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How to Run a Virtual Computer

omputers have created what seems like an unlimited number of ‘virtual’ things. There is virtual reality, virtual libraries, and virtual hospitals. Perhaps in strange twist of fate, we now have virtual computers.

Their application may not be apparent at first. Why would you want to create a computer inside of your computer? When you start to examine the possibilities, the uses are varied and quite useful. Perhaps you do not have the space or money to have multiple computers at home. You have a computer with Windows XP but are curious about running another operating system like Linux, and yet you are worried about messing up your current system. A virtual computer would be the perfect solution. Another possibility is that you are running Windows XP and have some old games or other software that runs only on Windows 95 or 3.1. You’ve tried to run it with XP and its backwards compatibility, but to no avail. If you could just ‘run’ the old version of Windows on your current machine easily and without fear of causing other problems, you’d be happy.

A commercial product called VMWare (http://www.vmware.com) does exactly what I am describing. It creates one (or more) virtual computers within your computer. This means you could have a machine with DOS, Windows 3.1, and Windows 95 – and all running under your current Windows XP. When you run the software, you go through a Wizard that asks you for what operating system you intend to run on the new machine. You don’t have to install what you have specified, but by allowing the wizard to understand your requirements, it will create a machine that has enough memory, hardware and drive space to work. VMWare supports no less than 15 versions of Windows, as well as Linux, Solaris, MS-DOS and many others.

Once you have configured your settings, you ‘power on’ your machine. You now have the equivalent of a new computer within your computer. Regardless of what operating system choice you made above, you still need to install that particular OS. This means that you need to own a legitimate license and CD or floppies to complete the installation. You may already have this around your house from a computer that has since moved on to the afterlife. The virtual computer will share your existing floppy drive or CD-ROM drive (and whatever other hardware devices you own) so you should have the ability to continue on installing your virtual computer.

So how does this work? The software emulates certain hardware aspects of your computer, for other devices it essentially provides a map or a translation guide. For a hard drive for example, it uses a portion of your existing hard drive to create the ‘virtual one’ but does so in a way that completely isolates it from the rest of your real system. This way, you can experiment and not have to worry about the consequences. It is even possible for your virtual computer to get a virus while your real computer remains clean. This is, in fact, how many of the anti-virus software protection companies analyze new strains of viruses to see what they do.

If you don’t have the budget for VMWare, or you own a Linux or Macintosh system, look into the open source project ‘Bochs’ (pronounced box). Bochs actually started out as just a CPU emulator and evolved into a complete ‘machine’ emulator. It allows you to run a ‘PC’ within your Macintosh for example, including installing Windows.

Download Bochs at http://www.bochs.sourceforge.net. It requires a slightly more advanced user but there are many people out there to help you get it going if this type of project interests you. Now there is no excuse to not run all kinds of interesting experiments using your computer. In fact, you might even say now you can do … virtually anything.

Article Copyright ©2005 by Syd Bolton. Original publication date: 8/13/2005.
Reproduction requires permission, please e-mail for more information.

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