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Virtual sanity: How to get a grip on your home PCs

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Sysadmin blog Virtualisation can have a role in the home computing environment. Personal computers are kind of crap at migrating (or duplicating) your settings, applications and data from one system to another. Virtualisation can remove some of this grief.

In the consumer space, Windows PCs come preloaded with crapware. The shiny new notebook comes out of its box and goes straight onto the bench for a quick memtest, dban, and a clean reinstall of the operating system. A combination of Ninite* and Steam can get 95 per cent of my applications installed in an automated fashion, but this will still take the better part of a day.

After this, I have to set up my profile. Tell IE that no, I don’t in fact care for the way it is configured by default and would the annoying messages please go away and let me work. Aero snap has to be killed with fire, Classic Shell installed, browsers logged in to grab my accounts from the cloud and so on and so forth.

It’s all quite a bother. Even if I use Windows 7’s profile migration tool, it never seems to quite work right, and settings for some sure-to-be-critical application or browser don’t quite make it.

Apple still doesn’t quite do everything I need it to on the desktop; Windows 7 will eventually end up being required. Installing a bootcamp copy of Windows 7 brings me right back to square one there. Ditto Linux.

How to solve this dilemma? I could script complicated installers. Maybe even send a bottle of Scotch and a bag of money to the good folks at Ninite and see if I could sweet talk them into supporting the final few apps on my list.

That all seems like a great deal of effort. When I get home from a long day of fixing computers for a living the very last thing I want to do with my free time at home to fix yet more computers.

Offload the effort to a virtual machine server

Enter virtual machines. I built a small MiniITX Intel Sandy Bridge computer for the princely sum of $750. It serves as my HTPC, my Plex media server and my virtual server. Each member of the house has a personal virtual machine that contains the idiosyncratic digital cruft that forms our personal work environments. We can get at them from anything that can post an RDP client.

Suddenly, wasting time defanging the crapware off whichever endpoint we buy doesn’t really matter. Trying to get the computers at home to perform some new task isn’t an invitation to extracurricular insanity; it’s solved by a quick trip to the VMWare market to get a virtual appliance that just does the thing I need it to do.

Let’s look at backups as one example. In the case of my particular setup, my virtual host runs the virtual machines assigned it locally. Every so often it will run a complete image-based backup of itself every so often and dump that image on the house file server.

Shortly thereafter the backup virtual appliance will begin its run. It collects the "saved games" folders from any systems it can find on the network, the personal homefolders and the backup of the virtual host off the Synology and uploads the whole shebang to the TeamDrive server I keep at work.

Better still, avoiding work by playing some video game with a habit of freezing my PC no longer loses me any unsaved documents. I may replace endpoint after endpoint, but my little XP VM will still be there on the other end of an RDP session. A faithful friend configured "just right" and backed up by some little widget that I barely even remember exists.

My home "network in a box" is a lot less frustrating than the perpetual cycle of rebuilding with every upgrade, or trying to keep configuration and settings synced across multiple devices.

When we talk about virtualisation in the enterprise we talk about high availability, redundancy, failover, efficiency, consolidation and other such things. But virtualisation in the consumer space has delivered me something I find equally important. It "just works" ... and it works exactly the way I want it to. ®

Bootnote

* If you do anything involving Windows PCs, Ninite is required knowledge.

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