For Starters: Virtualization - Part 1

Virtualization has been one of the most highly touted benefits of server hardware released over the past few years. The technology isn't just for big iron, though, and there's plenty of reasons to try it out on your own hardware.

Performance wise, hardware has been improving exponentially since, well, computing hardware has been around. At some point all of the extra computing performance has been sitting idly by waiting to be tapped by new and exciting technologies that offer benefits just too tempting to pass up.

Virtualization allows you to run multiple operating systems on the same PC hardware. It typically requires a pre-installed host OS to get going and can create "virtual playgrounds" for any added guest operating systems to live in. Typically you can select the type and amount of resources you want these added operating systems to take up, limiting any potential performance impact so your favored OS gets its fair share of resource time.

The benefits to virtualization aren't readily apparent until you take into account its ability to save specific OS states, allowing you to perform that very destructive testing you've always wanted to do on an operating system and roll back to a pristine state should something go south. Think of it as giving an OS plenty of extra lives.

While testing and debugging are certainly prime considerations, so is application compatibility. There are times when your new OS just won't play nicely with old software that you just can't live without or there are simply no alternatives for. Running a machine dedicated to the task of running the software is simple enough but running the software, or multiple legacy applications in its own sandbox on a single machine can save space and money in the long run.

Plenty of Competition

The virtualization space is certainly competitive, so much so that free copies of Microsoft and VMware's desktop focused software is freely available to thrash around in. And there are plenty of other virtualization applications to choose from. Some are more suited to specific tasks and levels of support vary greatly.

The software itself can run operating system images, which you will have to supply either by downloading one of the multitude of available images or creating your own. Rolling your own images gives you the added benefit of preloading software you'll want handy in specific virtual machine environments.

There are plenty of questions as to which operating system are allowed to run under a virtual machine. That's left up to the different licensing you agree to when running a specific OS, but generally, most consumer oriented operating systems are allowed to run in a virtualized environment as long as you hold a valid license.

The Contenders

While there are quite a few available, most of the focus lands on Microsoft and VMware's respective programs. The free look at their software is to entice you to take a look at their more robust server and management offerings, but they'll do nicely for a wide range of interesting functions.

VMware's Player has the bulk of fan fervor behind it. There are plenty of freely available OS images for perusal and download on their website, so getting yourself up and running in a perfectly legitimate manner is a cake walk. The software itself isn't capable of creating virtual machines, you'll have to step up to their server software or pay for their professional software in order to do that, so you're at the mercy of what's freely available.

Their "appliances" list is jam packed with software that's bound to excite (and sometimes frighten) you and is the perfect opportunity to try out another operating system without committing yourself to a full installation on your PC.

Microsoft's VirtualPC isn't as simple to get up and running, meaning you'll have to put some effort into getting yourself going but it's bound to be attractive to the Windows set. The company does offer some evaluation images but they're time limited for the most part so we'll be looking at how you can create your own images in the future.

This is an early look at what virtualization is and how it could benefit you. We'll have a further in-depth series on how to set up and deploy your own virtual machines and the common issues you'll run in to while attempting to get yourself up and running in this somewhat complex, but overall rewarding, solution.

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