What Is a Virtual Machine? [MakeUseOf Explains]

fun with vmware icon from flickr   What Is a Virtual Machine? [MakeUseOf Explains]Virtual machines allow you to run other operating systems within your current operating system – the operating systems will run as if they’re just another program on your computer. Virtual machines are ideal for testing out other operating systems – like the new Windows 8 or alternative Linux operating systems. You can also use virtual machines to run software on operating systems it wasn’t designed for – for example, you can run Windows programs on a Mac with a virtual machine.

Do you want to get started with virtual machines? You don’t have to pay anything – there are several great, free virtual machine programs.

What Is a Virtual Machine?

A virtual machine is a program that acts as a virtual computer. It runs on your current operating system – the “host” operating system – and provides virtual hardware to “guest” operating systems. The guest operating systems run in windows on your host operating system, just like any other program on your computer. The guest operating system runs normally, as if it were running on a physical computer – from the guest operating system’s perspective, the virtual machine appears to be a real, physical computer.

Virtual machines provide their own virtual hardware, including a virtual CPU, memory, hard drive, network interface, and other devices. The virtual hardware devices provided by the virtual machine are mapped to real hardware on your physical machine. For example, a virtual machine’s virtual hard disk is stored in a file located on your hard drive.

You can have several virtual machines installed on your system; you’re only limited by the amount of storage you have available for them. Once you’ve installed several operating systems, you can open your virtual machine program and choose which virtual machine you want to boot – the guest operating system starts up and runs in a window on your host operating system, although you can also run it in full-screen mode.

vmware player virtual machines   What Is a Virtual Machine? [MakeUseOf Explains]

Uses For Virtual Machines

Virtual machines have a number of popular uses:

ubuntu on windows with vmware player   What Is a Virtual Machine? [MakeUseOf Explains]

  • Use software requiring an outdated operating system: If you’ve got an important application that only runs on Windows XP, you can install XP in a virtual machine and run the application in the virtual machine. The virtual machine is actually running Windows XP, so compatibility shouldn’t be a problem. This allows you to use an application that only works with Windows XP without actually installing Windows XP on your computer – especially important considering many new laptops and other hardware may not fully support Windows XP.
  • Run software designed for another operating systems: Mac and Linux users can run Windows in a virtual machine to run Windows software on their computers without the compatibility headaches of Wine and Crossover. Unfortunately, games can be a problem – virtual machine programs introduce overhead and no virtual machine application will allow you to run the latest 3D games in a virtual machine. Some 3D effects are supported, but 3D graphics are the least well supported thing you can do in a virtual machine.
  • Test software on multiple platforms: If you need to test whether an application works on multiple operating systems – or just different versions of Windows – you can install each in a virtual machine instead of keeping separate computers around for each.
  • Consolidate servers: For businesses running multiple servers, existing servers can be placed into virtual machines and run on a single computer. Each virtual machine is an isolated container, so this doesn’t introduce the security headaches involved with running different servers on the same operating system. The virtual machines can also be moved between physical servers.

Recommended Virtual Machine Software

VirtualBox is a great, open-source application that runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. One of the best things about VirtualBox is that there’s no commercial version – you get all the features for free, including advanced features like “snapshots,” which allow you to take a snapshot of a virtual machine’s state and revert to that state in the future – a great feature for testing.

virtualboxes1   What Is a Virtual Machine? [MakeUseOf Explains]

VMware Player is another high-quality virtual machine program for Windows and Linux. VMware Player is the free counterpart to VMware Workstation, a commercial application, so you don’t get all the advanced features you would with VirtualBox. However, both VirtualBox and VMware Player are solid programs that offer the basic features – creating and running virtual machines – for free. If one of them doesn’t work quite right, try the other.

vmware player library2   What Is a Virtual Machine? [MakeUseOf Explains]

To install an operating system in a virtual machine, you’ll need the operating system’s installer disc – perhaps a Windows installation disc you have lying around. You can also use an ISO image file – Linux distributions usually provide downloadable ISO files you can use. Virtual machine programs offer easy-to-use wizards that walk you through the process of creating a virtual machine and installing a guest operating system.

You can also take a shortcut and download pre-created virtual machines, where a person has already installed the operating system in a virtual machine – all you have to do is load the virtual machine in your virtual machine program and start it up. For a variety of free, already created virtual machine images, check out the VirtualBoxes website.

For more information on getting started with virtual machines in VirtualBox, download our free VirtualBox guide. If you’re looking for a Linux distribution to try, check out our list of the best Linux distributions.

What do you use a virtual machine for ? Leave a comment and let us know.

Image Credit: Bill Bradford on Flickr

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Rigoberto Garcia

Great article Chris. We had to install virtual machines on some of our customers to run specific software using the Windows virtual machine with excellent results. The only limitation is the need to add more RAM to the Host computer to prevent slowdowns. It also has slight disadvantages when handled remotely.

Chris Hoffman

RAM is definitely key for running virtual machines. They’re very memory-hungry.


Virtual Box is too good




With a lot of RAM you can also setup an experiment/test network with a server and clients to test deployment of software and policies before launching them on a production network.

Matheus Pratta

Great tips on this article!
I’ve been using Virtual Machines on the last months so I could test my websites across different plataforms and their browsers, so I knew everything worked fine…

ferdinan Sitohang

VmWare is the best one for virtual Machine. I also have used Virtual Box before, but still back to VmWare, Nice Article.

Chris Hoffman

I personally prefer VMware Player, too. Performance and compatibility with Linux distributions seems more solid, but I haven’t tried VirtualBox in a while. I don’t really need the “snapshots” feature or other such things.

ferdinan Sitohang

I agree with you. When it feels comfort with all the vmware features, we don’t need other. But sometimes need personally review other competitor product right?

Iliusha Akhotnikoff

Great , Thanks .


Heard of these for years but never tried one. I do however have an old weather station windows program that worked in wine under Mandrake but quit working in later editions. Still works in Windows though. Might try a VM in linux with a Windows installation and see if it works. Would be interesting to say the least if it does.

Chris Hoffman

Virtual machines are really the best way to run Windows software on Linux. It’s more guaranteed stable than Wine. Games (particularly newer ones) generally don’t work, but desktop software should work fine.

Pedro Oliva

i have installed vbox in my ubuntu :) (virtualising any WindowsOS)


I want to state my mind on some issues i just faced i bought an apple macbook pro around april but i have been plagued with one problem or the other,my macbook pro 3,1 screen just goes black and never turn back on untill try i repeatedly for days before it can come up just yesterday it does not come up again making me believe the hard disk is dead but what about the screen

James Bruce

You bought a 4 year old used laptop and it has problems? Did you consider maybe you bought a broken one from someone who scammed you, and that it isnt in fact representative of Macbook Pros as a whole?

For what it’s worth, my 5 year old MacBook Pro 2,1 has no problems whatsoever. That was bought used at the time, too.

Keith Chipman

Great article, I have been looking for a virtual environment for a while and will give Virtualbox a try.

Praveen Kumar

I Use Oracle VM…… and its really nice to have such a Virtual Machine….. I use to try new OS and Softwares….. And Importantly we can save our secret files and folders in it…. :P ;)…. Try this….. Nice Post Also… Thanks

Chris Hoffman

That’s a good point. Virtual machines can be a clever way to run secret software and store files isolated from the rest of your machine.


Can I run a Mac only software in a virtual machine?

I have a problem I wan to use ibook author but I do not have a mac. I am saving for it but I wonder after reading your article, is it possible to install and run this software in a virtual machine?

Thanks in advance for your answers

Chris Hoffman

You kind of can — but it’s against the Mac OS X license agreement and it’s a lot of work to get it working. If you Google, you can probably find some instructions.

You probably wouldn’t see very good performance, either. Apple doesn’t really want people doing this.


Can I run a Mac only software in a virtual machine?

I have a problem I wan to use ibook author but I do not have a mac. I am saving for it but I wonder after reading your article, is it possible to install and run this software in a virtual machine?

Thanks in advance for your answers


Can I run a Mac only software in a virtual machine?

I have a problem I wan to use ibook author but I do not have a mac. I am saving for it but I wonder after reading your article, is it possible to install and run this software in a virtual machine?

Thanks in advance for your answers

Declan Lopez

VirtualBox is awesome, I have been using it for a while now and haven’t had any problems.

Darren Reynolds

Great article thanks

Raghav Gupta

Can I get a virtual machine for free?? If yes please name some

Chris Hoffman

VirtualBox and VMWare Player are both free. If you mean the operating systems that run in virtual machine, there are a lot you can get for free — Ubuntu and most other versions of Linux and Chrome OS come to mind. You could get Windows 8 for free, but I think that’s about ending with the final release. If you have any Windows CDs lying around, you can install them in a virtual machine.

Raghav Gupta

Was looking for something like this from while. Great

Matthew East

I like using virtual machines to do cool stuff, like run the Ubuntu Customization Kit(UCK) and make my own spinoff of Ubuntu while working on a paper using MS Word at the same time :D

Chris Hoffman

Geeky! (Writing it in LaTeX would be geekier, though.)

Prem Kumar S

Had tried only Oracle Virtual Box…………..Need to check out VMware