Virtual Machines are probably less common in SoHo (small office home office) environments, but can still have a place. The term “virtual machine” seems redundant: aren’t all things computing virtual? A virtual machine in this case is a file that runs like actual computer on top of the native OS and hardware. For example, your mac can run as a mac, but run Windows in a virtual machine on the same hardware.

There are a range of uses for virtual machines in a SoHo environment. Software development shops can use virtual machines to be able to run multiple development environments on the same hardware. Staff can run virtual machines as a way to protect against malware, where the VM subnet is different than it’s host, and the file system is separated too so it’s much harder to attack the primary subnet and devices on it. Virtual machines have the benefit of letting users easily return them to a prior state, which means an ability to hit the internet and then restore the machine to its baseline.

There are a range of VM platforms (e.g., Virtualbox and HyperV, both free on Windows, and Parallels for a fee and Virtualbox for free on Mac). To begin from scratch, you install the software, and then the guest operating system; alternatively you can copy VMs from one host to another to avoid repeated setups (if using a guest OS like Windows, you’ll probably need to purchase a copy of the OS though in some cases you can have one VM using the same Windows license as the host).

You can also put “Tails“, a linux based VM with a windows/Mac like graphical user interface (GUI) on a flash drive, and boot your computer from that drive. Tails includes “Tor”, a free “VPN” which helps obscure internet activity. So while Tails without some compromises is less desirable if you need data to persist (e.g., word docs), it has the advantage of a free VPN, obscuring internet activity, a separate environment from the host, and the ability easily to return the VM to a “known good” at the end of a session.

Depending on your needs, there are other alternatives to virtual machines. In some cases, having “remote access” to an on premise or cloud instance of a separate OS can make more sense. For example, you if you like Mac, having a windows machine on premise that you can remote into can in some cases make things more simple or less expensive (e.g., if your windows machine is a server with a windows server OS).