What’s A Virtual Machine?

Wanting to write about something is one thing.  Wanting to write about something that will be read is another.  Getting too techie is a sure fire sign that you’re writing something that is “TL/DR” – too long/ Didn’t read.

But on the other hand, I was asked “What is a virtual machine anyway?” by someone in a social setting.   It was phrased a bit differently than that but here we go.  Hopefully it won’t be TL/DR.

The idea is that you are looking at this on a browser running on a computer.   Statistics say it’s probably Windows since this is where I get about 2/3 of my readers.  That means it is most likely a PC.

PCs are wonderful things that run something called Software.  Software can make your PC do things like play Solitaire, Surf the Web, listen to music, and make pretty pictures.

What if a piece of software simply “looked like” a computer?

Now you have a computer inside a computer.  

Add an operating system to that computer inside of a computer and now you have a computer running inside a computer that you can actually DO things with.

That’s it.  That simple.

Why would you want to do that?  At home you may have one computer in the house.  This is less likely now, but back in the last 20 years that was the way it was.  A desktop PC sat in a corner with a monitor and it was shared.  What if that desktop PC had a virtual computer for each person on it?  Now your stuff and my stuff would not get mixed up.   If you got a virus, I wouldn’t.  That’s what you get when you surf “Those” websites.

Keeping things simple, there are other ways to use this thing in a home environment.

By now we all have an “Old Computer”.  I know people who are paranoid and don’t want to give those machines away so they end up having a closet full of computers that date back into the 80s.

Since the days of Windows XP, oh so many weeks ago, you could clear that closet up by running a piece of software that would create a virtual computer out of the old computer.  Basically now you have copy of that old computer running in a window on your newer computer.

That is how I get rid of my old machines – make a virtual computer so I don’t lose the software.  Why pay for that software again when you can’t find the install CD and it already works well on that creaky old computer?  After all it’s only 20 GB right?

Companies do this sort of thing all the time.  They create a server that is intended to house all these machines in a closet and “host” them all.  It saves space and a lot of power. 

The down sides are that if that computer is damaged (power spikes will murder a PC), you lose every one of those machines if they weren’t backed up.  Also, you have to have a legal license to that computer.  You can’t just make virtual computers with Windows or Mac OSX for free.  Linux isn’t a problem and I make virtual computers with Linux all the time. 

The way I am currently using virtual machines is like this.

My laptop is running Windows 7.  I have a copy of something called “VMWare Player”.  That will let me create and run virtual machines.  I installed a copy of Ubuntu Linux into it.  I then installed all sorts of things like Database (MySQL), a Web Server (Apache), and a programming language (PHP).  When I could serve websites with it to my home network, I then installed a copy of a Contact Management Software called SugarCE.  It all works like a champ, it’s all free, and fits really well on my lap.

Like I said, it’s a very basic answer to a basic question that can be quite complex.  Probably more involved than a basic answer, but that’s a start…

www.canawm.org – Another Successful Web Implementation Project Complete

Between doing Video Shoots and Website Upgrades for New Divine Mercy Church as well as functioning as their Webmaster and Project Manager, I was busy working on a new website for the Central Area Neighborhood Association for Wilton Manors.

Today, all the technical details were completed and the website for CANA went live.

This is the fifth website that I have created for organizations using the Google Sites technology.  Google Sites is a great way to get a basic website up and running, especially for Not For Profits as those organizations have been granted free space on Google’s Servers.  I have heard that they may or may not begin charging for that service in the future, and I have heard that it may or may not go Fee Based. 

The benefit of using the technology is that it is completely “Cloud Based”.   Got a small organization and you don’t want to have to worry about whether you have a dedicated server architecture built in an office server closet?  This works for you since Sites is hosted by Google.  You get access to a limited number of free services such as Google Docs, Gmail accounts, and other things so in theory you can completely run an organization virtually without ever buying a corporate computer.  Feel like making a change on a website from your laptop on vacation in a far flung corner of the world – you can do it if you have internet.

I wouldn’t personally put any financial information on a “web app” but that’s my security preference, you may not agree.

At any rate, CANA has their web site, it’s up and running.

The other sites I have created were for the Joe Angelo for Mayor Campaign, the Celeste Ellich for Commissioner Campaign, New Divine Mercy Church, as well as working on my blog

I am also the Social Media Director for Wilton Manors Main Street helping to voice their public presence on Facebook and on their blog.  I also have worked on their current webpage that is expected to go through some changes and a refresh soon.

Having done web development as a Programmer and as a Project Manager as well as doing Implementation of Websites, Large Scale implementation of Legacy systems, and Accounting Systems help in rounding out that list. 

I’m also That Guy that people call up for help with their PCs since I’ve implemented more desktop systems than I would care to count.  I’ve also implemented Servers running Windows Server 2003 and 2007,  implemented SQL Server (various versions) as well as created servers running Linux and the LAMP Stack.

The Lamp Stack is a set of technologies that will allow you to serve out web pages to the world as well as function as a regular file server as needed and it’s all free.

Most of that stuff can run “virtually” and on a computer using VMWare or Microsoft Virtual PC.

Not a bad cover letter, I may have to use this since I’ve done this and more.

Virtually Safe Surfing

There are a lot of viruses out there on Windows.  If you are not using an anti virus program, you are probably harboring them as well as a trojan or two.

This isn’t a primer on how to get rid of viruses.  I have already gone down that road.   There’s a lot of different ways to clean a computer.   Most folks get frustrated that their machines have slowed to a crawl and go out and buy a new one.   If that’s you and you have a laptop that us under a year old in that state, feel free to send it to me… oh and get yourself a Mac, they don’t have the same numbers of viruses.  You won’t be quite as compatible, and the software is more expensive, but as long as you stay in the Mac Environment you will be much better off.   If you’re a casual user it frees you up from having to deal with all that virus crap.

On the other hand, if you’re a little bit technical, you should look into getting a virtual environment and running a computer in a sandbox.   That is how I am writing now.   I’m looking at Firefox running on a virtual Windows XP program that is running on Virtual PC 2007 that is running on Windows 7.

Got all that?

I have done all this so that I can stay away from Viruses and Google’s snoopy tendencies (They already know WAY too much about everyone and I’m moving away from Google’s software) and do everything I need to.  When I am done, I click the X box to close the entire environment, tell it no to “Save State” and its done.   All the snoopy things are gone.   There’s no connection to the main machine, there are no worries about viruses and illicit cookies, and I’m completely safe.

If you are really curious, and have an older Windows Machine that you want to save, you can create an image legally from your existing older machine (It is legal as long as you have retired the computer you image – like this one was), install free software like Virtual PC 2007 or VMWare Player, and you are good to go.   You just need to have an extra amount of memory over what you normally run on the computer.  

If I’ve lost you, find your favorite 16 year old geek and turn them loose on this and tell you what you want to get done.  Get the right software on the machine and you’re safe.

I’ve obviously glossed over everything here, this is basically a very high level executive summary.   But that is how to do it.   It works well.

Virtual PC 2007 instead of XP Mode for Windows 7

Not technical?   Did you just say Huh?

Ok, Microsoft is being generous to us who still have XP or want to keep what we have in XP.   Windows 7 doesn’t like a lot of software although everything I personally run works on Windows 7.  I have moved from a trusty and rusty old Dell Inspiron 600m Laptop that pretty much doesn’t want to be a laptop any more since the Left Mouse Button isn’t working well.  Sound familiar?  That’s what happens to laptops after a couple years, the Left Mouse Button dies and your Battery fails to take a charge for more than a quick run across the house to plug it in somewhere else.   I’ve been there, trust me.

If you have a new PC that was build with a newer processor, you can still run XP within a window in XP Mode.   I’ve done it on a newer laptop at work, and it works real well.   There was a posting I did a few days back that explained all that and what to download.   You’ll want to find that post that I wrote on November 8th if you think you qualify.

On the other hand, if you are like me on this older but still useable Acer Aspire 5610 then you can go a different route.   That will mean you will have to install Virtual PC 2007 at that link.   Virtual PC will let you install a completely new copy of XP within a software window.   Works great, I’ve used it for years now… well various versions of  it.   Its free. 

How this will help you and I run XP on our shiny new copy of Windows 7 is that you tell it to install that new copy of XP that you have somewhere lying around and you can use it like you would any other PC.   It’s not perfect since you’re running it in “Emulation”.  You might not be able to run EVERY piece of software you have now, but that you will have to check that on your own.

There’s one last helpful hint here.   Somewhere you have an older XP computer.   You don’t want to throw it out because there’s something on there or some piece of software that you’ve installed that you don’t have the discs.   Here is why you want Virtual PC.  You can make a full copy of that machine, as long as you have the hardware to do it (Get yourself a big external drive, you’ll be happy you did), and be able to run that PC within a window just like any other XP machine.

Without going through a lot of fiddly details, the software you can use is all over the web, it makes a big image that is as big as the used space on your old machine.  You put that image (Called a VHD file) on the new Windows 7 machine and run it in Virtual PC 2007 and you’re back where you were.

The imaging software is at this link among others.   I haven’t used that one, or have I used this one, but there are a lot of them out there.   Good luck at finding one that works.  The google search that I used to find both was this one.

XP Mode install on Windows 7

Now that I had installed Windows 7 on my Acer Aspire 5610, I set about this new thing called “XP Mode”.   If you have a lot of XP software, and who doesn’t, you will be considering this.   What it does is set up a way for you to run your old software in a box that looks like a Windows XP desktop within your Windows 7 machine.

It looks just like your current Windows XP desktop, if you’re still on Windows XP.   The way it works is that Microsoft is going to give you free for download a copy of Windows XP called XP Mode that will only install on a Windows 7 machine.  You will download that (Its a big one, 1.4GB of disc space) and a copy of “Windows Virtual PC 7” which is fairly small.   This only runs on Windows 7 so if you haven’t gone that route, this discussion won’t help you.   If you’re on a Mac I’d suggest looking elsewhere like VMWare Fusion 3 that I’m evaluating for my boss at work.

There is also another wrinkle.   Windows Virtual PC 7 will ONLY run on specific computers and only after you twiddle with your bios to turn on something called Virtualization.   If you have that you will have a great experience, if you don’t I’ll have a later post on what to do there, since I had to go that route for this machine.

To test this, surf over to this link and run the program that is on the page called the “Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor”.  That link will give you an idea of first whether your machine will run Windows 7.

Further you will want to look at this link which will tell you if you can run Windows 7 XP mode.  You will download a program and it will run and look at your hardware and tell you whether you have that little bit of extra goodies in your computer that will work with XP Mode.   The program is called “havdetectiontool.exe” as of this writing.

In my case it said no.   It would have saved me time surfing some really confusing pages on Acer and Intel had I done that but I’m hard headed.

Assuming it says yes, then surf the XP mode page here and select your language and version of Windows 7 that you have, and yes you do need to know that.   In my case it was Professional 32 bit and English.

Step 4 says download XP mode, and install it.   When that is done, download and install Windows Virtual PC.  

At that point you’re installed, you probably have some reboots to go through and some set ups, but I have seen XP Mode, its worth the effort, and lets you run Windows XP like you were used to.   It runs almost as fast as the Native Windows 7 that you are running as the PC operating system at about 97% of normal speed – from what has been reported.

The only gotcha is that XP mode will only be supported until 2014 so better get going huh?   Well by then you’ll have other worries and other PCs but for now it works like a champ from what I saw on my Network Admin’s laptop.

Centon Datastick Pro Review – Bargain Basement Storage

In this case, low price means slow.   I bought this Centon Datastick Pro 16GB USB Flash Drive Memory stick at the CompUSA Store in Ft Lauderdale so it could take a VirtualPC image I have.   Its a development environment that is custom crafted to allow me to do all sorts of things that you would need to do in a software development office.  I would have put a direct link to the model stick but the page wouldn’t load in Firefox – always a good test for me personally whether to interact with a company or not.

First problem was that the stick was formatted FAT32 like the old Windows 98 Hard Drives.  The problem is that the environment image was 10.2GB of space.   Ok, not really a big deal, just logistics, right?   Newer versions of Windows use NTFS, and 10GB files are no problem there.   Had to reformat that little stick and now I have to remember to eject the stick under pain of death of data.   FAT32 you can just pull out of the USB slot but you really *should* eject it.

The second problem then hit me in the face.  Or rather rubbed itself slowly in my face.  I started the copy dinner time and thought that it would take maybe an hour, two tops…. BZZZT!  WRONG!   I’m writing this at 930AM the next morning and it has just finished copying.   So now I have this big ol’ copy of a Virtual PC image sitting on a stick that I can run like another computer and I’m wondering whether it was worth the effort.

The eventual start up time was 10 minutes, with 1 minute alone to play the default Windows XP start up sound.    It took over 20 minutes to get quiet enough to interact with it and shut it down.  I will copy it onto the host PC’s Drive in the future.  Running from my laptop with adequate memory it starts in 2 minutes and runs “well” enough for me.

The moral of the story is that if you need extra storage for important papers and pictures, recipes and music, a low end low cost USB Flash drive will be fine.   Store your papers on one, then drop it somewhere safe.

If you need one with high speed, don’t go low end.   Either spend some extra after doing your homework and finding a high speed drive, or get yourself an external Hard Disc with a real internal Disc that hooks up to USB and you’ll be fine.

Even CDs are faster than this little guy for big files.   I think I’ll put my E-Books on there.