One of the current ideas about computing is that the operating system is becoming less important. With many software applications and even your data in the cloud, most of the work that you do can be done in a browser, or so the idea goes. That’s not true for me. While I do use my e-mail and calendar in Google Apps, sync my most important files to the cloud with ProfHacker favorite Dropbox, and use any number of other web applications, I still spend most of my computing time in my operating system using applications that can’t be run on a web service. For security and privacy reasons, which we’ve covered, you might not want much of your important in the cloud anyway.
From time to time, I need to run a different operating system than my OS of choice. If I’m finishing up an important web project, I like to test the website on Windows and Linux as well as on my Mac. You might want to use one operating system, but need to use a particular application that only runs on Windows or Mac every now and then. Or you might want to test out an operating system, such as a new release of Windows or Ubuntu, without changing the OS that you rely on.
One solution to this problem is to have your computer dual boot. This means that two operating systems, say Mac and Windows, live on your hard disk, and when you start the computer you can pick which one you want to run. Dual-booting has its downsides. It’s technically complex and not for the faint of heart to set up. You can also only use one of the operating systems at a time.
Another solution is to use a virtual operating system. This is the idea: Let’s say that you’re using a Mac. Using virtualization software, you can run Windows as if it were an application on your computer. In essence, your computer is acting as if it were running an entirely separate computer at the same time. (If you want a more technical explanation, read this.)
You can buy virtualization software, but a good free and open-source option is VirtualBox from Oracle (and formerly from Sun). This isn’t a full review of VirtualBox, but I can describe some of its features. You can install it on Windows, Mac, or Linux. VirtualBox then runs on the host operating system like any other program. When you run VirtualBox, you can set up different virtual computers, then install an operating system on them. For example, on my Mac I might want to run a Windows virtual machine and an Ubuntu virtual machine. You can then start up the virtual computers, which will open in another window. From there, you run whatever software you like on the new OS.
You can get an idea of how this works from this screenshot of a Mac running Windows 7 (click for a bigger image):
I’ve found VirtualBox to be more than adequate for my virtualization needs. Last summer Amy listed it as one of the five things that helped her survive the summer. What about you? Do you ever need to run a different operating system? How do you go about doing so?
VirtualBox logo and screenshot are taken from virtualbox.org.Return to Top