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News and Perspectives from IT Experts
January 16, 2020

How to Set Up and Use Virtual Machines

A virtual machine (VM) allows the user to set up the operating system they need in window mode on their computer and run it as if it were on a separate PC. There are a significant number of excellent free VM applications out there, which makes it possible for anyone to set up and launch a VM on their computer.

If you want to run an app on a system that you don’t have, instead of buying that particular system, you can run a Virtual Machine (VM) on your computer. A VM allows the user to set up the operating system they need in window mode on their computer and run it as if it were on a separate PC. The best part about installing a VM is that you get to run programs that your main operating system doesn’t support and launch apps in a secure, sandboxed platform.

There are a significant number of excellent free VM applications out there, which makes it possible for anyone to set up and launch a VM on their computer. All you need is a virtual machine app and installation media for the OS you wish to set up.  

What Are Virtual Machines?

A virtual machine is an app that provides a virtualized platform that, when installed, behaves like a completely independent computer with virtual hardware devices. A virtual machine operates as a process within a computer’s operating system. On a virtual machine, you can boot a CD, USB or any other storage device, and it will be tricked into recognizing the VM as an actual computer. Therefore, any application can be installed on a virtual machine as well as it would be on a physical system. You can close and open the VM system anytime you please. Therefore, you don’t have to worry about a VM program taking over your PC, especially if you want to use it for a short period.

To further understand how virtual machines function, let's get into their world and analyze some of the terms used. For starters, the actual operating system running on your computer is the host. An operating system that runs inside a virtual machine is called a guest. These are two important terms in understanding the nature of virtual machines as they keep things from being too complex.

Upon installation, the user selects the amount of storage for the guest OS that they wish to install based on the size of the physical storage drive. So, if your physical storage drive has 800GB of space available, then you can’t set up your virtual storage drive above that limit. A large file (a virtual hard drive) is created to store the guest OS, and this file will act as a real hard drive to the guest operating system. Therefore, there is no need for you to deal with partitioning or other complicated processes.

There are some issues that come with the installation of guest operating systems. For starters, don’t expect these operating systems to be as fast as host systems running on physical drives. Also, it is vital to understand that demanding programs such as games or any other apps that need serious graphics and CPU power don’t do well on virtual machines. Therefore, a guest OS is not ideal if you are looking to play heavy games or run a demanding program. Unless a game or program is graphically demanding, you can run it on a virtual machine.

The interesting fact about virtual machines is that you can set up as many as your storage drive size can allow. You can install several virtual machines with different operating systems and versions. For instance, you can install Windows 7, 8, and 10 as well as Ubuntu, Linux and macOS using the same host OS. Moreover, you can launch multiple guest operating systems simultaneously without them interrupting each other. However, it all gets tied back to the resources of your system and how much it can handle at a time as each virtual machine guest OS uses RAM and CPU power.

Why Create Virtual Machines?

Although VMs may sound and seem fun to play around with, they provide a significant number of serious uses. For instance, a virtual machine lets you experience another operating system without having to buy and set up a different PC. You also get to test new OS distributions before deciding to switch over. Once done with the guest OS, you can simply erase it from your physical hard drive for good.

VMs are also a great way of bypassing OS restrictions. For example, if you are a macOS user, you can run Windows 10 on a virtual machine to gain access to apps that only run on the Windows 10 OS. Another good example is when you want to run older apps that are not compatible with your latest OS. Let’s say your system is running on Windows 10 but you need to access an old app that is compatible with Windows XP. Then, you can install Windows XP in a virtual machine and run the app in it.

Another advantage of using virtual machines is that they are sandboxed, which means they are separated from the host environment. What is installed within a virtual machine cannot leak to the host platform. This makes it ideal to test some of the apps or even websites you are not sure of. Also, the sandbox environment allows you to run incompatible operating systems without the fear of ruining your computer.

VM Programs

If you need to run a guest OS on your PC, there is a significant list of virtual machine programs to select from, and these include:

  • VMware Player: Compatible to Windows and Linux systems. VMware features its own line of virtual machine software. VMware Player can be used on both Windows and Linux for free. However, to access advanced tools, you will need to upgrade to the paid VMware Workstation version.
  • Parallels Desktop: Compatible to macOS X. This app is a great tool for Mac users. The app is well-polished and allows users to install and experience other operating systems such as Windows, Linux, and Ubuntu on their Macs.
  • VirtualBox: The program is available on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X and is popular in the software industry due to being a free and open-source app. What you see is what you get, and without having to cough out a single cent, you gain access to all the features available on this program.

Apart from the mentioned programs, there is still plenty of VM software to select from. For instance, Linux users can enjoy the KVM program, which is an integrated virtualization option. Windows 8 and 10 Professional users also get access to Microsoft’s Hyper-V, which is also an integrated VM solution.

How to Create Virtual Machines?

Creating a virtual machine is pretty easy. Once you have selected and installed the VM program of your choice, all you need to do is launch the virtual machine app and follow the prompts. The process we will depict in the next section of the article is based on VirtualBox. However, you mustn’t worry as most of the VM apps have a similar process when it comes to creating a virtual machine.

  1. Launch the virtual machine app.
  2. Click on New to create a virtual machine.
  3. A wizard will then guide you through the process of creating a new virtual machine.
  4. Type the name of the operating system you wish to install. If it doesn’t auto-pick a relevant OS, just select the desired type and version from the dropdown menu.
  5. When done, click on Next.

Depending on the operating system you wish to install, all settings will be set to their default values. However, you can change these settings to the ones you prefer in the window that follows. But if you prefer to leave everything as it is, then you can click on Next without altering anything.

A virtual hard drive will be created by the wizard. However, you have the option to select from the list of existing virtual hard disk files if you have those. You also have the option to create either a dynamically allocated or a fixed-size drive. Choosing “Dynamically allocated” lets you set the maximum size of your virtual hard disk, but the file will only grow to that limit if need be. With the Fixed size option, the created file will present the set-up limit as soon as the virtual machine is created. Although a dynamically expanding disk may seem ideal in the sense that your virtual machine will not take up space that is not needed, we recommend having a fixed-size disk. With the latter, your virtual machine is more responsive. Moreover, you can easily monitor the amount of space that you have used.

Once you complete creating your guest OS, you can head back to the main VM app window, where the newly created guest OS should be showing up. You can run your new operating system from this window. If you face any troubles, try to check if your installation media is available.

No matter what VM app you select, the steps for installing a guest OS in your system are not complex. The only major elements that you need to pay attention to include the amount of storage, RAM, and system type and version being installed. As indicated earlier, even if you are to provide enough RAM and storage space, your virtual machine will not be as fast as the host OS.   

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