VirtualBox: Many O.S. on one box.

So you ask What is virtualization and what can it do for me? In English please? Ok, in a nutshell virtualization is running one operating system in another. It’s not an emulator and it’s a great alternative to the potential complications of dual-booting.

Example: You’re running Linux but have a Windows app you need to run. Normally I’d suggest trying Wine first, but not everything runs correctly under Wine. Just install the Virtualbox application on your Linux machine and create a virtual machine on which you can install Windows. In this case, Linux is referred to as the Host OS and Windows is the Guest OS. The Virtualbox application is available for Linux, Windows and Mac and will support all the above as a guest OS. So basically you can run anything on anything.

Screenshot-1
Shown here is Debian Linux (upper right), Windows XP (lower left) and the Oracle VM VirtualBox Manager (upper left) all playing nice together on Linux Mint 14. Hardware is modest, a dual-core AMD with 4GB of RAM.

Pros:

  • One computer does all: One physical computer can run multiple operating systems, saving space, power and cost.
  • Isolation: Each guest OS is isolated from the host OS. If something goes terribly wrong, such as a virus, it won’t ruin the host OS. Just delete the guest OS and reinstall without needing to wipe the entire disk!
  • Portability: Guest OS’s exist on the host machine’s hard disk as one file. So it’s easy to backup or copy to another machine, install virtualbox and point it to that file and viola! Your guest OS appears on the new machine exactly as you installed it.
  • Instant recovery: Make a copy of the guest OS’s virtual hard disk file and if the main one gets screwed up, delete it and link virtualbox to the backup file and you’re back in business in minutes.
  • Cost: Virtualbox is free! You’ll still need to purchase Windows or Mac OS if you want to keep things legit.
  • Freedom: Break from the bonds of the commercial OS and still be able to run, for example, Windows Explorer for those occasional websites that require it.
  • Experiment: Try a dozen or more distributions of Linux to see which one is best for you, and switch between them without needing to reboot.

Cons:

  • Greater hardware requirements: You’ll need more CPU and RAM to run a guest OS than you would if that OS was by itself.
  • Compatibility: Although as far as the guest OS is concerned it’s running natively, there are some things that won’t work right. The biggest flaw I’ve found so far is lack of FireWire support to the guest OS. So if, for example, you’re a musician with firewire sound interfaces, you’re out of luck. Also, if you do video editing and like to capture video off your camcorder over firewire, you won’t be able to do that via the guest OS.
  • Not all OS’s seem to like being guests.

Tips:

Create a virtual hard disk file of a fixed size as opposed to a dynamically sized install. Performance is better and hard disks are generally affordable enough these days to justify the space required. Choose something larger than the default minimum so you have enough space to install apps and collect data. I’ve found that 20gb is a good minimum for most OS’s.

Create a separate partition or use an extra hard disk for the virtual hard disks. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but the files tend to be large and doing it this way keeps them in an out of the way place.

Use a streamlined distribution of Linux as a guest OS such as Debian. There is a performance hit for running an OS virtualized, so unless you’ve got the latest and greatest hardware you may want a lightweight desktop environment.

Even if the host OS is Linux, having a virtualized machine is a great way to experiment or do Internet Research without compromising the machine you use everyday for business.

Get the VirtualBox extension pack to activate support for USB 2.0 devices, VirtualBox RDP and PXE boot for Intel cards.

There are other applications for virtualizing, but my personal preference is for VirtualBox. It’s pretty straightforwards, easy to use and free for personal use.

Visit virtualbox.org for the whole scoop.

– Kenneth W. Ranous

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