Friday, November 20, 2009

Virtual Machines

A few years back a co-worker turned me on to "virtual machines". The technology has been available for large mainframe systems for many hears (1970's), but has become usable on PC systems over the past decade.

A "virtual machine" allows you to create a "virtual" computer system for running software that won't run on the host system, or, needs to be insulated from the host system.
VM's give you the ability to run multiple operating systems at the same time on the same physical hardware. I am running Fedora 11 as the host and other versions of Linux, DOS and/or Windows as guests.

I started out using VMWare workstation, and it served me well over the years. While the price was not unreasonable, it was not free. There is a VMWare player that will let you run virtual machines, but the workstation license is "required" to create virtual machines.

More recently, Phil, another co-worker, turned me on to VirtualBox. I have found it to be every bit as useful, stable and easy to use as VMWare at my kind of price point. Free.

Having virtual machines can give you the ability to run software (Tax Cut in my case) once in a while on Windows, while maintaining the security of a Linux system for daily use.

I also gives you the ability to engage in "high risk" activities on a virtual operating system (like experimental system configuration changes or testing the effectiveness of virus protection software). It also helps me support friends and relatives on different operating systems as I can walk them through the things they need help with from the comfort of my desk.

Finally, just like Linux, when you take the worry and hassle out of doing something, it just might become fun again.

These are screen shots of a few of my "virtual" boxes, all of these screen shots were made on my main Fedora 11 machine running ....

Linux - Fedora 12

Linux - Ubuntu 9.10

Linux - Mint 7

Windows - XP Pro

Windows - 2000 Pro

Mint 7 on VirtualBox

I installed Mint 7 Linux on a virtual machine (VirtualBox). Setup was:

512M RAM
10G Disk, Fixed Size
32M Video RAM

I installed correctly, including the guest operating system drivers, and ran well.

The look and feel reminds me very much of Windows XP ... seems like this may be a comfortable fit for folks wanting to try Linux.

Ubuntu 9.10 on VirtualBox

Well, Ubuntu 9.10 is finally here.

I took it for a spin in a Virtual Machine (VirtualBox). The setup was:

512M RAM
10G Disk, Fixed Size
32M Video RAM

After installing the guest operating system's drivers it handled as advertised.

I need to play with it more, but, time is at a premium these days.

Fedora 12 on VirtualBox

Well, I loaded up Fedora 12 in a virtual machine (VirtualBox) and took it for a spin. I must say, early impressions are:

1. Clean
2. Simple
3. Fast

The install went without a hitch ... I chose the following VM settings:

512M RAM
10G Disk, fixed size
32M RAM for video

I installed the OS and the VM's drivers for the guest system (in this case Fedora 12 was the guest, and my main system, running Fedora 11, was the host).

Next I added yum repositories for:

RPM Fusion (for non-free audio/video codecs)
Adobe Flash / Acrobat reader

It seems impossible, but, I would say the optimizations in Fedora 12 give the OS a snappier feel in the VM than Fedora 11 has running on a real machine.

Will write more later ... pressing on to updating the Acer Aspire One netbook ... so far ... so good.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Save your data

As a person that is called on to help update computer systems regularly, I can tell you, making sure data is preserved is no joking matter. You just try telling grandma that you laid waste to 5 years worth of grandkid photos and see how popular you are at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In similar fashion, business users are none to happy with the idea of having to recreate data after an upgrade ... they are in business to serve customers, not computers.

So, a few tricks from the pros can keep you from pulling your hair out.

First of all, if you have a Windows operating system, look into buying a program that can handle copying your data from one version of Windows (say Vista) and restoring it to another (say Win7). Get an external (portable) hard drive (I prefer USB connected hard drives) and do your backups.

It is also helpful to keep your data in a logical fashion in a common set of folders (documents and settings). Some programs try to store their data in the program files folder, which, in my humble opinion, is WRONG. You should not be making backups of the OS folders (ie. c:\program files or c:\windows) with your data during the upgrade process, the OS files from an older version of Windows may render the new system unworkable.

Under Linux, user data is store in the /home folder. If joe, sue and bill all share the same machine, there will be home folders like:


So, backing up /home will get it all. No muss, no fuss, no special programs needed. In fact, if you take a bit of time during the install of Linux, you can setup the hard disk so that /home is in a "separate area" of the hard drive (called a partition) that will be preserved during an update. This does not eliminate the backup as a good idea, but, it will remove the requirement of having to backup before and restore after. If all goes well, the data will be in the same place it was before. Another nice thing about Linux, you don't have the permission or rights to store data in a place where programs are kept.

I normally "partition" my Linux system hard drives into three "parts".


I put the swap in first ... usually I make it twice the size of RAM ... so, if your machine has 2G of RAM, it would get 4G of swap partition space.

Next, I put the Linux partition, 10G is plenty for a normal user, and I have been using ext3 format for years with a smile on my face.

Next, I put the home partition, take the rest of the free space, format it ext3

Now, whenever I install from DVD, I can completely reload the Linux partition and the /home partition stays put ... with all my data and personal preferences in place.