The need to run multiple operating systems for everything from software testing and experimentation to portable productivity environments is vital in the IT world. Perhaps you are also an operating systems enthusiast that wants to try out and use older software that simply isn't compatible with modern versions of Windows, or you want to build secure sandboxes for students to mess around in and learn without needing to rebuild the host PC. Whatever the reason, virtualization products can get the job done without needing to grab a spare PC or partition your physical system drive. Here is a list of five apps that satisfy this requirement.
This is the premier freeware and open source VM platform out there for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and even Solaris hosts. Oracle Virtualbox supports all the standard fare such as older versions of Windows as well as more obscure products, such as Novell Netware or eComStation, and OS/2. Just be sure to install the Oracle VirtualBox Extensions Pack before use in order to enable enhanced functionality like PXE and USB 2.0.
Having been on the virtualization scene since the late 90s, Bochs is known by many as the old timer of the bunch. Although it's rather archaic by design and hard to configure, Bochs is probably the only VM software I have used that has supported particularly exotic operating systems, such as NeXTstep 3.3 or Apple Rhapsody DR2. Beyond the niche it serves as a product for operating system historians and primitive legacy applications, Bochs is mostly considered an academic curiosity for learning the ins and outs of virtualization.
If you're looking to not only virtualize an x86 environment at reasonable speeds, but also want to test software on SPARC, ARM, PPC and MIPS platforms, QEMU can help. The multi-arch emulation capabilities are decidedly hit or miss and can be rather sluggish, but no other VM software is capable of this feat currently. If you prefer not to deal with the command-line, a companion app called QEMU Manager can be downloaded and used on top of QEMU to manage VM instances in an easy to use GUI.
The freeware (for non-commercial use) cousin of VMware Workstation, Player has added more features over the years. Lately, the product name has become somewhat of a misnomer, since you can now create full-fledged virtual machines, much like its bigger brother. The VMware Unity mode allows for seamless integration of the VM right onto your host desktop, which arguably is superior to VirtualBox's implementation of the same technique. Commercial use is subject to license fees starting at $99.99.
Although not in the business of running virtual machines per-se, Paragon's tool allows you to migrate a Windows install on real hardware to a virtual instance using "P2V Migration" as well as work with virtual hard disk files. What is neat about this is that you can mount virtual disks and work with data directly in your host environment without ever having to touch the guest operating system. This application sells for $59.95.
An avid technology writer and an IT guru, Matthew is here to help bring the best in software, hardware and the web to the collective consciousness of TechRepublic's readership. In addition to writing for TechRepublic, Matthew currently works as a Customer Success Professional for Ultimate Software in Santa Ana, California.