At the end of 2003, Microsoft released a revised version of the Connectix Virtual PC for Windows 2.5 software--which it had acquired from Connectix in February of 2003--as Microsoft Virtual PC 2004. Virtual computer software lets users run multiple OSs simultaneously on one computer as independent virtual computers. Although vendors such as VMWare (which EMC recently purchased) push the use of virtual computer software as a server-consolidation methodology, the first version of Virtual PC 2004 is designed for users of Windows client software (i.e., Windows XP Professional Edition or Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and Windows 2000 Professional) to virtualize computers running all versions of XP, Win2K, Windows NT 4.0 Service Pack 6 (SP6), Windows Me, Windows 98 Second Edition (Win98SE), Win9x, OS/2 Warp 4 with Fix Pack 15, and MS-DOS 6.22.
Running virtual machine (VM) software on the client side is extremely useful for IT administrators. Doing so lets you prototype rollouts, application deployments, and application upgrades without needing to dedicate additional computers to the task. With network virtualization, applications behave as if they were installed on your physical network, which can help head off surprises when you perform tasks on the physical network.
Virtual PC 2004 isn't the memory hog you might think. You can set up an XP or Win2K VM in 128MB of memory or less. A midrange Pentium 4 processor with 1GB of RAM is a good, inexpensive platform that can host three or four running VMs. Virtual PC 2004 supports as much as 4GB of unpaged physical memory, so if you have a motherboard that can support that much RAM, you could completely virtualize a departmental network in one computer. A configuration like this lets you do a lot of "what if" analysis. For example, you could change the parameters of the various computers in the department; add applications, service packs, and hot fixes; and attend to a myriad of administrative tasks on a network that can be totally destroyed by a rogue application, then taken back to the preinstallation state in a few minutes.
If you deploy applications across a network to multiple generations of Windows client OSs, you can virtualize all those Windows versions on one computer, then observe how your new applications behave on identical virtual hardware. This capability alone can save hours of otherwise tedious work. And because VM software lets you store installation configurations, Help desks, for example, could duplicate a user's system configuration from the prestored version and experiment with various solutions to help the user without modifying that user's actual system.
Dozens of potential uses exist for the Virtual PC 2004 software. You can download a 45-day evaluation version of the software from the Microsoft Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/virtualpc . Single-user retail pricing starts at $129 (which is $100 less than the product sold for in its previous incarnation). Volume-licensing agreements are also available.