Virtualization used to be the domain of system administrator, hardcore geeks and specialized industries, but nowadays it is a far more common practice. While software that could be used to run virtual copies of an operating system used to costs hundreds, there are now plenty of tools available that let you do the job free of charge.
There are plenty of reasons why you might want to create a virtual machine, but for the average user there are three that dominate: a desire to try out another operating system without the need to configure a multi-boot system, a need to run an older version of Windows for the sake of compatibility with older software, or the need to create a sandboxed environment in which to try out software without putting the main operating system at risk
If any of these scenarios appeal – and of course there is also just plain curiosity – then VirtualBox is one of several applications that could help you out. The software works by, perhaps unsurprisingly, creating a virtual computer, including emulating different hardware components, onto which you can install the operating system, and then any other software, of your choice.
As you are essentially asking your computer to run two operating systems simultaneously, you’re going to need some fairly up to date hardware or the experience is goingto be rather slow and unpleasant. That’s not to say that the very latest, most cutting edge system is required, just something that is not years old.
Provided you have a computer that is up to the task – and it is memory that is the real concern – you can transform your computer from one that runs a single copy of Windows, to one that runs not only older versions of Windows at the same time, but also enables you to try out Linux or even run OS X as you turn your computer into a Hackintosh.
Where VirtualBox excels is in its support for a wide range of hardware. Like many other virtualization tools, the program relies on the installation of additional software – in this case the free Guest Additions software – to unlock more support features, but out of the box your virtual machine is able to share your computer’s networks connection, make use of your hard drive and optical drives as well as outputting sound using your soundcard.
There is also the option of enabling almost any USB device that you have connected to your computer – from printers and web cams to hard drives and scanners. Just click the device menu and you can select any device you are interested in in order to instigate the installation of any necessary drivers.
Virtualization In Action
There are three mains ways in which VirtualBox can be used. The first is to run your guest operating system in a window just as you would any other application, and this is useful if you have a large monitor and want to be able to work with other applications at the same time.
For those times when you are going to be working with a virtualized operating system for extended periods of time, there is the option of switching to full screen mode. This mean more than simply maximizing the VirtualBox window as when you are in this mode, the program window occupied the entire screen, including covering up the Start menu and taskbar. To help get around the need to access the host operating system, there are a series of shortcuts that you can used to switch between modes.
The final option is to use the hybrid seamless mode. This enables you to run virtualized applications alongside regular software by hiding the VirtualBox interface. This does lead to the somewhat odd appearance of a double taskbar, but it proves immensely useful.
The installation of Guest Additions software also opens up another important aspect of VirtualBox – sharing data between the guest and host operating system. To transfer files between system you could make used of a shared network location, but you can also configured shared folders that can be access through Explorer – or Finder if you have decided to install OS X.
But a far easier way to copy files between guest and host is to simply drag and drop. This is an option that is only available if you are not working in full screen mode, but if means that you can copy files in exactly the same way as you would between folders in Explorer. Another very useful feature is the shared clipboard which makes it possible to copy text, URLs, images or other content on your host computer and paste it into an application you have running in a guest machine.
Providing you are using halfway decent hardware, VirtualBox offers impressive performance. The fact that you can choose just how resources are allocated to virtual machines enables you to balance how your memory is divided up and how much hard drive space your guest machines have access to. If you’re concerned about the network usage of virtual machines it is possible to put bandwidth restrictions or traffic shaping in place to prevent them from slowing down the network for other uses.
If you have been using a different virtualization tool such as Virtual PC, you can save time by simply opening up the existing virtual disks without the need to create the machines from scratch – a great time saver.
With options such as the ability to create snapshots so you can jump to a virtual machine in a particular state, as well as the option of putting virtual machines to sleep so they can be started up quickly, however you decide to use VirtualBox, your guest machines and operating systems of choice and be on hand and interacting with each other whenever you need them. This is one of several virtualization tools currently available, and its breadth of features along with performance, free availability and system support means that it is the leader of the pack.
If you want a project to get started on, take a look at our guide to using VirtualBox to test drive Windows 8 (http://windows.appstorm.net/how-to/how-to-try-out-windows-8-in-virtualbox/).