Virtualization allows one operating system (OS) to run on another OS. But did you know that a Virtual Machine (VM) clone of your hard drive can put your entire computer inside of another computer? With VMs, the possibilities are endless. For most people, though, virtualization enables playing older games using emulation, the ability to sandbox, running multiple OSes, and much more (practical VM uses). You can even set up a Windows virtual machine in Linux.
This article covers how to create a VM clone of your system and how to use it once you’ve managed to create the virtual machine.
Creating a Virtual Machine Clone
Creating a VM clone is simple thanks to Microsoft’s Disk2VHD or CloneVDI. Disk2VHD creates a copy of your installed software that runs on software known as a virtual machine. A virtual machine fakes the environment of a physical computer. Think of it as a holodeck for software. Once created, the duplicated image can work on any hardware with a VM installed. While Disk2VHD creates a copy of your hard drive’s contents, it doesn’t function as a system backup.
The software requires very little space, works on Windows Vista and later, and doesn’t require installation (it’s a portable app). To create a virtual machine, simply unzip the archive and run the Disk2vhd.exe executable as an administrator. The easiest method to do this in Windows 10 is to open the Disk2vhd folder and right click on the Disk2vhd.exe file and select Run as administrator from the context menu.
In the Space Required column, Disk2VHD shows you the amount of hard disk space you will need to have in order to create the virtual hard disk from your computer’s partitions. The larger the partition, the longer the process takes. Furthermore, the process creates a complete copy of your system, so you need at least double the space required. For example, if your C:\ takes up 140 GB, you will need at least 140 GB of free space. Once ready, click on the Create button at the bottom of the interface. The process can take a long time, depending on your processor’s speed and the size of your installation.
It took my Acer Switch Alpha 12 around 10 minutes to create a VHD file. The example below is of a VHDX file, which is similar to a VHD file.
Note: The VHDX file format isn’t supported by all Virtual Machine software. You may want to uncheck that box if you aren’t sure if your software supports it. It’s located on the upper-right side of the interface.
After creating the VHD file, you can use a virtualization app to run it. Several VM programs exist, but my favorite is the open source VirtualBox (the MakeUseOf guide to VirtualBox). However, VMware’s Workstation Player doesn’t cost a dime and offers better functionality. For the purposes of instruction, however, I will use VirtualBox.
Running a Virtual Machine Image
There are two ways that you can access the contents of a VHD file. Windows, from Vista on, can directly explore within a VHD file by double-clicking on it (most of the time, see below). The second method, booting a VHD file from within a VM, though, requires a bit more effort — and it isn’t worth the effort to make the image bootable.
To get started browsing the files of a VHD, navigate to Disk Management in Control Panel. Disk Management’s name in the Windows Search Bar is Create and format hard disk partitions.
From within Disk Management, choose Action from the menu bar at the top. Then click on Attach VHD.
The next few steps are self-explanatory. However, it requires manually locating the VHD file you created with Disk2VHD. Unless you changed its default location, the VHD file gets created inside of the Disk2VHD folder. That’s more than likely inside of your Downloads directory.
Click on Browse and then navigate to the directory where you stored the VHD file. Select it and then click OK. The image will attach itself to your system and become available as a standalone disk. You can then browse it as you would an external drive.
Should You Create a VHD?
On the downside, once you’ve created a VHD of your hard drive, you can’t boot it from within a virtual machine, without tallying another activation on your Windows license. On the other hand, an image of your OS retains essential files that you can always restore in the event of a catastrophic data loss. Overall, though, I prefer creating an image using Macrium Reflect.
What’s your take on virtualization of a hard drive? Does anyone have a better tool?