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Virtual Operating Systems

Suppose you want to try out a new Windows program but you don’t want to mess up your registry. Or suppose you need Windows XP to run a program, but you don’t want to install Windows XP on your computer. What if you want to leave absolutely no traces of your computer activity? Or maybe you want to use a program but aren’t sure if it has a virus.
There are a lot of uses for “sandboxing” operating systems or programs. Here are three free programs you can use to protect your computer.

Microsoft Virtual PC is an updated version of a product that was initially introduced by Connectix. Virtual PC is a program that runs virtual hard discs on your computer. You create a virtual hard disk, then you install an operating system just as if you were installing the operating system on your regular computer. Once the system installation is complete, you can open a window and run an operating system within your operating system. I routinely run Windows XP (and even Windows 98) from my Windows 7 machine. You can choose the amount of disc space and memory to allocate to the program in the preferences. If you don’t want to save the changes to your virtual system, then you can just make a menu choice when you shut down the program and any changes will be discarded.
Virtual PC is incorporated into Windows 7 Pro, but you can get almost the same functionality for no cost by downloading Virtual PC 2007.

Sun VirtualBox works in a manner similar to Virtual PC with a few differences. First, VirtualBox is open source software. Virtual PC is proprietary (although still free to use). VirtualBox runs on Windows, Linux, Macintosh, and Solaris where Virtual PC only runs on Windows machines. Virtual Box commits all changes to the virtual operating system when you exit the system – you don’t have the choice to abort the changes like you do with Virtual PC. I get around this shortfall by making more than one copy of my virtual disk image and saving the “originals” in a zipped folder so they don’t get corrupted. VirtualBox also allows you to install more operating systems than Virtual PC – including Windows, DOS, Solaris, and OpenBSD where Virtual PC is limited to installing Windows (it is still possible to install Linux systems on the Virtual PC platform).

Finally, Returnil Virtual System takes a little different approach to virtualization. Instead of creating a program window with a virtual system,Virtual System creates a clone of your current operating system and all of your activity takes place on this cloned system. If something happens and you want to erase the changes, you simply restart your computer and the system returns to the most recently-saved clone. Paid versions of Virtual System also allow you to save changes to your actual hard disk if you so choose. This system is a nice option if you want to see whether drivers will cause a problem with your current system configuration or if you want to try a program on your system without worrying about how the installation files will change your registry.

I have used all three of these programs and they all work well. As is shown in the screen grab above, I can run Windows 7 on my base computer, Linux Ubuntu on one program and Windows XP on another program – all at the same time.

All of the programs I have mentioned are available for free, although Virtual System also has several paid versions requiring yearly licensing fees from $29 to $39 per copy.

Disclosures: I get nothing from any of the companies for this post.

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  1. I’m running VirtualBox right now in fact with Ubuntu 10.04. For my ATLAS/CERN work I get the best of both worlds- I can code and google in XP while running and viewing results in linux.

    FYI though I advise against running Windows inside Windows. Unless you allocate (and have available) a ton of free resources, the virtual Windows will be slow as hell.

  2. Actually, VirtualBox supports disk snapshots, which can be used to save disk differences with a known-good image. When installing software you don’t trust, you can take a snapshot, install it, and either revert the changes since the snapshot was taken, or merge them with the known-good image. However i find that the interface is unclear, and have on occasion mistaken one of these options for the other…

    Oh, and when a snapshot is used, only the differences with that snapshot are saved to disk, so you don’t have to copy a multi-gigabyte disk image to test new software.

    But you’re right, it’s good software.

  3. Is it possible to go from 64 bit Windows 7 to 32 bit XP? I have some old 16 bit flow cytometry software that can run in a 32 bit environment but not 64 bit…

    • I know that Virtual PC has a 64 bit version, so answer is “yes.” Also, if you have Windows 7 Pro, an XP emulator is included – which amounts to a jazzed up version of Virtual PC 2007.

  4. There’s also a free version of vmware (vmware player) that keeps getting more of the features of workstation enabled.

  5. I use VMWare extensively, every day. The main issue is that these programs are giant memory hogs; for my setup I have 3 Windows Server VMs running at once, on top of the host system. Even w/ 4 Gig RAM i start to bog down, and with 8 gig its pretty good. Also, this is a very good case for a quad-core cpu. Bottom line, if you are going to run more than one VM, you really want to upgrade your cpu/memory.

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