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What Is Virtualization, A Virtual Machine, and a Virtual PC?

June 16, 2009

in advanced computing,Linux,Macintosh,Vista,Windows

by David Hakala

In a recent answer to a reader’s question, I discussed Running Vista and XP Simultaneously.” That article discussed the dual-boot method of keeping two operating systems on one machine, loading one at a time by rebooting. There is another more convenient way to switch from one operating system to another.

“Virtualization” is one of the most mystical of computing terms. Like the Buddhist concept of “Enlightenment,” virtualization is impossible to define in words. It is used in many ways to refer to many things. For our purposes I shall call virtualization, “the imitation of a physical computer’s resources in RAM.” In other words, virtualization creates a computer that’s all in your computer’s “head.” Never mind how. It lets you run two computers, with different operating systems, in one physical computer. That can be very useful.

The non-physical computer is called a “virtual machine.” It can be the same as the machine sitting in front of you or it can be an entirely different machine. Your brand-new Lenova laptop can have an obsolete Radio Shack TRS-80 computer running in its “head.” Then you can play old games written for the TRS-80 that won’t run on the Lenova. Some of us elder geeks like to do that sort of thing.

You may want to run Vista and Windows XP simultaneously, so that you can continue using valuable software written for XP that won’t run under Vista. Virtualization lets you do that, and switch from Vista to XP as easily and quickly as the Alt-Tab keystroke combination lets you switch from a Web browser to an email program under one operating system.

To run XP in a virtual machine on your Vista-based computer you need

1. A full retail, licensed copy of XP on CD-ROM

2. Enough RAM and processor power for both operating systems and the applications you plan to run

3. A copy of some virtualization software that makes this “magic” happen

You can download the free Microsoft Virtual PC virtualization software and give that a try.

If you install MS Virtual PC on a Vista Home computer of any edition it will warn you that Virtual PC is “not supported” on Home versions of Vista. Ignore that message, Virtual PC works fine on Home editions of Vista.

MS Virtual PC supports only Microsoft operating systems. If you want to try running Linux or some other operating system under Vista, you will need a third-party virtualization software package.

VMWare is the market share leader in virtualization software. Its stuff works and is used by major corporations, ISPs, Web hosts, and data centers for very heavy lifting. You can download VMWare Player for free and it will run virtual machines under Windows XP, Vista or Linux. But it won’t let you create a virtual machine. For that, you need another freeware program such as EasyVMX.

Xen is another popular virtualization package that costs nothing. It supports x86, x86_64, IA64, PowerPC, and other CPU architectures running Windows, Apple, Linux, and other operating systems.

For strictly Macintosh use, VMWare Fusion and Parallels Desktop are recommended virtualization packages.

David Hakala has perpetrated technology tutorials since 1988 in addition to committing tech journalism, documentation, Web sites, marketing collateral, and profitable prose in general. His complete rap sheet can be seen at

{ 1 comment }

bj79 06.25.09 at 12:31 pm

A really interesting green computer technology I found is Userful Multiplier. It’s where multiple people can use the same computer at the same time each with their own monitor, mouse and keyboard. This saves a lot of electricity and e-waste. A company called Userful recently set a virtualization world record by delivering over 350,000 virtual desktops to schools in Brazil. They have a free 2-user version for home use too. Check it out:

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