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I have a laptop that I'd like to run multiple operating systems on, at the same time. Specifically, I'd like to be able to boot up a Windows 7, if needed, a Windows XP, if needed, and a Ubuntu desktop, if needed.

Basically, I'm wondering if there's a virtualization setup that doesn't require a big operating system as the main host, so that the main host is streamlined for just booting up a virtual machine package and load virtualized machines inside that.

I have a VMware 7 license for Windows, and since I like VMware, buying a Linux-license is not outside my scope.

However, VMware needs a host operating system, how lean can I make the Linux host and still be able to run VMware on top of it?

Or is there some other product that works well? I don't want a home-clobbered virtual machine application that doesn't accelerate graphics drivers, etc., I still want as much performance as possible from the machine, but I'm of course willing to let some of it go to the overhead of virtualizing things.

Basically, my main goal is to load as small an operating system as the host OS as possible, consuming as little memory as possible, so that the rest of the machine is left for the virtualized machines.

Anyone have any tips?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The VM hosts I run are VMWare on top of a very minimal Debian install. I install Debian with next to nothing (not even selecting "standard system" during the install process), add a few tools and accessories that are useful for diagnostics later or that are handy to have at the console generally (psmisc, htop, vim, pv, 7zip, ...), add the libraries needed by VMWare, then install VMWare itself. That is as small as you'll get without hand rolling your own distro.

Unfortunately you have extra complications though: my setups like this are all server boxes with hardware that is known to be good for Linux compatibility. The base Linux setup may require more work on your laptop, for a start you will need to install and configure the relevant support for your wireless adaptor and such. If there is one of the operating systems that you are likely to use more than the others then I might suggest just using that as the host OS with VMWare workstation/server/player atop that for the other OSs - you could always minimise the host's footprint before starting a VM by shutting off services you won't on the host need while using the VMs (like local database servers for instance) - in either Linux or Windows this sort of thing should not be difficult to script.

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I like this idea; and to take it a step further, would be to install Gentoo and tailor the kernel to the hardware to further-minimalize the host operating system. Then again, this requires more time and knowledge about your hardware. –  Scott Feb 18 '10 at 16:19

My home brew solution to this a few years back was to do a basics only install of Linux and X-Windows on a machine and load VMWare Server. I would then remote into each of the machines I wanted using RDP on linux. I used Fedora Core and Ubuntu for this and it worked well.

Most HyperVisors, which is the technology you refer to, comes with no interface. The most common one's I am aware of his Hyper-V HyperVisor which uses Windows Server 2008 Server Core, and VMware ESX. However the focus of these platforms are mainly server virtualization in managed environment. There isn't any of these catered for the scenario your mentioning.

The closest I can think of would be Xen which comes with Linux itself, however I am not sure if it supports the more rescent hardware virtualization and performance features.

Personally I now use VMWare Fusion on my MacBook for my multiple OS needs and it works well in my environment. The major reason I wanted this was to do demonstrations for talks, and for that I built a notebook with just Virtual Machines on it using Hyper-V. The concept of running multiple OS's wears off quite quickly to be honest, since you end up living in one more then the others. Really analyse your needs and then go this route.

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A stripped down linux is pretty lightweight. I virtualise XP, Vista and ubuntu on top of an Archlinux install on a centrino duo laptop bought in 2000, and the performance is more than adequate.

As Djago and David mention, you'll not easily get more lightweight than a stripped linux install.

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I use VirtualBox (by Oracle) and I'm able to run a full Debian Squeeze Gnome desktop and a virtualized Windows XP desktop running a game on a 7 year old Toshiba Tecra A2 (1500Mhz, 512Mb RAM). You needn't spend any money for virtualization.

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If you have the correct hardware, I would recommend you take a quick look at Xen Client, which is currently available for free from Citrix Systems.

I used it briefly on a ThinkPad T400 with... mixed success. The machine booted into the Xen Client environment extremely quickly, and from there, running everything feels just a little bit compromised. You have the same resource juggling game you do for virtual machines on a desktop, relatively few types of clients are supported right now, discrete graphics are (or were when I tried) unsupported and power management was not quite as good in the XenClient environment as it is when I was booting Windows Vista or Windows 7 natively.

I don't know how well the support for non-windows guests is, but I was able to run XP and 7 concurrently with no significant issues. One potentially nice thing is that if you're running XenServer on a server or desktop somewhere, you can run the synchronizer VM on your server and automatically back up the clients on your laptop.

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