Virtualization on PC, Explained for Beginners with Practical Use Cases

Virtualization on PC, Explained for Beginners

This guide is designed specifically for home users who want to try virtualization on their PC. We’ll take a detailed look at the different types of virtualization as well as the benefits of it.

If you need to run more than one operating system on your laptop or PC there are several ways to do it. You’ve probably heard the terms “virtualization” and “virtual machine” before, but do you actually know what that is?

What is Virtualization and How Does it Work

Virtualization uses software to create an abstraction layer over computer hardware that allows the hardware elements of a single computer such as processors, memory, storage and more, to be divided into multiple virtual computers, commonly called virtual machines (VMs). This allows you to maximize capacity on a physical machine and reduce the number of machines you need. In short, the virtualization concept can be simply considered as one computer within another.

virtual machine is a solution designed to provide all of the functionality of a physical computer in a totally software-based virtual environment. It is an operating system that emulates a computer system. Virtual machines are based on computer architectures, providing the same functionality as a physical computer.

Related: What is Docker Container: An Introductory Guide for Beginners

You could have, for example, a PC with 16GB of RAM installed, and a Linux operating system. If you want to run programs requiring Windows instead, you could create a virtual machine running Windows, and then use a hypervisor to manage its resources – for example, allocating it 8GB of RAM. Some of the resources of the host machine would be running the Linux, and some would be allocated to the virtual machine running Windows.

The virtualization process is based on hypervisors, software that divides up physical resources so virtual machines can use them. In other words, a hypervisor is software that creates and runs virtual machines. There are two classes of hypervisors:

  • Bare metal (Type 1) hypervisors that act as an operating system because they run guest virtual machines directly on a system’s hardware. A Type-1 Hypervisor means that it has direct access to the hardware. VMware vSphere, Xen, and Microsoft Hyper-V are some examples for Type 1 hypervisors.
  • Hosted (Type 2) hypervisors run on top of the operating system of the physical host machine and act more like traditional programs that can be started or stopped as needed. VirtualBox, VMware Workstation Player, and Parallel Desktop for Mac are some examples for Type 2 hypervisors.
Virtualization on PC Type 1 and Type 2 Hypervisors

While bare metal hypervisors run directly on the computing hardware, hosted hypervisors run on top of the operating system of the host machine.

Benefits of Virtualization on PC

1. A Safe Way to Try New Operating Systems

VMs offer a number of serious uses. Because the software is separate from the physical host computer, users can run multiple OS instances on a single piece of hardware. VMs allow you to experiment with another OS with very little risk, without having to install it on your physical hardware.

For example, VMs are a great way to mess around with a new Linux distribution and see if it feels right for you. When you’re done playing with an OS, you can just delete the VM.

The virtual machine’s primary advantage is that it provides an isolated environment for an operating system. No matter what you do, you can rest assured that the host OS and the guest OS are entirely separate.

2. Run Old or Incompatible Software

You want to try out some new software, but would rather not chance it mucking up the decent system you’ve got right now? Got an application that won’t play nice in Windows 10 or 11, but works fine in Windows 7? Just grab an old Windows CD and install it within a virtual machine. Then install your app.

A virtual machine gives you the ability to run another operating system’s software. For example, a Mac user could install Linux or Windows in their VM and run applications they might not otherwise have access to. VMs allow multisystem applications to run at the same time, in the same place, without overhead.

3. Cost Savings

In virtualization,  you will convert multiple physical machines into virtual machines, and all virtual machines will be hosted on a single physical machine. This will reduce your requirement of purchasing multiple hardware resources.

Free Virtualization Software for PC

Virtual machines have become an important part of computing and especially for cloud computing. However, virtualization is something also available to home users as well.

For personal use, virtualization enables users to run different operating systems on their home PC. For example, running Windows on a Linux PC, or Windows on a Mac – and vice versa.

The computer’s operating system that runs the virtualization software is commonly referred to as the host. The secondary operating system that runs as the VM is often called the guest.

Here are some of the most reliable and free virtual machine applications which you can use for virtualization on your home PC.

VirtualBox

VirtualBox is a virtualization product from Oracle, capable of running on most platforms including Windows, Linux and Mac. It is free and open source, which is always a plus. If you are new to virtualization, then your best choice of using a virtual machine for the first time is definitely VirtualBox.

One of the best aspects of using VirtualBox is its portability that allows you to transfer a virtual machine from one host to another, regardless of the operating systems. 

VMware Workstation Player

VMware Workstation Player for Windows or Linux is free of charge if you use it for personal purposes. With almost 20 years on the market, VMware Workstation is often considered the industry standard for virtual machine applications.

VMware Workstation Player can only be installed on Windows and Linux machines, but VMware offers VMware Fusion for Mac as an alternative. Like VirtualBox, VMware Workstation Playere is a hosted hypervisor, and is installed on the operating system and used like an application.

KVM

KVM (Kernel-based Virtual Machine) is part of Linux. It is a virtualization module in the Linux kernel that allows the kernel to function as a hypervisor. KVM lets you turn Linux into a hypervisor that allows a host machine to run multiple, isolated virtual machines.

KVM is a unique hypervisor. It is mostly classified as a Type 1 hypervisor, which turns the Linux kernel into a “bare metal” hypervisor. At the same time, the overall system is categorized as a Type 2 hypervisor due to the full functional Operating System used.

Enabling Virtualization on PC BIOS Settings

Generally, virtualization must be enabled in the BIOS/UEFI for VM (virtual machine) software to work.

While most recent PCs support hardware virtualization, not all computer vendors enable this feature as shipped from the factory. To turn this feature on, try these instructions:

  • Reboot your computer
  • Right when the computer is coming up from the black screen, press DeleteEscF1F2, F10 or F12. Each computer manufacturer uses a different key but it may show a brief message at boot telling you which one to press. If you are not able to enter the BIOS via this method, consult your computer’s manual.
  • In the BIOS settings, find the configuration items related to the CPU.
  • Enable virtualization: the setting may be called Intel VT, VT-xAMD-VSVM, or just virtualization. Enable if the options are available.
  • Save your changes and reboot.

Check if Your PC Supports Virtualization

On Linux to check whether your CPU supports hardware virtualization, you need to open a terminal window and type:

egrep -q 'vmx|svm' /proc/cpuinfo && echo yes || echo no

On Windows, right-click on Taskbar and select Task Manager from the context menu. In the Task Manager window, click on the Performance tab. On the right side, find the Virtualization option. If its shows ‘Enabled‘, then it means Virtualization is enabled on your system.

Check if CPU supports virtualization on Windows

Conclusion

There’s something refreshing about installing a new operating system onto a computer. The benefit of a virtual machine is that you can try out a new OS without affecting your files. Virtual machines are often used for running software on operating systems that software wasn’t originally intended for. They are an easy, free way to try another operating system, or use those one or two apps you can’t get on yours.

What we hope you get out of this article is that virtualization is not just for the data centers or large enterprise organization, but also for home users.

Feel free to drop your questions and suggestions in the comments, and we’ll update the post as the good stuff trickles in.

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