Have you ever needed to run an application on your computer, but it can only run on a different operating system (OS), or it requires a different hardware setup? Thanks to virtual machines, you don't have to buy a separate computer to run a different OS.
What is a Virtual Machine?
A virtual machine emulates a different OS environment along with the dedicated hardware, all as software running on your computer. With virtual machines, it's possible run Apple's macOS on your Windows PC, and vice-versa. Usually, the simulated OS runs as a windowed program on your desktop.
These tools work by dedicating your computer's resources to replicating the requirements needed to run the new environment, so if you're locally running a virtual machine, it can't be as fast or faster than the computer on which it's running.
What Can You Do with a Virtual Machine?
Virtual machines have many uses, but are especially a software developer's best friend. Virtual machines give you the opportunity to test out software in different OSs and hardware environments. Developers and QA staff can monitor how a system reacts to code and software without risking damage to the actual computer. Virtual machines make it easy to create a snapshot of a computer's state, so if something crashes the virtual OS, it's easy to reset it and bring it back to the state it was in previously.
This characteristic makes virtual machines great backup options and easy installation of programs on new hardware. Certain programs allow you to clone a machine and its setup to boot as a virtual machine on another computer.
Another common use for virtual machines that can be useful to anybody is the ability to run a different OS on incompatible hardware. If you have a PC, but wish to use some of the exclusive applications that only run on Mac computers, a virtual machine can allow you to replicate the hardware conditions of an Apple computer. Curious about Linux? You can try it out easily with a virtual environment. Not sure about the latest Windows? Try it before you buy it. If there's a piece of software you need, but is no longer compatible with the latest OSes, you can run an older version in a virtual machine.
For businesses that don't have enough computers for their users, you can use virtual machines to create personalized desktops for each user that can be run on any computer. Each virtual machine can be fine-tuned and loaded with the applications needed by each user. Virtual machines are highly transferable and can be kept on a shared server, so a user can log into any computer in the network and run their desktop. For virtual machines implemented in the cloud, users can access their desktop from anywhere on any device, even smartphones.
If your business depends on multiple servers, you can consolidate them by virtualizing them and storing them on few machines, allowing you to cut down on maintenance and expansion costs, according to New Horizons Computer Learning.
How to Make a Virtual Machine
Several different free and paid virtual machine programs allow for easy setup and installation of a virtual machine. One of the most popular free options is Oracle's VirtualBox, which is open source and easy to use. VirtualBox, along with most other programs, will walk you through the process of setting up a virtual machine.
The most important settings you'll need to decide on are the emulated hardware's specifications, such as the simulated memory, CPU and storage capacity. Be sure that your host computer has enough storage to fit the virtual machine, as well as a CPU and memory good enough to simulate the virtual machine's stats.
Once the virtual machine is created, you can boot up your desired OS from a disk or other storage device. Although the virtual machine app may be free, there's still an upfront cost of the OS if you don't already own it (unless you're using a free version).
Paid virtual machine programs such as VMWare's Workstation Pro provide even more technical settings and options to customize your virtual machines and can even run multiple machines at a time. The main advantage to a paid virtual machine app is continued technical support and updates.
There are services such as Microsoft Azure that offer cloud-based virtual machines, so your simulated computer doesn't have to be limited to your host computer's capabilities. Instead the virtual machine runs off one of the service's many servers. This makes set up simple, but can be costly and is recommended for advanced users.