For Starters: Virtualization - Part 2

While virtualization has had a large impact on the way people work, its been largely limited to servers and the tech guru in the back office with an insatiable appetite for the latest technologies. Now, with Microsoft's Virtual PC 2007, mere mortals can tinker.

Missed Part 1? Click here.

The bulk of this series will be focusing on the two major virtual machine (VM) choices available to the Microsoft Windows platform. There are, of course, plenty of other virtualization options for your favorite alternate operating systems.

Parallels might be your first stop if you're a Mac OS X user. The company's Parallels Desktop for Mac is about the most popular VM solution on the platform. They also offer a range of virtualization software for Windows and Linux, which you'll have to pay to play with, and supports the development of the open-source OpenVZ project.

Window Dressing

As interesting as the Virtual PC 2007 images Microsoft freely offers are, you're not going to get very far with a few time-limited demonstrations. You're going to want to roll your own images for the myriad of things you want to explore, such as really destructive testing and debugging.

Luckily Microsoft makes it a somewhat simple procedure to create your own images, provided of course that you have valid copies of the operating systems they support under Virtual PC so have those CDs or MSDN ISOs handy as well as your product keys.

The software gives you some leeway when setting up your new OS images. There's the fine tuning route, which is sensible if you want to limit the application's impact on your system's resources, specifically where storage space and memory usage come into play.

It all starts off easily enough by hitting the New button, which prompts you with a trio of selections. The easy route begins with the "Create a virtual machine" option and is what will be covered from here on out, but it's worth noting that settings for any virtual machine created can be changed at a later date.

Choosing a name and location is clearly a user preference, as is where to save your settings for the VM. Your only major choice is a simple one, which specific OS to install. The operating systems Virtual PC can support are on this drop down list, there are minor differences with each OS choice, mostly limited to memory and virtual disk space allocation.

Once that's all squared away you'll note a new entry in your Virtual PC Console. Selecting the entry and hitting the start button begins the process of creating your very own VM image. Since you're unlikely to have a boot server from where to pull the OS here's where hitting the escape key to exit the PXE boot agent comes in handy.

The following screen is where you'd want to have your OS installation media handy. Insert your disc into your optical drive, and after a few seconds hitting any key on your keyboard, it should start the install process for your operating system. If you should encounter any problems with the software recognizing your disc, a simple right click of the CD icon on the Virtual PC window and using the release/use options should get things going smoothly. That same icon serves a purpose for those with ISO images of their OS. Simply select "Capture ISO Image" and point it to your file. Things should go smoothly from there.

A Clean Slate

The usual OS install process should now be occurring, and once completed, you have yourself your very own OS image which you'll be able to archive and store away in case of disaster. This is where the benefits of virtualization can be reaped. Having a legacy operating system or two running on your PC is valuable from a backward compatibility standpoint, but there's also the very handy testing aspect to consider.

The VM image you've created can be loaded with all of your favorite applications and saved to a baseline image you can store away for a rather disastrous day. Quitting out of a VM session automatically saves these "system changes" for you, so you won't have to spend hours getting your image back to its previous shape.

To make things even easier, you have the option of enabling an "Undo disk" on any virtual machine you've created. This gives you the ability to test to destruction on your finely-honed OS image and reverting back to its initial state before all of your tinkering made everything go haywire.

Overall, you may encounter a few confounding steps but nothing entirely too difficult to grasp with Microsoft's Virtual PC 2007. More readily available VM images would be nice but given that the software only supports their commercial operating systems, it's easy to forgive them for not giving images away. It's a powerful (and free) tool but it's also up against some stiff competition.

Keep an eye out for more on this series covering virtualization basics.

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