The Virtual Machine

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Have you ever wanted to try out a different operating system, run software that is incompatible with your present system, run a program without any concern for security or malware, or wished for a simple way to create a system backup that could be easily restored upon demand? As tech savvy, progressive users, we run into a multitude of limitations and challenges such as these on a daily basis. The virtual machine may just be the solution to these issues and so much more.

What Is a Virtual Machine?

A virtual machine is a computer file, commonly referred to as an image. This is no ordinary image, however. It behaves like an operating system inside an app window on your computer—completely segregated from its host system. Essentially, it acts as a computer within a computer, allowing you to run programs inside the virtual machine’s window that are self-contained. Every virtual machine has its own virtual hard drive, CPU, memory, devices, interfaces and virtual hardware. The virtual machine’s “hardware” is mapped to your physical machine’s hardware.

As the user, the virtual machine provides the same experience you’d have running a program on your own system, but with some very liberating additional qualities. Because the virtual machine’s functionality is confined, it can have no effect on your host system no matter what activities you engage in within it. It’s impossible for any component of the virtual machine to make changes to your system, thereby creating the perfect safe space for experimental computing, testing, backups, running programs incompatible with your current system, and even accessing files corrupted by viruses.

You can also have multiple virtual machines running on the same computer simultaneously—all functioning independently from one another. This is true for virtual machines run on desktops as well as servers. On a desktop, virtual machines are managed by the host operating system in separate windows. On servers, the virtual machines are partitioned from each other and managed by hypervisor software. A virtual machine can even be run from external drives, adding portability to its already impressive functionality.

Why is a virtual machine a great choice for you?

Now that you understand what a virtual machine does and how it operates, you may be asking yourself, is it something I really need? The answer to that is unequivocally yes. The fact is, the virtual machine is literally a tool that gives you unparalleled computing freedom, enabling you to perform activities that simply cannot be achieved in any other way, empowering you by removing limitations, and saving you a significant amount of money by eliminating the need for additional hardware investments, thereby reducing equipment and associated maintenance costs.

Let’s explore the 3 most popular and helpful uses of a virtual machine to the home user:

1. Running multiple operating systems on the same computer.

Say you are running Windows 10 on your desktop. Over the years, you’ve no doubt used some great software programs and applications that only run on older operating systems. With a virtual machine, you could also have older operating systems such as Windows XP and Windows 7 available to you as well as the current Windows 10, enabling you still use those older programs whenever you want.

Say you are a Mac user but would love the versatility of being able to also run Windows programs. With a virtual machine, that problem is solved. Just pop open Windows 10 through a virtual machine on your mac and you are ready to go. Plus, it’s not just for Windows and Mac. It works equally well with other operating systems such as Linux, which opens up the whole world of android applications.

The ability to run multiple different operating systems from the same hardware system opens up a world of computing possibilities and is one of the greatest and most widely utilized attributes of the virtual machine.

2. Run any program without any concerns for security.

Say you have a program you’d like to try out, but you are unsure of its origins or its safety. Running such a program on your main system is a huge risk, subjecting you to malware and viruses that could potentially cause permanent and devastating damage and data loss. Even in the absence of malware, a new program can sometimes make unwanted changes to your system that create instability, disrupting the functionality of your other programs and causing you all kinds of headaches as you are left with the task of trying to correct it. Running the same program within a virtual machine, however, poses no risk at all. Because of the encapsulated, self-contained nature of the virtual machine, even the worst malware and viruses are unable to do any damage to your system. A virtual machine is simply the smartest, safest way to try a new program.

3. Create a Full System Backup

Another great feature of the virtual machine is its ability to simply take a “snapshot” of the system that can be used as a full system backup. Say you want to do some application testing, alter some configurations or experiment with other changes, but you fearful of doing so because you aren’t entirely certain of the results. With a virtual machine, you can take a snapshot of your system prior to those changes, and if something goes wrong, it becomes incredibly easy to restore the system back to its original state. This type of backup is far superior to the standard system restore because it is system wide and much more comprehensive and complete. Furthermore, the snapshot is simply saved as a single file, easy to access, implement and even move to an external drive as needed.

And so much more…

These are just a few of the more popular uses for the virtual machine. There are many other uses and possibilities to explore. You can learn more about your and other operating systems by taking your system apart and experimenting with it in a safe environment. You can literally clone your operating system so that you can install it on other systems. You can deliberately test suspicious-looking emails and programs for viruses and malware. If you are a programmer, you can use a virtual machine to safely develop and test software for other platforms. The potential uses are limited only by your imagination and abilities. But no matter how you choose to use the virtual machine, it’s bound to become one of your most utilized and valued tools.

How to Get Started Using the Virtual Machine

At this point you are probably asking yourself, how do I get started?

To begin, you are going to need a computer that is powerful enough to effectively run your virtual machine. Even though the virtual machine is self-contained, it still derives its computing power from your own hardware. The faster and more powerful your system is, the faster and more powerful your virtual machine will be. You’ll need a good CPU, at least 8 gigabytes of ram and preferably more, and a big hard drive. Once you have these fundamental hardware requirements in place, it’s time to check out some of the excellent, free virtual machine software available on the market today. Here are just a few popular ones to get you started:

  • VMware Fusion (Mac)
  • Parallel’s Software (Mac)
  • VirtualBox (Mac & Win)
  • Hyper-V (Win)
  • VMware Workstation Player (Win, Linux)

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