Thursday, July 30, 2009

Aiki Computing II - Why Virtual?

Today I'd like to talk a bit about Virtual Machines. In case you don't know, a virtual machine is a programme that you can run under the big three OS flavours (Windows, Linux and Mac), which emulates a full computer. You can change the hardware, pick your OS, load and unload software, and treat it as you would a real, physical system.
There are many advantages to running virtual machines, and I'd like to list a few and describe how I have configured my own.
  1. Deal with Windows Rot - After awhile, if your virtual machine is getting too bogged down to accomplish anything in a decent period of time, you can just ditch the machine and easily reinstall your OS. (From an .iso image or physical disc. Yes, with a virtual machine, even your CDs and DVDs can be virtualized).
  2. Security - Because these machines are generally isolated from one another, it is unlikely that malware or viruses will be able to spread from one to the next. You could even be extreme enough to only run antivirus software on the machine that is going to be accessing the internet, and not bother running it on machines which will be completely self-contained.
  3. Ease of Backing Up - A virtual machine resides on your physical computer as either a single file or directory. It doesn't require any fancy equipment to copy this machine and move it from place to place.
  4. Ease of Upgrading/Migrating/Dealing with Catastrophes - If you've ever tried to upgrade the motherboard under Windows, or, heaven forbid, move to an entirely new computer but continue using your existing Windows installation (It happens CONSTANTLY in business when a machine dies... Nobody wants to reinstall all their apps and settings at work), you know that Windows is pathetically unable to cope with too many new components being in the mix from one boot to the next. Now you can simply get any machine you like off the shelf, install the virtual machine software, and copy the files from the old to the new. You're up and running in an hour or two instead of days.
With my current configuration, I run my physical computer with antivirus and two browsers. One for each monitor. I also run two virtual machines. My "business" machine is dedicated to my accounting software and a few smaller programmes which I run for strictly business related activities. I also run a "sandbox" machine which generally is used for editing home movies, but also gets pressed into service when I want to test out new or unfamiliar software which I'm not sure if I'm going to want to keep. Whenever the sandbox starts to get sluggish or disorganized, I can simply delete it and reinstall from a .iso.
To make things easier across those three machines, I have also networked them together so that they SHARE the My Documents folder. This is easily accomplished by right clicking on the folder, selecting "properties", selecting "move", and then choosing a directory where you want them all to reside (I would suggest the directory for the physical computer, or perhaps an external hard disc, to ensure constant availability).
Going forward, I actually can see myself relying LESS on virtual machines. This is a personal thing though, as I migrate more of my activities online, and come to rely on specialized desktop software less and less.
As well, I'm becoming a big fan of low powered computing. I adore the netbook concept, especially on a homestead where electrical power consumption needs to be carefully monitored and considered. Virtual machines run best when you can dedicate a computer with fairly strong specifications to them.
I strongly recommend trying them out if you are constantly installing and removing and upgrading your computer(s). Let me know if you find any new or unique reasons to go virtual!

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