Virtualize this: The pleasures of a virtual PC

I like trying out lots of new software. But when I uninstall a stinker, I know it is probably leaving behind chunks of code that will bog down my system over time. So lately I've been trying out new programs on a virtual machine.

A virtual machine (VM) is essentially a stand-alone virtual PC -- complete with its own operating system and applications -- that runs inside the operating system of your real-world hardware. A VM accesses the processing, memory, storage, graphics, and audio resources of that hardware, but doesn't own it. It's a software creation, easily disposed of when you are done experimenting with apps you have installed.

Virtualization has been around for years but has only recently become popular with corporate IT types eager to squeeze more work out of pricey, powerful -- but often underutilized -- servers.

In the past, hardware limitations made virtualization dog-slow and more trouble than it was worth. Fortunately, most current PC CPUs include extensions that make virtualization run more smoothly; these chips also offer more processing power than what all but the most demanding apps require, so typically there are plenty of cycles to go around. Most of today's PCs also have more than enough hard-drive space and memory to accommodate one or more VMs in addition to the host OS.

Viva la VM

The possibilities are numerous. I wanted a test PC to try out new apps without putting my regular system at risk; similarly, you could create specific PCs for specific users, such as your kids. If little Timmy is using a VM, he can't destroy the family tax documents stored on the regular PC -- plus, it's much easier to re-create a pristine VM than to clean up a real PC.

VM software also allows you to run multiple and different operating systems. For example, if you're interested in trying out Linux, you can run that OS in a VM. Or maybe you'd like to revisit an old program that runs only in Windows 2000. If you still have your Win 2K installation disks, you can set up the OS in your virtual machine -- and you're off to the races.

Before you try out a VM, be sure to check the hardware requirements. If your PC's RAM is struggling to keep pace with your current OS demands, it won't like serving additional masters.

VMWare Playeris a great virtualization starter app. This free program gives you easy access to no-cost virtual appliances, from security tools to Linux operating systems. However, you can't create your own VM with Player; to do that, you need VMWare Workstation 6, the feature-laden granddaddy of the category with a price to match (US$189 online after a 30-day trial).

Parallels Workstation 2.2 for Windows and Linux supports a long list of Windows and Linux operating systems and has a free 15-day trial period, after which it costs a reasonable $50.

Other virtualization apps include Microsoft Virtual PC 2007, a free download that offers VM support all the way back to Windows 98 and OS/2 Warp (but no Linux), and Symantec's Altiris Software Virtualization Solution 2.1.

Whichever app you try, expect to spend a bit of time getting it up and running. Then go out and have a little virtualized fun!

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Tom Mainelli

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