Utility Spotlight: Create and Manage Virtual Machines

Microsoft Virtual PC gives you all the functionality you need to manage virtual machines, including running them in Windows XP mode.

Lance Whitney

Microsoft has several different tools to help you create and manage virtual machines (VMs). Starting with Virtual PC 2007, the company then launched Windows Virtual PC in 2009 to support Windows XP applications. You can now use Virtual PC to run other desktop OSes under Windows 7. Using any version of Windows 7 from Home Basic to Ultimate as your host, you can run Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7 as your guest.

Unfortunately, Virtual PC only supports 32-bit OSes as guests. To run a 64-bit OS in a VM, you’ll need to use Hyper-V or a third-party application. Virtual PC initially required hardware-based virtualization support, but Microsoft released an update in early 2010 to resolve this limitation.

Because Virtual PC was designed to run legacy Windows XP programs in Windows 7, the software includes Windows XP Mode by default, although you can download Virtual PC by itself. Windows XP Mode sets up its own fully licensed version of Windows XP SP3. It’s easy to install, but it does require Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise or Ultimate as hosts. If you plan to run individual Windows XP programs, Windows XP Mode is highly recommended.

You can download Virtual PC from its homepage on the Microsoft Web site. Click the button for “Get Windows XP Mode and Virtual PC now.” Decide whether you want to download just Windows Virtual PC or Virtual PC and Windows XP Mode together. You can click on the link, “Download Windows Virtual PC without Windows XP Mode,” to do just that. Otherwise, you can move on to the next step of selecting your version of Windows 7 and your machine’s native language.

Go Virtual

Downloading just Virtual PC will save the installation file: Windows6.1-KB958559-x86-RefreshPkg.msu or Windows6.1-KB958559-x64-RefreshPkg.msu. Run the file to install the necessary updates to enable Windows Virtual PC. Reboot after installation, and you’re ready to set up your first guest.

Select Windows Virtual PC from the Start Menu Programs area and click on Windows Virtual PC. The software opens a standard Windows Explorer window pointing to a default folder to store your VMs. There’s also a menu option to create a new VM.

Click on Create New Virtual Machine. Virtual PC will ask you to name your VM and show you the default location in which it will store the VM file. The next screen asks how much RAM to devote to your VM and whether to connect the VM to your network. At the next screen, you’ll see three choices: create a new dynamically expanding virtual disk, use an existing disk or create a new disk using advanced options (see Figure 1).

You’ll have numerous options as you set up your virtual machines

Figure 1 You’ll have numerous options as you set up your virtual machines.

The advanced options let you specify whether the virtual disk should be fixed in size, expand dynamically as needed, or whether you need Virtual PC to store changes separately so the original disk stays the same size. The first two options let you specify the size of the disk. The third option asks you to select a parent virtual disk.

After you’ve made your choice, click Create. Virtual PC will create the virtual disk VHD file in the default location. The new VM will appear with the name you entered and the extension .vmcx, which you’ll see in the Explorer window.

To install the guest OS, select the .vmcx file and click on the Settings menu item. From the Settings panel on the left, select DVD Drive. You can point to either an ISO file or a physical disk with the OS you wish to install (see Figure 2). Make your selection and click OK. You can now double-click the .vmcx file in the Explorer window to power it up and install your guest OS.

There are also several options when installing your virtual machine guest OS

Figure 2 There are also several options when installing your virtual machine guest OS.

While the guest OS is being installed in the VM window, you can return to your host PC by pressing the Windows key on your keyboard. Click back on the window to revert mouse control back to the VM.

After you’ve installed the guest OS, click on the Tools menu and select the option Install Integration Components. Follow the steps to install these components and any other suggested updates. After this installation, you’ll be able to move your mouse between your host and guest windows. The VM will also support USB drives and other external devices connected to your host.

Like most VM applications, Virtual PC lets you switch your guest between a full-screen window and a smaller, resizable window. It also allows you to run multiple guests at once.

Windows XP Mode

Opting to use Windows Virtual PC and Windows XP Mode together requires a few more steps. First, you’ll have to download and install the Windows XP Mode application. Then install Virtual PC and reboot your PC. If you’ve already updated your system to Windows 7 SP1, the process is done. If not, you’ll need to return to the download page and follow the final step to download the update that bypasses the need for hardware virtualization.

Launch Windows XP Mode from the Windows Virtual PC Start Menu Programs area to install the fully licensed version of Windows XP. After accepting the license terms, you’ll see the default location for your VM and be prompted for a password to use Windows XP VM. You can then turn on Automatic Updates and share your Windows 7 folders with Windows XP if you wish. Windows XP is now installed (see Figure 3).

Installing Windows XP mode with Virtual PC lets you run older Windows XP applications

Figure 3 Installing Windows XP mode with Virtual PC lets you run older Windows XP applications.

After you set up your Windows XP VM, you can install your individual legacy applications or other software. You can then run a Windows XP application directly from Windows 7 by opening the Windows Virtual PC Start Menu folder, drilling down to Windows XP Mode Applications, and then choosing the program.

Windows Virtual PC does lack certain advanced features found in other VM applications, such as support for 64-bit OSes and server editions of Windows. Nevertheless, Virtual PC does serve a useful niche.

Virtual PC is well-suited for running different OSes to test applications and features without affecting the host environment. Windows XP Mode is one option for running legacy applications not compatible with Windows 7. You can learn more about Virtual PC on its FAQ page.


Lance Whitney

**Lance Whitney **is a writer, IT consultant and software trainer. He’s spent countless hours tweaking Windows workstations and servers. Originally a journalist, he took a blind leap into the IT world in the early ’90s.