Beginner’s Guide: What is a Virtual Machine?

Tips • August 5, 2023

virtual machine

Virtual machines offer a convenient way to run an operating system within an app window on your desktop, simulating a fully functional and separate computer. They enable users to explore different operating systems, use software that may not be compatible with their main system, and experiment with new apps in a safe, isolated environment.

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Understanding virtual machines

A Virtual Machine (VM) is a powerful compute resource that uses software to run programs and apps without the need for a physical computer. It operates as a process within a window on your current operating system. By booting an OS installer disc inside the VM, the OS is deceived into running as if on a real computer. You can access the virtual machine program to use the OS within a window on your desktop.

In the VM environment, your computer’s current OS is referred to as the host, while any OS running inside VMs are guests, ensuring clarity.

Types of virtual machines

Virtual machines come in two primary types: process VMs and system VMs.

Process VMs function by allowing a single process to run as an application on a host machine. They create a platform-independent programming environment by concealing the underlying hardware or operating system details. The Java Virtual Machine is a well-known example of a process VM, enabling Java applications to run seamlessly on any operating system.

On the other hand, system VMs are designed to fully virtualize and replace a physical machine. They facilitate the operation of multiple virtual machines, each with its own operating system copy, while efficiently sharing the physical resources of the host computer. This virtualization process relies on a hypervisor, such as VMware ESXi, either directly on bare hardware or on top of an existing operating system.

The problems virtual machines solve

Virtual machines provide effective solutions to various challenges. They allow organizations to increase server utilization by consolidating multiple applications onto a single server, thereby enhancing operational efficiency and cost reduction. Instead of having numerous underutilized servers, VMs enable multiple virtual environments on a single physical machine.

Moreover, virtual machines can minimize downtime caused by maintenance or updates. By updating a single application within a virtual machine, there’s no need to shut down the entire server, preventing disruptions to other applications running on it. This isolated environment can also prevent errors or breaches in one app from affecting others.

Additionally, virtual machines simplify the management and scaling of enterprise systems, making it easier to respond to new business objectives and optimize resource allocation, particularly when using cloud computing providers.

Benefits of virtual machines

In addition to the aforementioned advantages, virtual machines offer several benefits. They enhance security by isolating guest operating systems from the host, reducing the risk of malware and data breaches. Virtual machines also enable easy backup and recovery, allowing you to create snapshots of a VM’s state for testing or development purposes.

Practical tips for using virtual machines

  • Keep your virtual machines up to date with the latest software updates and security patches to ensure optimal performance and security.
  • Consider allocating appropriate resources (CPU, memory, storage) to each virtual machine to avoid resource constraints and optimize performance.
  • Regularly back up your virtual machines and create snapshots before making significant changes or updates.
  • Experiment with different network configurations to suit your needs, such as bridged, NAT, or host-only networking.
  • Utilize nested virtualization for testing or development purposes if your virtualization platform supports it.

Virtual Machines for Mac

For Mac users, there are numerous virtual machine software options available to run Windows or other operating systems on their devices. Among these, Parallels Desktop stands out due to its speed, easy installation, and support for M1/M2 Macs.

Alternatively, Apple’s Boot Camp, built into macOS, allows users to boot their Macs into another operating system at startup. This isn’t a virtualization solution, but rather a separate version of macOS or a copy of Windows 8, 8.1,10, or 11. However, it’s essential to note that Boot Camp is not compatible with Apple silicon Macs.

Final words

As you can see, virtual machines offer a cost-efficient and versatile solution suitable for a wide range of applications. They eliminate the need to invest in expensive hardware to provide server access, making them an ideal choice for testers, developers, gamers, and various other users. With VMs, we gain the flexibility to swiftly create and manage operating systems, hardware configurations, and environments as per our requirements, providing a powerful tool that adapts to our ever-changing computing needs.