What Is a Virtual Machine?
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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 What's Missing From Windows 8? What's Missing From Windows 8? Windows 8 has seen the removal of many features that have been key to Windows over the years, including the Start button, Start menu, and Windows Aero. We tend to focus on the new features... Read More 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.

virtual machine

Uses For Virtual Machines

Virtual machines have a number of popular uses:

microsoft virtual machine

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.

microsoft virtual machine

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.

virtual machine

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 Download & Test Run Every Linux OS You Want With Virtualboxes Download & Test Run Every Linux OS You Want With Virtualboxes For a long time, I've been curious about Linux operating systems. I've used Windows my whole life, so the idea of switching to another operating system is a pretty big deal. I think switching to... Read More  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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  1. Om
    July 22, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    You can play games too just install windows 10 in your system

    It worked for me with host ubuntu 14.04 lts

  2. Karl
    March 21, 2016 at 11:37 am

    You cannot play games in a virtual machine It would not do me any good

  3. Fazle Rabby
    May 9, 2015 at 9:54 am

    I want to know the main features of VM and VSE in operating system.

  4. Prem Kumar S
    December 9, 2012 at 3:20 am

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

  5. Matthew East
    November 17, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    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
      November 29, 2012 at 6:11 pm

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

  6. Raghav Gupta
    November 5, 2012 at 4:54 am

    Was looking for something like this from while. Great

  7. Raghav Gupta
    October 10, 2012 at 5:18 am

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

    • Chris Hoffman
      October 21, 2012 at 9:06 pm

      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.

    • Karl
      March 19, 2016 at 1:35 pm

      I do not like that you cannot play games in VM

  8. Darren Reynolds
    September 10, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    Great article thanks

  9. Declan Lopez
    August 16, 2012 at 12:01 am

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

  10. cari
    July 30, 2012 at 1:50 am

    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

    • M8
      November 1, 2016 at 5:39 pm

      Yes you can run mac software but only the ones that support intel processors.

    • M8
      November 1, 2016 at 5:39 pm

      Yes, you can run mac os x on it but only the ones that support intel processors.

  11. cari
    July 30, 2012 at 1:50 am

    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

  12. cari
    July 30, 2012 at 1:50 am

    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
      August 1, 2012 at 10:16 am

      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.

  13. Praveen Kumar
    July 28, 2012 at 7:32 am

    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
      August 1, 2012 at 10:16 am

      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.

  14. Keith Chipman
    July 20, 2012 at 3:40 pm

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

    July 20, 2012 at 8:05 am

    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
      July 20, 2012 at 8:26 am

      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.

    • Sean F
      February 8, 2017 at 3:34 am

      Come on man, you can't be serious!!! MacBook Pro's are and have been rated #1 in pretty much every category for the last 3 years, and for 10 years prior, they have been near if not at the top! They are amazing laptops and are very well made. And like James said, if you take care of it and clean it and maintain it, a MacBook Pro will last a lot longer than 4 yrs. Like James said, You bought a 4 year old used laptop and whoever had it before you obviously didn't take care of it. But you absolutely cannot sit there and say the entire MacBook Pro line I Shit!

  16. Pedro Oliva
    July 19, 2012 at 3:36 pm

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

  17. automan1
    July 19, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    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
      July 24, 2012 at 4:09 am

      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.

  18. Iliusha Akhotnikoff
    July 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Great , Thanks .

  19. ferdinan Sitohang
    July 19, 2012 at 4:28 am

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

    • Chris Hoffman
      July 24, 2012 at 4:08 am

      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
        July 24, 2012 at 4:35 am

        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?

  20. Matheus Pratta
    July 19, 2012 at 1:58 am

    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...

  21. illegal3alien
    July 19, 2012 at 1:39 am

    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.

  22. Ravuama
    July 19, 2012 at 1:07 am

    Virtual Box is too good

    • jamesbirtwistle
      July 23, 2012 at 11:11 am


  23. Rigoberto Garcia
    July 18, 2012 at 10:09 pm

    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
      July 24, 2012 at 4:10 am

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