When I first got started on virtualization, I was at a loss. The terms were technical and sounded, well, expensive. That led to joy at discovering Windows 10 Pro included one for free, Hyper-V. Three months of pain with Hyper-V led me to this article, so I hope it helps you choose your hypervisor more wisely.
What is a Hypervisor
We’ve heard the terms virtualization, virtual machines, virtual drive, and more. The hypervisor is simply the software that helps create virtual machines. There are two main types of hypervisor, termed in the foolproof manner Type 1 and Type 2.
Type 1, or bare-metal hypervisors, sit directly on physical hardware, like an Operating System (OS). Doing so eliminates the need for a host OS, increasing efficiency and reducing resource strain. However, doing so reduces utility somewhat, and they can be challenging to manage.
Type 2 hypervisors are applications that you can install on various OS. As you might guess, software-deployable variants come with all the convenient management features of the OS and the hypervisor itself. However, as a whole, they require more resources to run.
How the Hypervisor Works
Hypervisors act as the middleman between virtual machines and the hardware on your computer. You define the parameters you want for each virtual machine, assigning it limits in processor cores, memory, and other hardware.
The hypervisor then handles communications between the virtual machines and the actual resources on your computer. How the hypervisor manages this can also be specified; for example, you can provide instructions on whether it’s allowed to extend memory use dynamically.
Why We Want to Use Hypervisors
Virtualization isn’t something new – we’ve been using the technology since the 1960s. However, it’s come into much greater focus now since computers have become much more powerful.
Since the hardware supports it, we can look more keenly towards the benefits that hypervisors bring;
Dynamic Device Creation – The best example I can give for this mirrors my own need for virtualization. I often write very technical articles and make use of various platforms to test specific things.
Instead of running dozens of machines that I only need to use for short durations, I can create and collapse them at will. It saves lots of time and money.
Highly Efficient – Just because an OS needs X amount of resources doesn’t mean it hogs them at all times. If built correctly, virtual machines can use resources dynamically. That means you can run multiple virtual machines off a much smaller resource pool.
Flexibility – Since the hypervisor is only a translator, you can instruct it to emulate specific hardware while using alternative resources. This feature gives you the flexibility to run almost anything under the sun with a single set of equipment.
Portability – Building a virtual image with a hypervisor doesn’t mean it gets stuck on that host. Instead, you can export the image and import it somewhere else. In a business scenario (or even at home when moving to new hardware), that’s convenient.
You can even use an image to re-create copies of the same virtual machine rapidly – it’s like magic. You can then customize each of those “templates” to fit various needs.
Most Common Hypervisors for Home Use
Finally, we get to the choices available. As I mentioned earlier, I first started with the free option that came with Windows 10. It was a challenging and painful experience, so I hope you’ll choose more wisely when experimenting.
If you’re running a copy of Windows, the chances are that you can create virtual machines already. However, Hyper-V is only available on the 64-bit version of Windows 10 Pro, Enterprise, and Education. It also needs to be installed as a feature before you can use it.
To enable Hyper-V, launch Windows Settings -> Programs and Features. From the long list of options there, tick the checkbox for the “Hyper-V” option, then click “OK.” Of course, as with everything about Windows, you’ll need to restart the system once the installation is complete.
Hyper-V is considered a Type 1 hypervisor since it’s part of the OS. However, Windows, being as bulky as it is, means that Hyper-V might as well be a Type 2 since it doesn’t save on resources at all.
VirtualBox was initially built by a German developer back in 2007, but Sun Microsystems later bought it. Sun, in turn, got swallowed by Oracle, which runs VirtualBox today. However, despite its long and complex history, I certainly appreciate the benefits of personally running it.
It’s effortless to use and has far fewer bugs that drive people crazy. Unfortunately, the simplest things like remote access to a VM are sufficient to drive Hyper-V newbies nuts. Something that VirtualBox accomplishes with a simple user interface. It’s free for everyone, by the way.
VMware Workstation Player
VMware is a company that deals with everything about virtualization. This point is both a pro and a con. The advantage is that it’s a specialist and does some excellent stuff. The disadvantage is that new users can struggle through the ton of complexity a broad product line brings.
If you ultimately find the correct link to the right VMware product for virtualization (it’s VMware Workstation Player, by the way), great for you. Next, you’ll have to figure out if you need to pay for it or not – yet another stupid challenge introduced by bureaucracy.
Choosing the Right Hypervisor
There are, of course, lots of other brands in the market, But as a home user, these are the more likely names you’ll come across first. My advice is to skip Hyper-V and go for VirtualBox. It’s much easier to use and widely supported.
However, that’s just my point of view. Choosing the right hypervisor is also very much dependant on needs. For instance, if you need to run an Apple OS, don’t use Hyper-V; it doesn’t support macOS.
Some areas to consider are;
Performance: Almost any Type 1 hypervisor will outperform a Type 2; that’s simply the way things work. However, even between brands, there is a wide discrepancy in possible performance. Therefore, I recommend using one that offers a good balance of utility (management interface) and performance for home-based virtualization.
Ecosystem: Despite my dislike of Hyper-V, it is one of the most widely documented hypervisors in the market. Microsoft uses it on Azure systems, and it has a large pool of professional users. For the overall ecosystem, though, most of the core hypervisors listed here are pretty solid.
Support: Free rarely gets the official support that commercial things do. Don’t expect too much (or any) assistance from official sources. This area is where you rely on communities and forums when begging for help at 3 a.m.
This post is the beginning of what will likely be a long journey in virtualization here. It’s a dry topic, but something that’s been a pet fascination of mine for some time now. Rather than simply struggle through, I might as well document the journal and help those I can.