VirtualBox PC virtualisation

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Is looking stuff up online the future, or a thing of the past? E&T looks at how to turn your phone into a library; plus, how to multiply your PC.

VirtualBox PC virtualisation, plus converters & reference apps for engineers

The concept of virtual machines (VMs) is well established on the server side, but virtualisation has been something of a mystery on the desktop. However, things are beginning to change on that front, and Microsoft has now started bundling its Virtual PC software with some versions of Windows 7. Add open-source virtualisation tools and the 'free for personal use' versions of commercial software such as VirtualBox and VMware, and Mac, Windows XP and Linux users can join the fun.

The usual reason for wanting a VM is to run multiple operating systems – for example, to run Windows-only applications on a Mac or Linux PC, or for XP software that won't run on Windows 7. It also enables software testers and developers to install and run a program in the equivalent of a sandbox, where it shouldn't conflict with other software. In addition, it lets users install software that won't normally coexist on the same PC – for example multiple different versions of the Microsoft Office suite.

A multiple operating system set-up is also remarkably easy to put together. We used VirtualBox, as it runs on and can host 32 or 64-bit Windows, just about every major Linux flavour, Mac OS X, Solaris, and more. Rather than the open-source version we used the full version, which is free for personal and educational use, even within companies.

Once VirtualBox is installed, creating a new VM simply means allocating memory and disk space via the set-up wizard. VirtualBox is relatively lean and only takes up the disk space it needs, but be aware that each VM draws its working resources from the host system, so if you run two or three 512MB VMs on, say, a 1GB system things could start to run a little slowly.

Once all the allocation is complete, you install the new operating system either from CD – the guest VM has access to the host's drive – or from an ISO image on the host's hard-disk. With the guest running, install the VBox Guest Additions from their ISO image – this smooths out integration with the host, including allowing the guest to mount a host directory as a shared folder.

Surprising as it may seem – and despite the inefficiencies involved in emulating an entire PC – a VM can sometimes (though not always) run applications faster than a real PC, thanks to running more in cache.

Either way, the ability to run multiple logical systems on one physical box has all sorts of uses, educational as well as practical. Unwanted VMs can be deleted too, so there is little to lose in giving it a try.

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