Virtualization on the Desktop

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Virtualization has become convenient, practical and commonplace… even on the desktop.

Virtualization is a fascinating subject.  When the first computers (mainframes) were created it quickly became apparent that there was a need for multiple, distinct environments running on one hardware platform and so IBM invented virtualization (circa 1964).  For many years virtualization was only found in mainframes.  There were efforts to bring virtualization to the x86 platform but it wasn’t until 1999 (VMware Workstation) or 2001 (VMware GSX and ESX) that these technologies finally went mainstream.  This brought virtualization to much less costly platforms and ushered in a wave of IT change.

At first virtualization was about server consolidation and getting more out of existing hardware, typically high end x86 servers and core to the business.  The virtualization (and management) platform also had many other advantages, such as snapshots, easily “spinning up” machines and simplified management.  That is the focus of an entire industry and beyond our current scope.  Instead, we’ll discuss how this server technology has made its way to the desktop.

Virtualization on the Desktop (not to be confused with VDI or Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) is the ability to spin up a VM on a laptop or desktop machine.  The leading Desktop OS is Microsoft Windows and so we’ll focus on that space.

Virtualization on the desktop has been around for years with the two most common enablement platforms being VirtualBox and VMware Player (Workstation).  More recently Microsoft has brought Hyper-V to the Windows 10 platform, enhancing capabilities and support and making this a very viable option.   Note that all of these products are installed on top of the Windows OS, like an application.  Essentially you’re running an application, which supports one or more VM’s, on a desktop.

Microsoft Virtualization technologies began in 2003 with Windows Virtual PC, focused on servers.  With Windows Server 2008 Hyper-V was available (not bundled) and by Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V was integrated into the product.  Hyper-V on desktop Windows (Pro and Enterprise) has been around for quite some time.  In Windows 7 it was possible but difficult.  In Windows 8 it was a bit better and now, with current versions of Windows 10 it’s quite easy, very easy in fact.  There could be improvements with VM integration but there is work happening in that space and I certainly recommend the platform.

The underlying hardware has a significant role in Virtualization.  First, the processor – modern Intel processors have Virtualization Technology (VT) built in (AMD has similar capabilities).  This allows the CPU to facilitate virtualization and to quickly and securely switch between environments.  Memory is also a critical consideration.  Typically more is better.  Many installation articles say 4GB is enough but my experience is that 8GB is the bare minimum and 16GB would be advised if you would like to spin up multiple VMs.  Of course, you’ll need enough storage/disk space to house the VM’s as well.  I always recommend SSD’s, or other flash technology, for boot drives.  They’re inexpensive and provide significant performance advantages, particularly on a boot drive.

Installation is straight forward. You’ll need Windows 10 (Pro or Enterprise), a 64 bit processor, at least 8GB of RAM and 50-100GB of free disk space.  If not already done – enable VT in the BIOS.  In Windows 10 “Turn Windows Features on or off” – enable Hyper-V.  Reboot and you’re (almost) done.  Once rebooted, you can run “Hyper-V Manager” to create a VM and a Virtual Switch.  A quick web search will provide numerous articles to guide you through the process(s) to install a wide range of Operating Systems.

On my desktop, I’m running Linux (several versions) and I’m planning on loading Android (via Android-x86).  I’ve been very happy with the platform with no performance or stability issues.  As mentioned, integration of the OS with the underlying desktop could be better (file sharing, seamless mouse, cut and paste) but these are minor.  There is a Microsoft supported version of Linux to enhance this integration but it didn’t work well for me.

Virtualization on the desktop has gone main stream.  If you’re not using it already, I suggest you give it a try.  It provides a whole new level of capabilities, compatibility and functionality. I hope you enjoy it.

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