There are also plenty of other options such as Microsoft’s HyperV, however many of these tend to be more targeted towards enterprise usage so don’t get a lot of use in a home environment. You may also stumble across a program called Docker which is a similar concept, however is not really designed for normal desktop use.
Does my computer need to be anything special?
You don’t necessarily need to have an all-singing and all-dancing computer to run a virtual machine. There are a few things to consider though before taking the plunge.
Because you are in effect running at least two operating systems at the same time, your computer’s memory can become a problem. Running a virtual machine when you have 8 gigabytes or less can sometimes be a bit of a squeeze, particularly if you want to run a few applications on top of your operating systems. Sixteen gigabytes can be considered a useful minimum, though in some situations you may require more.
For the same reason, a bargain-basement processor can sometimes be a bit of a struggle. You don’t need the latest 64-core high-powered server CPU unless you’re planning on pushing the virtual machine hard, but your old dual-core might sometimes struggle to keep up. A quad-core CPU of some description can be a useful minimum to keep things ticking along if you’re wanting to do anything more than basic testing.
The last is hard drive space. Again, you are running a second full operating system, which can take a fair chunk of storage. Check the minimum requirements of the operating system you are planning to test or use, and make sure you use this information to plan ahead and make sure your hard drive setup can cope.
Running virtual machines is a more advanced topic that is more for the power-user.
In saying that, a virtual machine provides a great way to test out alternate operating systems or new versions of your operating system. They can provide great test environments before committing to an alternate operating system or an operating system upgrade.
With that in mind, I would encourage those that want to have that ability to investigate their options for setting up virtual machines, as running these testing environments are a great way of learning the ropes or uncovering issues before you take the plunge and upgrade your production environments.