Introduction: Multiple Virtual Desktop Testing Environment

I recently wanted to test a program in as many types of operating systems as I could. A super efficient way of doing this is to use a virtual desktop program.

Using this type of software, I was able to run several operating systems at once from a single mid level laptop including the host os. So I can directly compare the programs actions and re-actions side by side within the different os environments. This instructable to will show you how and give links to all the relevant software as well as links to download all the different operating systems I have used in the past (That are legally offered free of charge) Note that these virtual desktop software can be run on OSX, Windows or Linux and at 32bit or 64bit

I use a Macbook, but these steps are cross platform, the only discernible difference is the virtual machine software version (Links Given). You download the appropriate one to match you host os - The os that runs on your computer that will run the virtual machine software.

The software I use is called VirtualBox - It's free for life and works on Windows, Mac, Linux & Solaris. It will run virtual machines for all known os types currently available for commercial purchase or free download.

Step 1: Why Is Virtualisation Useful?

Running multiple operating systems simultaneously. VirtualBox allows you to run more than one operating system at a time. This way, you can run software written for one operating system on another (for example, Windows software on Linux or a Mac) without having to reboot to use it. Since you can configure what kinds of "virtual" hardware should be presented to each such operating system, you can install an old operating system such as DOS or OS/2 even if your real computer's hardware is no longer supported by that operating system.

Easier software installations. Software vendors can use virtual machines to ship entire software configurations. For example, installing a complete mail server solution on a real machine can be a tedious task. With VirtualBox, such a complex setup (then often called an "appliance") can be packed into a virtual machine. Installing and running a mail server becomes as easy as importing such an appliance into VirtualBox.

Testing and disaster recovery. Once installed, a virtual machine and its virtual hard disks can be considered a "container" that can be arbitrarily frozen, woken up, copied, backed up, and transported between hosts. On top of that, with the use of another VirtualBox feature called "snapshots", one can save a particular state of a virtual machine and revert back to that state, if necessary. This way, one can freely experiment with a computing environment. If something goes wrong (e.g. after installing misbehaving software or infecting the guest with a virus), one can easily switch back to a previous snapshot and avoid the need of frequent backups and restores. Any number of snapshots can be created, allowing you to travel back and forward in virtual machine time. You can delete snapshots while a VM is running to reclaim disk space.

Infrastructure consolidation. Virtualization can significantly reduce hardware and electricity costs. Most of the time, computers today only use a fraction of their potential power and run with low average system loads. A lot of hardware resources as well as electricity is thereby wasted. So, instead of running many such physical computers that are only partially used, one can pack many virtual machines onto a few powerful hosts and balance the loads between them.

Step 2: Installing the Virtual Machine Software

Using the following links, download and install the appropriate version of VirtualBox for the operating system your computer is running. If you want to look at other virtual machine software for any reason, check out the list on the next page. There are two lists, one for free software and one for paid or preview software. I use VirtualBox because it works great and it's free. They update it sub monthly and already have profile defaults for windows 10 VM's.

VirtualBox -

VirtualBox website

Windows -

Windows executable version - Works on XP SP3 and above.

Mac -

Woks on all X86/64 bit hardware

Linux -

Selection page to choose your linux based os - i.e. Ubuntu, openSUSE, Debian etc...

Solaris -

Solaris 64bit version

To take full advantage of the special features such as drag from host os to vm os, you will need the "additions" package - A single download that works with all versions of VirtualBox.

Step 3: Other Virtual Machine Software

Should you want to consider others, the following is a comprehensive guide to ave you finding everything from scratch.

Free products (Does not include trial or test software, only fully free for life programs)

Paid professional software

VMware Workstation - A popular choice for VM's - Link has a great help me choose widget if you're not sure.

Parallels - A popular choice for Mac users. As well as fully fledged VM's it can run windows software as if it were running natively on the mac desktop. Great for running windows only software on your mac.

There are also versions that are specifically for running virtual hardware for server side implementation. This is beyond the scope of this instructable. For more info see the bottom of this link -

Step 4: Creating Your VM

Now we have the correct software installed, we can set up our virtual machine. VirtualBox works by setting up a fake environment enabling it to "trick" the os into thinking it is running on a physical computer. You decide on the hardware and capabilities using a set of sliders. The new guest os simply "see's" the virtual hardware as actual hardware.

After setting up the hardware, you will need to install the new os on to that virtual pc. This is the same as installing a new os on a physical machine. You need a copy of the os install files or cd, a licence if its a paid for version such as Windows and away we go. There are free os's such as linux, android, Chrome os etc. I'll give a list of these later.

> Open up VB and you will be presented with a box. The only thing you can click on is the "new" button - Top left.

> Give the new virtual machine a name and follow the rest of the instructions. Note that VB gives you all the relevant info to choose how much RAM and HDD space to allocate to the new VM. VirtualBox can dynamically allocate hard drive space. So a 50GB virtual hard drive when empty only uses about 2mb of data on your actual hard drive. The size only increases as you add actual data to it, i.e. installing the os or adding other files. VB will also suggest the best settings based on the available system resources your physical computer has to offer.

You can also locate the virtual machine files on your computer and transfer them to an external HDD. This is a must because os installs can take a lot of space. If you have 3 or 4 on you computer you will be crunching through 100's of gigabytes of space on your hard drive to store all the files.

Use the following link (section 10.1) to find where your files are stored, then copy them to your back-up or external drive.

After this, open up VB and remove the virtual machine you just created. Now navigate to you external or back-up hdd and open up the vm by double clicking the blue VirtualBox icon. Your computer will now re-open VirtualBox and associate these copied files to a new virtual machine in your library but leave the core files and virtual storage on your external or back-up hdd. Saving you space and load time.

Step 5: Running You New VM for the 1st Time

By this point you will already have decided what os you are going to install because it was the first setting VirtualBox asked for. Note that windows licence is usually only for one physical computer and most copies out there are OEM versions. If you want to run any version of windows (XP onwards), you're going to need a legitimate copy with a licence key to activate it. If you don't have windows - download the technical preview of the new Windows 10 OS - Skip step one its not a requirement. Scroll down the page for the direct download links in your country. This is legal and free from Microsoft direct. It's a technical preview and should be treated as an unfinished product

There are ways to get full versions of windows for free on the internet using torrent sites and the like. I won't go into that here though. Google is your friend if that's the way you want to go.

Legally, Mac OSX can only be run on a mac computer, again there are ways around this, none of which are legal. VirtualBox will allow you to install Mac OSX without issue. as long as you have the disc or ISO file.

There are versions of apple and Windows you can legally download, more for fun than anything else because they are all the old versions; If you don't want these, skip to the next step...

MSDOS - I would use DOSBOX for this. It just works and is easy to set up

Windows 3.1 - To use, set up a VM for Win3.1. when asked to use an existing virtual hdd - select this file. This file is a ready made virtual hdd with Win3.1 installed. The VM will load to MSDOS promt. Type "win" then hit enter and the VM will load glorious Windows 3.1!

Windows 95 - To use, Set up a VM for windows 95. Start the VM using MSDOS prompt to load the Windows 95 iso you dowloaded. The machine will then go through the motions of installing windows 95

Windows 98, ME, NT, 2000 + apple mac 7,8,9 & OSX BETA. - To use, download the ISO of choice and do the same as for windows 95.

Step 6: I Have a Copy of an OS

The Virtual machines that we have set up are just blank virtual computers. So we need to add the OS. The easiest way is to use the ISO - (A file version of a cd/dvd) or the actual cd of the operating system. In VirtualBox before you load the VM, change the settings to tell the machine to boot from cd first, the machine will then check the cd tray before anything else for boot media. (Change this after OS install). Now highlight the Virtual Machine in the list on the left, select settings and navigate to storage. Under controller:IDE, click the small cd icon in the list. This will give you a secondary menu. click the small cd icon next to the CD/DVD Drive box. Now select the ISO file you have stored on your computer. If you have the actual cd/dvd, use the dropdown menu to select the drive.

Now start the Virtual machine. Depending on the version you set up the computer will go through the initial post start process. It will then check the virtual cd drive for boot media. As you just told VirtualBox to add your iso or cd/dvd to the virtual cd drive the Virtual machine will see this and boot from it. The machine will then load the os boot sequence and you can follow the install procedure. Yay. You now have a fully working Virtual machine running along side your host os. We can repeat this process for as many VM's as you like. On my mac, I can just about run windows xp, and windows 8.1 as well as the same CRM program in each without running out of Ram on my host machine. For reference I have 4gb of ddr3 running at 1600mhz.

Step 7: Installing Software

If you installed additions into VirtualBox, you will be able to drag and drop files from the host os to the guest os. If not, you can share local files with the VM or usb storage drives. Either way you can then install and test your software. To use an external usb drive with your virtual machine, click the small usb icon at the bottom of the vm window. select the drive and VB will mount it within the VM's environment. You may need to eject or un-mount it first in the host os but don't unplug it...

If you have any questions please leave a comment and I'll get back to you unless the community answers it first. If this instructable helped you in anyway please support my efforts by clicking the vote button. You don't need to register, you can doit through face book.

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