Internet privacy and security course
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Chapter 27

Virtual machine and virtual operating system

What are virtual machines and virtual operating systems?

Virtual machineis an emulation of a computer system comprised of specialized software. A virtual computer has its own RAM, hard drive, processor and so forth. Basically, this is a separate computer in a physical computer which runs on shared physical hardware resources (RAM, processor and hard drive).

What kind of specialized software is this? In this course we will be looking at two popular system emulators - VirtualBox and VMware.

Virtual operating system is an operating system that runs on a virtual machine. You can install any system on a virtual machine that can run on your computer and be supported by the software used for virtualization. The full virtualization systems VirtualBox and VMware support practically all operating systems: Windows, Linux, macOS, FreeBSD.

One of the questions that we often get is, “Can the creation of a virtual machine affect my PC? When you create a virtual machine, you specify an amount of capacity, RAM and hard disk space to make available to it. Of course, virtual machines require quite powerful computers with at least 4GB of RAM.

Interview widget: Have you ever used virtual operating systems?

What’s inside of a virtual machine and virtual operating system?

  If you are a beginner, you may feel intimidated and confused about virtual machines. Let me show how a virtual machine looks like from inside. Below you can see a snapshot of my laptop that runs the primary operating system macOS, or the so-called host operating system.I powered up my laptop and launched VirtualBox that contains my virtual systems. 

VirtualBox macOS

I select, for instance, Linux Mint, and it launches as a program in my host operating system. This type of program describes a virtual operating system, or the so-called guest operating system.

VirtualBox Linux Mint

This is a full-fledged operating system with all applications, its own virtual hard drive, the ability to install new programs, save files. I can use IM services from it, social networks, watch movies, listen to music, work with text files, send emails.

Why do I need a virtual machine and virtual operating system?

First, you can use the virtual environment to open suspicious files and links. A virtual operating system with standard settings doesn’t have access to the primary system, and the malware from it can’t affect the host system. 

However, you should never rule out the possibility that vulnerabilities can infect the primary system. For instance, at the Pwn2Own 2017 security conference, a team of white hat hackers from Chinese internet security firm Qihoo 360 succeeded in breaking out of VMware's virtual machine sandbox and executed code on a host machine. But even worse was when another team of Chinse security researchers named Tencent exploited different bugs to compromise the system. The bugs were patched and the teams collectively earned $205,000.

A virtual machine comes very useful as a safe enclosed environment, but hackers are able to escape from it.


Don’t put all your trust in a virtual environment when you open files or links there.

Unfortunately, isolating a trusted environment is the only currently available way of protecting yourself from viruses and Trojans. We explore this topic at a deeper level in the chapter focusing on malware protection.

Second, you can use the virtual operating system Whonix currently regarded as the best system to keep your privacy and anonymity online. It will protect you even when your computer