Beginner’s Guide to VMs – Linux Running on Windows

This introductory article is geared towards beginners who have no previous experience building or managing Linux VMs. In the most beginner-friendly manner, it will outline the concepts and technologies used to create and manage Linux Virtual Machines from your personal computer, for free. Explanations and diagrams are simple and to the point.

If you already have a grasp on how VMs work, and would like a beginner’s guide to creating your first VM check out this article, Create Ubuntu VM in VirtualBox – Picture Guide.

Running Linux Virtual Machines on your Windows/Mac computer is less complicated than you may think. With just a few pieces of free software, you can begin creating and managing Linux virtual machines. Within 30 minutes you could go from no prior knowledge to having multiple VMs up and running.

Before jumping into downloading software, it is important to become familiar with the technologies used with Virtual Machines. The three main components a beginner should be familiar with regarding Virtual Machines are:

  1. Virtual Machines
  2. Hypervisor Software
  3. Linux Operating Systems

Virtual Machines – A Basic Introduction (Guest/Host)

What are Virtual Machines, or VMs? A simple definition of VMs is a virtual instance of a machine that runs on top of other hardware. But what hardware are you talking about? If you are on a Mac/Windows Desktop/laptop, that hardware are the components within your physical computer tower, or laptop base. A VM is also called a “Guest“, while the computer it is running on is called the “Host“. The primary components VMs require are the CPU, RAM, Hard Drives, and Networking Interface Cards (NICs). This image may help:

Linux VM hardware components - an introduction
VM Components

Every time a new VM is created, a portion of the resources from your computer are allocated to the operate the VM. This is important to keep in mind because allocating too many resources for VMs may impact your computer’s performance.

Allocating resources to Linux VMs for beginners
Allocating Resources to VMs

Hypervisor Software – For a Beginner

Linux VMs need a place to run on your computer. Just like sending an email requires Outlook, creating and managing VMs requires a Hypervisor. One Hypervisor is capable of managing multiple VMs at once.

Linux Hypervisor Software-VM Management for beginners
Email/VM management comparison

A simple hypervisor definition: The role of a hypervisor is to create and manage Virtual Machines via the allocation of host resources (CPU, Hard drive, NIC, Memory). VMs may be configured with different amounts of resources allocated to them, some with more RAM, storage, even different operating systems. It is the role of the hypervisor to ensure that the Windows 10VM has 1GB of RAM, while the Ubuntu Linux VM only has 256MB.

Linux VM Resource Management for beginners
Hypervisor Resource Allocation

While the allocation of these resrouces is the primary function of a hypervisor, they can also manage a varitey of other things such as:

  • Displays (multiple monitors. No display?)
  • Audio (Enable audio from a VM through the host computer)
  • USBs (Enable a USB on your host computer to be seen via the VM)
  • Shared folders (Share folders between guest VMs. Share folders between host and guest VM)
  • Encryption
  • Images (think CDs)
  • Serial Ports

The Linux Distro (Linux Operating System) – A Beginner’s Introduction

The operating system is the final piece of the puzzle when it comes to having a basic understanding of the three main components involved with Virtual Machines. This is where the power and popularity of VMs really come to light. From a personal laptop, a user could be running 20 different operating systems simultaneously, all talking to one another, or an application on the web, or running OS-specific applications, the possibilities are endless. This includes any flavor of Unix/Linux/Windows/Mac(Hackintosh), or other OS.

With an understanding of what a VM is, and what role a hypervisor plays in respect to the personal computer (host), and the VM (guest), it is now time to install Linux onto a guest VM. Linux has many “flavors” (distros), just as Windows and macOS are the operating system “flavors” for Windows and Apple. What are Linux Distros? In the Linux world, the name of the operating system is called a “distribution”, or “distro” for short.

For the individual looking to get started at home, the most popular free Linux distributions the best option as they will have the highest number of search results when Googling issues. Some of the most popular Linux distros are Ubuntu (incredibly popular), Arch Linux, Debian, Mint, Fedora, CentOS, and well, there are too many to list. For a more comprehensive list of popular beginner-friendly Linux distros, check out this Techradar article listing the Best Linux distros of 2020.

Linux Distro Installation

Installing the Linux operating system on a new VM is quite easy. In beginner-friendly terms, it is the equivalent of plugging a USB stick into your computer and double-clicking a file from the folder that represents the USB stick. In fact, the process of installing Linux onto a guest VM can be simplified down to five easy steps:

  1. Downloading the OS (distro) .iso file. From the manufacturer’s website.
  2. Creating a new virtual machine via a hypervisor.
  3. Mounting the OS (distro) .iso to the newly created VM.
  4. Turning the VM on, and booting from the device that has the OS (distro) .iso loaded.
  5. Following the install instructions integrated in the OS.

That. Is. It. That’s how easy it is to Install flavor of Linux on a VM running via a Hypervisor loaded onto your laptop/desktop.

Further Reading

With a basic understanding of hypervisors, host OS, guest OS, and images, the next step is to actually create a VM, and install Linux on it. This step-by-step tutorial guides beginners through the process of creating their first Ubuntu VM using VirtualBox.

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