Saturday, January 19, 2013

Virtual PC 2007: Core programs #4

We've taken a look at Sandboxie and as lightweight solution it pans out. What if we wanted something more full-featured? For that we have virtual machines.

A virtual machine, as opposed to a physical one, is a platform that allows a guest OS run under an existing host. This means that the you can have more than one OS running simultaneously under your existing hardware. This allows a fantastic array of possibilities ranging from testing to security.

I'll center the discussion to Microsoft's Virtual PC 2007 which is the one I know best. There are many other choices to pick from, some with more or less features.

Virtual PC 2007 is a free Windows program  from Microsoft than can run both in 32 and 64 bits. It installs in your physical Windows machine (the host) from Xp on, and can run from Windows 98 SE to Vista plus many unsupported OSes such as Linux and Win95 & Win7. You must have the installation discs or ISO files for the guest OSes you wish to run as these are not provided. According to Microsoft's TOS installing the same OS as a guest in a virtual machine counts as if it were installed in a physical machine.

Once installed, the guest is totally unaware that it is running inside a virtual environment and behaves as you would expect it to on physical hardware. I see no impact on performance for everyday tasks. Only video playback can get jittery, but a better video card might solve this.

There are some limitations to Vpc2007, but the main ones are that there is no USB support, the virtual machine can only see one core and that the resolution is capped. Ram is the biggest requirement as you have to assign a portion of your physical memory to each virtual machine.

So what are some good uses for a VM? As I noted in the Sandboxie review, it is for keeping your physical machine clean and safe. Each time something unwanted happens inside the VM, you can delete the session and start afresh. Here are some examples from my own use:

If within the VM:

I visit a dubious site, I kill the VM
Open an unwanted attachment, I kill the VM
Try out a program and then decide I don't want it, I kill the VM
Need to run a program from the net only once, I kill the VM
Lend my computer to someone, I kill the VM
Get an unwanted update, I kill the VM
Download a file and it turns out to be malware, I kill the VM
Toolbars and other crapware get installed, I kill the VM

And if I'm done for the the day, I kill the VM

Each time I restart from a known pristine state. In fact the only occasions when I save the changes is when there are security updates.

Theoretically my physical hardware stays fresh. In all the years from using VMs this has been the case and I've never had an infection or cause for complaint.

Virtual machines are also a great way to run legacy software.

By the looks of it this program won't be likely ever to be updated again, so in some years down the road I'll migrate to Vmware or similar.


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