Virtual Machine Solutions

Started by Donald Darden, October 26, 2007, 11:54:58 PM

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Donald Darden

A Virtual Machine is a type of shell that your host operating system can run that will create an artificial environment in which another operating system can be installed, loaded, and run.  The OS inside the artificial environment then becomes impervious and invisible to the outside world.  IT creates a safe haven, but it also isolates your VM operating system and applications from the actual hardware to a large extent.  So it can be a good thing and a bad thing, depending upon what impact this has on the applications you want to use.

There are a number of different VM products currently available, some free, and some for pay.  Here we hope to look at some of them, evaluate them, play with them, and deal with issues related to installing and using them.

To find out what is available, just use an internet search engine, such as Google, and look for Virtual Machine.  If you have a particular host OS in mind, such as running it on Windows or some version of Linux, you can include additional search terms to try and narrow your search down further.  Add the
word Free if you are opposed to spending money for something of this nature.

Of course nearly every commercial version offers a free trial period on their product, something like a 30 day trial period is likely.  The bait is that once you try, you will likely buy.  But I would suggest that you consider several choices rather than just immediately going for the no cost or most expensive versions,
because one may not have enough features to suit you, and the other can be overkill for your needs.

The most expensive version I know of at present is VMWare Workstation 6,
which some think is the tolp dog, and others say is overkill.  The price is around $190 for a single license.  There are also server versions, which though more
expensive, allow you to distribute the benefits among multiple PCs.  You can find comparison charts for some of the major releases, which can help you identify competing products and make some preliminary judgement calls as to which you choose to try.

Note that running additional software on a PC will slow it down further.  And here you are considering running a host OS, VM, another OS, and then a hosted (or guest) application inside the second OS.  The surprising thing is that it does work, but it can make a real dog out of a moderately configured PC.
There are no absolute rules as to processor speed and amount of memory needed, but figure that double what you have now will probably give you about the same performance you are use to. (or that by not upgrading, you get only half your current performance).  But the real killer would be to not have enough RAM to support your efforts, because then your system will be forced to rely on Virtual Memory, which means a lot of reads and writes to your hard drive, which is exceedingly s-l-o-w.

In fact, many people who see their computers apparently locking up on them do not realize that it is still working, but it has been overloaded to the point where it will now take forever before it can catch up with the tasks given it, because using Virtual Memory slows down performance to a snail pace.  And as they keep punching keys and clicking the mouse, the process tree becomes hopelessly ensnarled.  The only cures are to either do less or get more RAM, and a speedier processor does not hurt either.

In a virtual environment, you have the same keyboard, mouse, and monitor.
Obviously life becomes a bit more challenging as you learn to cope by using the keyboard and mouse to switch back and forth from one thing to another.  There is an alternative, which is to have multiple PCs, each with its own OS and applications, and switch between them with a KVM switch that will simultaneously move the keyboard, mouse, and monitor from one to the next.
The problem is that to share files, you will probably have to network the PCs and share resources between them.

But how is this different from running VM software on one PC, different OSes,
then trying to share files between different applications there?  Again, the proposed solution is to network between the different OSes, only now it would be a virtual network connection, but appear as though a real one (the guest OS uses the virtual network to communicate with the real world internet via the host anyway).

In other words, using VM tends to make life more complicated, but it does reduce PC count, and conserve some power in the process.  So why do it?  That is a good question.  Because we can?  Because it works?  Or because it is expected of us?  Sometimes we have to look at our role in the outside world, and decide that we need to just to be prepared, or able to do it for someone else.

The best reason for VM is that secure cocoon that the guest OS and applications are wrapped in.  Not only are the protected from the outside world, but the host is likewise protected from any harm that the guest might attempt against the host.  It's a good method of screening software that could be harmful, but it does not ensure that the software is not dangerour is run outright on the host.  You would need a really sophisticated VM to detect threats that would target the host if run in the native environment.

Donald Darden

Trying to understand the current state of Virtual Machine development is rather like being in a swimming pool full of confetti, and trying to find all the little bits of paper that once made up a document.  Instead of finding our much for sure, you end up mostly with impressions, based on the things other people say, and the assumptions they seem to be working from.

First, the majority of efforts seem to be using Windows as the host system.  O myself used Windows 2000 Pro and VMware Server in my first effort.  That went reasonably well, but I wanted to explore the alternative of using a Linux distribution as the host system, then running Windows on top of that as a VE (Virtual Environment).

And that has proved to be more difficult.  The VMWare Server 1.0.4 software that is offered for free at is outmoded now, and while I succeeded in installing it by using alien -d -c on the RPM package I downloaded, the program stated that it would not work with the newer 2.8.19 linux kernel that came with Knoppix 5.1.1.  More research for what is available for the Knoppix release pretty much deadended - while acknowledging that the Knoppix LiveCD is a great way to get initial exposure to Linux, it is considered too kludgy to be successfully installed to hard drive, updated, and maintained.  I do not fully agree, but lack the expertise to get around some of the issues that come up.

Now you might wonder why I would rather have a Linux distribution as my host OS rather than stick to Windows?  Well, aside from the minor fact that Linux is a leaner OS and reportedly should prove more adept in that role, you might consider the fact that Windows is the greater target with hackers, and under constant threat for malware.  The same might hold true for Linux, but to a far lesser extent.

Since the host system will still be exposed to outside attack, not secured in its own virtual machine environment, it would make sence to me to opt for using Linux rather than Windows for this important role.  At least that is the conclusion I reached.

But it turns out to be not an easy thing to accomplish.  Oh, if you chose your Linux distribution with the intention of installing VM, or getting it with the VM software already installed, that would be one thing.  But adding VM to an existing install of Linux is problematic.  First, the few prebuilt packages are restrictive, and you may not have a compatible distribution.  Second, the VMware Server 1.0.4 source code seems to be outdated - not kept up with in terms of continued Linux development.

But while exploring, I found out a bit about OpenVZ, which is an open source approach at providing VM support for Linux.  In fact, the Debian community is supposedly using OpenVZ in the unstable version since 2.6.20.  So at some point in the future, possibly the near future, OpenVZ may migrate into the testing, then the stable releases.

That does not mean that you cannot get it, but it does suggest that a way to go before it will be mainstream, at least for the Debian community.  However, by focusing on Red Hat or Fedora, among others, or stepping off the deep end and trying to work from the source code or the RPM oackage, you might succeed in getting it done now.  The only problem is, the lack of available support if you get into trouble.

One of the difficulties I've encountered is finding something like a repository of  source files, then not knowing which one(s) I need or what to do with them next.  There is still a lot to understand, which again is a major strike against any expectation that Linux is ready to go mainstream.   

Donald Darden

A couple of other impressions.  First, the Knoppix LiveCD with OpenVZ installed is slightly buggy, one bug preventing it from being installable to hard drive.  No mention of a fix for that yet.  Second, the version 5.2 that was released was a limited distribution primarily for potential developers that supported some eye candy more than any other real benefit.  It isn't likely to go mainstream.

It appears that OpenVZ (sometimes mentioned as ovz) is already stable for a couple of Red Hat distributions - not too surprising, since Red Had has resources to put into its distribution that might lead to faster deployment.  But of course it is a for pay product as well.  But that would possibly explain why the RPM packages can be found, and the Debian world is somewhat lagging at this point.  For more information, try searching for openvz project, as I got some good results with that. 

Donald Darden

I am mostly interested in VM solutions that rely on Linux to serve as the host OS.  However, other people may prefer Windows or MacOS, or some other OS to be the host environment. It's all fair game, and most posts that I've found seem to be from people using VM software on top of XP.

But for my purposes, I have looked briefly at VMWare, OpenVZ, kvm, and now I've read a post on these forums about VirtualBox, which is found at  VMWare was not available for a Debian distribution, and efforts to install it failed on my PC.  I now have kvm in place, but am presently stymied when it comes to installing any virtual OSes.

I'm actually a bit frustrated at this point, because I have two defective CD and DVD drives in my PC, and just got replacements this week that I ordered online.  But I have to bet a bulletin published first, before I can chance taking my PC apart. so everything is on hold.

Feel free to post any successes on these forums, and to identify other candidate VM packages that can be played with.

Donald Darden

I am currently using virtualbox.ose on Ubuntu 7.10, and have successfully installed Windows 2000 Pro as a guest OS on top of it.  My trials and success have been reported elsewhere on these forums.  I've also seen posts where others have been able to use this package on different Linux distributions.  Note that VirtualBox.ose is presently a 32 bit package (will install and run on 64 bit machines in 32 bit mode),
whereas VMWare is now only offered for 64 bit machines.  So it is the better choice for anyone with older PCs.  I currently have only 1GB of RAM, and it still works well, but may suffer if I load and run additional apps at the same time.


Currently I use this:
for obfuscation of critical sections of code.

It works really well.

Donald Darden

The Virtual Disk Image (VDI) that you can create with VirtualBox can be sized to meet most needs.  The default is 4GB in size, but you can adjust that size to meet other requirements.  Once you create a VDI, and install an OS and various applications, you have achieved a result that takes time and some expertise to realize.  So potentially, your efforts have value.

In stumbling around in search of various postings, I encountered VeeDee-Eye, which is another way of referring to VDI files.  It turns out that people are already exchanging VDI files, but using the VeeDee-Eye term in order to be more effective in singling them out.  In fact, Sun Microsystems, which has procured the company that created VirtualBox, has a web site called, which promotes the distribution of prebuilt images that fall into the open source category.  You can download these with a torrent client.

However, another reason for looking into getting a VDI for a particular open source distribution that you are interested in, is that the problem with figuring out how to run the Virtual Additions, which make for a better computing experience, may be resolved for you,  So an easier, faster, and better experience, and you can collect and archive different VDIs while you make up your mind whether to switch to any one, or just stick with what you've got.

This means that if you get VirtualBox and install it on top of your current OS, you can download various prebuilt distributions with applications and run them as-is, without having to set aside a partiton, format it, or deal with the restraints of running with a live image off of a CD drive.  If you decide not to keep the image, you just delete it,  You can have several VDIs on your machine and use them interchangeably, and you are able to modify and update them as if they are actually installed on your machine, something that is rather beyond the means when dealing with live CDs.

I rather expect that the name VeeDee-Eye will become generic, and can be used to search for other created VDIs, and not just the ones being put together by Sun Microsystems.  And as I pointed out before, VDIs can be created that make use of proprietary software, and that could me legal issues when it comes to their distribution.  It also means that VeeDee-Eyes and the use of torrent would make these a natural to migrate or originate on pirate or hacker sites. 

I've chanced on such sites from time to time, and even though I work at keeping my PC clean of infections, a visit to one of these sites might lead to instant infection by viruses, spyware, rootkits, and all manner of damaging software.  In fact, it has been so bad at times that the only safe course was to restore my PC from an archive.  So in talking about the possible future abuse of VeeDee-Eyes, I want to make the point that if you are lead to such sites, you may get more than you bargained for by just going there.

Donald Darden

I just visited the web site, and extracted a list of the available VDI downloads that you can get there at this time.  Here is the list:
    sidux-2007-04.5 VDI
    CentOS 5 (KDE) VDI
    DreamLinux 3.0-REL1 VDI
    gOS 2.0.0 beta-1 VDI
    Freespire 2.0.3 VDI 3D 098.01 VDI
    SimplyMEPIS 7.0 rel VDI
    Ubuntu 7.10 VDI (Desktop)
    CentOS 5 VDI Gnome
    gobuntu 7.10 VDI
    aLinux OS 12.8 VDI
    Linux XP Desktop VDI
    Syllable Desktop 0.6.5 i386 VDI
    OpenGEU 7.10 desktop-i386 VDI (Desktop)
    Nexenta Core Platform 1.0 RC1
    Mandriva Linux 2008 GNOME VDI
    Linux Mint 4.0 VDI
    Slackware-12.0 VDI (Full)
    X/OS Linux 5.1 i386 VDI (Office)
    kubuntu 7.10 VDI (desktop)
    debian 40r2 i386 VDI (Desktop)
    FreeDOS Base
    PCLinuxOS 2007 VDI
    fluxbuntu 7.10 i386 VDI
    ReactOS 0.3.3 REL VDI
    Ubuntu 7.10 LAMP Server VDI
    SimplyMEPIS 6.5
    Xubuntu 7.10
    Fedora 8 (Desktop) VDI
    openSUSE 10.3 GM Gnome i386 VDI
    Ubuntu 6.06.2 LTS LAMP Server
    ShiftLinux Gnome-0.6.2 VDI

I would say that this is either a serious effort by Sun Microsystems to get VirtualBox wide play, or somebody at Sun is getting carried away with the fun
of installing Linux distros in the virtual mode and creating these images.  The good news is, that you can simply buy DVDs with the VDI on it for just $3.99
for each distro.  That would help anyone who is still struggling with making do on a dialup, but getting updates would still be challenging.

In my opinion, VM represents a real leap forward.  For instance, suppose you could go buy Windows XP or Vista to install on a PC.  You go though an install process where you have to make decisions about where to put it, what file system to use, whether to repartition your hard drive (and Windows install does not include a partitioner), and at least one reboot, then you have to configure for your region, keyboard, network, possibly have to acquire some drivers and install them, more reboots, and then the long process with fetching updates and service packs, downloading them, installing them, and more reboots.  And you have to configure for automatic updates.  Hours later you are still faced with the taks of installing Office and other applications and updating them as well.

But VM means you can download a file, start up VirtualBox (on Windows, Mac, or Linux), create a new instance, tell it what virtual devices to access, then add the downloaded VDI and boot right into it.  Whatever the VDI contains is already  in place.  If updates are necessary, and you are configured to check for this, you can probably take a coffee break while your distribution takes care of this.

No major decisions about repartitioning your drives, or worry about drivers, The pain of installing a new OS has largely been eliminated.  And the result can be either temporary or permanent, whichever you choose.  You also gain instant compatibility across a variety of platforms.

Donald Darden

Looking at the website a bit more, it appears that it is set up as a portal for targeting VDI distributions that are actually downloaded from other sites.  The only problem is, that some of these sites are not quite a free as they appear to be.

For instance, you might be required to get a free passport in order to download a file.  But your limit on that passport might be 250 MB, after which you have to get another free passport.  Or there may be a time constraint before you can initiate another download session.  For a typical Linux distribution, you may have to secure  four or five, even more extensions on your passport.  However, for some fee, perhaps $26 for 6 months, you can have unlimited download privileges.

Trouble is, a price like that is pretty stiff, unless the download is something that you just have to have, or you can find enough interesting downloads to spread the costs and make it seem more reasonable.

Other sites may offer torrent downloads, which is a P2P (peer-to-peer) approach to the problem.  That is, with torrent you can be downloading a file, but it also acts as a download server so that someone else to be downloading that or some other file from your PC at the same time.  It creates a chain effect, and it can extend the download time required, but it lessens the load on the original source. 

Donald Darden

After several attempts, and long wait times, I decided that the free passport offer from Megashares has limited value.  I can start off a new download for a different dstro, but I reach the limit, and the download manager thinks the download is complete, not just a portion of the file.  Then when I try to get Megashares to resume the download, it keeps telling me that it is too busy, and to try again "momentarilly".  So finding another way seemed to be my best option.

In checking around on the website, I found this link:

Which in turn provides this link:

Which is where you find feedback and comments about the different VDI distributions.  That may help you decide which ones to try first.

But most just give links back to the download section at, and I needed something a bit better.  So I decided to switch to torrent and see what was available that way.

After using Google to search for best torrent clients, I decided to download and install BitLord.  I felt that its included web search tool would make it the better choice for my needs.  Sure enough, I fired it up and searched for veedee-eyes, and found many "seeds" listed for acquiring VDI distros.  It also looked like I could have searched as well for VirtualBox.  I picked one of the distros that I began with Megashare, and am doing that in the background while working on this post in the foreground.  I just checked to see how it is doing, and it has already downloaded 34% of the VDI file for me.  That's not too shabby.  Of course I snuck in a shower as well, but it's still a reasonable accomplishment.

Donald Darden

I've already have experienced problems with the VDI concept.  The idea that you can make a VDI and upload it so that others can use it, as well as download other VDIs to use on your own PC, tends to fall apart if you or others really don't know enough about the process.  What I am finding is that files that are suppose to be VDI files, aren't.  And in some cases where they are, they forgot that you can't just put up a VDI and use it, unless you have a valid username and password, and they fail to supply that critical bit of information.

One VDI was encoded as an RAR file, so I had to use apt-get install unrar in order to try and extract it.  The instraction process seemed to go on forever, but I can't find where it went to.  I guess they hardcoded paths into the archive, and the default is to use the same paths and folders when extracting.  I will have to attempt the extract again just to see where it elected to put the contents.

It does not make sence to create a VDI with an elaborate username and password, because you have to provide this to others to enable them to get access when they get the VDI that you produce.  And if you intend to release it as a VDI, you do not want to personalize it too much, otherwise you may be at risk for exposing some personal data, such as usernames and passwords in cookies left from accessing your accounts, or copies of your emails and a history of sites that you have visited.
Remember that the VDI is a faithful reproduction of the virtual C: drive that you create with VirtualBox, and anything that you do is likely to leave a footprint there that others can exploit.

For instance, you can use some version of Windows to create a VDI if you want, but with Windows 2000, XP and Vista, you have to use a registration key.  And XP and Vista also require you to activate your install.  If you created a VDI with Windows on it and distributed it to others, that registration key will be compromised.  If Microsoft detects that it is in wide use, they can disable any activation associated with it.  That means no more updates and support, and that would effect your original install as well.  And if you registered the install key properly the first time around, Microsoft can even use the information you supplied to take legal action against you.

If I were to contemplate installing some version of Windows in a VDI (and I am not saying that I am), I would look to acquiring a valid registration key for it that might have been freed up somewhere else.  For instance, somebody might be junking an old PC that has a valid XP sticker on the case, and that can be used again.  Windows 2000 Pro and XP are very similar, even usually supporting the same applications, but Windows 2000 Pro does not require activation, just a registration key.  And it works very well in a VDI environment.  But old PCs with Windows 2000 Pro installed may not have stickers on the case to make them easy to single out.

But it is not just your OS that can put you at risk.  You might install some versin of Office, like 2003 or 2007, and these are registered as well.  Fortunately, my old copy of Windows 2000 predates the whole registration mess, and still meets my needs.

All I am trying to do here is point out some the ethical, legal, and practical constraints that might influence what you do with respect to VDIs.  It's well enough to say not do it, but people pay good money for much of the software that they have, yet they may not have the freedom to just do anything that they want with it.  If you wanted to cross the street in a quiet neighborhood. but their was a clearly marked School Crossing within 50 feet, would you use it, or cross where you are?  Would it make a difference if a police car was nearby, and the officer observing you?  Do you know what your rights and obligations are under the circumstances?  Would you risk a confrontation with the law if you acted without considering the consequences?

You often read editorials where writers tell you what they think you should be allowed to do, and what they consider the fair use doctrine should be.  And as in jaywalking cases, some infractions may appear insignificant and unlikely to draw much attention.  But they carefully avoid telling you that something should be all right for you to do as well, because they know that they don't have the right to say that, and if you get caught, they don't want it to come back on them.