The best (and cheapest) ways to get Windows and Linux for virtual machines

The best (and cheapest) ways to get Windows and Linux for virtual machines

Summary: You can install any modern Windows or Linux version, desktop or server, using Hyper-V in Windows 8.1. But you'll need to bring your own license and software for the base OS. Here's how to get that OS cheap or even free.

TOPICS: Virtualization

One of the most impressive features of Windows 8.1 Pro is Hyper-V. It's Microsoft's top-of-the-line, enterprise-grade virtualization solution, and it's a godsend for developers, security researchers, IT pros, and anyone who wants to tinker with PCs without screwing up a perfectly good working system.


We've put together step-by-step instructions to help you understand what Hyper-V is, check that your hardware is capable of being used for Hyper-V and, assuming your PC passes the compatibility test, how to get it running. Good news: It's not complicated. 

After Hyper-V is successfully set up, you have the capability to create your own virtual machines, without the hassle of physical hardware and cables.

My ZDNet colleague Larry Seltzer pinged me today with a very good question: Where do you get the operating system software to install in those VMs?

I want to create a Win 8.1 VM.  I know I can get install media and a key from my MSDN subscription, but am I not able to use the Win 8.1 I have preloaded? I need a separate key for each VM?

I recall that Windows XP Mode in Windows 7 included an XP license. What happened to that feature?

Larry has a good memory.

Windows XP Mode was a signature feature of Windows 7 Professional and higher versions. It included a copy of Windows Virtual PC, a rudimentary virtualization tool that was good enough to handle the custom Windows XP Mode package.

The point of XP Mode was to remove a stumbling block for anyone who had an older peripheral for which Windows 7 drivers weren't available (yes, XP Mode recognized USB devices) or needed to run a program that wasn't compatible with Windows 7.  (If you're curious, here's "A closer look at Windows XP Mode", from late 2009.)

Windows 8 has no such option. You can install any modern Windows or Linux version, desktop or server, using Hyper-V. But you'll need to bring your own license and software for the base OS. Here are the best ways to do that:

Windows Enterprise with Software Assurance

If your PC has a Volume License upgrade to Windows Enterprise Edition with Software Assurance attached, you are entitled to a slew of enhanced installation rights, including some useful Virtual Desktop Access rights.

The most relevant item on that list is the right to run up to four virtual instances of Windows in local virtual machines (VMs) on the licensed device. You also get the right to create a dual-boot installation using the same OS, which is normally prohibited.

Software Assurance isn't a product you can purchase individually. Your organization needs a volume license agreement with Microsoft first, making this option realistic primarily for very large companies.

Evaluation Software from Microsoft

If you need a Windows VM for occasional compatibility testing, especially for a project that will only last for a few months, this is an excellent option.

You can download free 90-day evaluation versions of Windows 7, Windows 8, or Windows 8.1 from Microsoft's TechNet Evaluation Center. The latest version of Windows Server is available from the MSDN Evaluation Center and is good for 180 days.

All of these evaluation versions are full-featured, with no limitations during the evaluation period. At the end of the evaluation period, you need to start over with a fresh registration and a fresh download. The downloads are in ISO format and can be directly attached to a Hyper-V VM for installation.

Ready-made VMs for Internet Explorer

Microsoft's modern.IE site has a rich library of test VMs designed primarily for testing Internet Explorer, but you can use them for more thorough testing if you want.

The test VMs are available for OS X, Linux, and Windows, with support for VMware Player and VirtualBox as well.  On Hyper-V, you can get virtual machine image files running Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows 8.1, with your choice of Internet Explorer versions.

The downloads come as multi-part compressed files (RAR format) that need to be reassembled into a virtual machine. The resulting file is ready to run with no OS installation required.

MSDN subscription software

There was a time, not so long ago, that the easy answer to this question would have been, "Get a TechNet subscription." Alas, Microsoft shut down that program last year, and the very last TechNet software subscriptions are ending for good this month.

The alternative is a subscription from MSDN, which is aimed at software developers. The MSDN Operating Systems subscription, which costs $699 a year, includes access to the latest versions of Windows and Windows Server, "for development and testing purposes."

These downloads are must be installed manually (on physical hardware or in a new virtual machine), but unlike evaluation editions they have no expiration date. You're expected to stop using any software acquired through this subscription if the term ends and you don't renew, but there's no time bomb in the software itself.

Packaged software

Retail versions of Windows are available from just about any online retailer in retail and OEM versions.

The OEM versions are typically sold at a significant discount over the corresponding retail version. For example, Amazon and Newegg currently have the Windows 7 Professional System Builder DVD (OEM) for around $140. The full retail package, by contrast, runs about $300, if you can find it.

The licensing rules for OEM software are, quite literally, insane. If you buy an OEM System Builder version of Windows 7, its license terms specifically prohibit you from installing it in a new virtual machine for your own personal use. However, there is no technical restriction to prevent you from doing so, and the resulting copy passes activation, validation, and every anti-piracy check.

Special Feature

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Virtualizing the Enterprise

Virtualization has swept through the data center in recent years, enabling IT transformation and serving as the secret sauce behind cloud computing. Now it’s time to examine what’s next for virtualization as the data center options mature and virtualization spreads to desktops, networks, and beyond.

For Windows 8, Microsoft removed that restriction and in fact create a new license type called a "Personal Use License for System Builder," which specifically permits installation in a virtual machine. Buy that version and your upgrade to Windows 8.1 is free.

And then, insanely, Microsoft released Windows 8.1 and changed the license terms back to the Windows 7 version, removing the Personal Use Rights license. So if you buy a Windows 8 System Builder OEM box and install it in a virtual machine, you can upgrade it to Windows 8.1 and you have followed the license terms to the letter. Buy a Windows 8.1 System Builder copy and do the same thing and you're technically in violation of license terms.

I told you it was crazy.

Linux on Hyper-V

Microsoft actively supports running Linux in Hyper-V virtual machines. Most modern Linux distros include Microsoft's Linux Integration Services (LIS), which enable Hyper-V devices with Linux running as a guest OS. Hyper-V Program Manager Ben Armstrong, for example, offers this detailed look at Ubuntu 14.04 running in Hyper-V on Windows 8.1.

Can you spot any options I missed? Send me a note via the contact form form or leave a comment in the Talkback section.

Topic: Virtualization

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  • I prefer VirtualBox

    I prefer VirtualBox because is available for Windwos, Linux and Mac as a host. So I can move the virtual machines from one evironment to another regardless of the operating system. That is something you cannot do with Hyper-V.
    • "That is something you cannot do with Hyper-V"

      Nor with KVM and Xen.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • Actually, you can do that with KVM
        • @jessepollard

          He's not talking about live migration. He means moving the VM to various host OS, i.e. Linux, Windows, Mac using the fact that VirtualBox binaries exist for all those platofrms.
        • Read the OPs comment again ... no hypervisor will do

          The virtualization software must run on Windows, GNU/Linux and OS X which pretty much means that a desktop virtualization solution, such as Oracle VirtualBox, is required.

          One could export a VM, using either the OVA or OVF format, from a hypervisor such as Hyper-V, Xen or KVM and import it into VirtualBox.
          Rabid Howler Monkey
          • Correction: No *type 1* hypervisor will do

            Oracle VirtualBox is a type 2 hypervisor (as are VMware Workstation and Parallels). Microsoft's discontinued Virtual PC was also a type 2 hypervisor.
            Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Agreed

      Virtual Box allows me to run Windows 8.1 under Windows 7, which I don't believe MS allow using Hyper-V (although I could be mistaken).
      • You can run Hyper-V as a standalone

        but I don't think it can run on top of Windows 7 (not sure about that though).

        You can run Windows 7 and Windows 8 as vms in Hyper-V
    • So i can use W7 under Linux?

      That would be awesome considering i am giving up Windows for Linux though i would need to make sure the hardware can accommodate both Linux and Windows easily.
      • Virtual Box = no more dual booting

        I run Linux Mint 13 on a 32-bit 2006-2007 vintage Lenovo X60. With Maximum RAM of 3GB I have no trouble firing up virtual (VBOX) Win 7 Pro N when I need to. However, I would like to be able to install and use more RAM so my next "upgrade" will be to a 64-bit laptop. Enough RAM is critical since the host machine and the virtual machine share the physical memory, however, "enough" depends upon what you are doing.
      • that's the way to go...

        Most certainly. we run Kubuntu 12.04LTS (when it runs out we purchase another drive... this would be in 2017). we don't upgrade between LTS releases so much a pain to do that! for example we have Ubuntu 10:04 as well and use it quite often because we got stuff over there that is not compiled under kubuntu. Anyway win7 runs great as a GUEST under virtualbox. nice thing it only costs you a copy of win7. We run 16gb RAM but only devote 6gb to win7. if it needs more (and for our usage it doesn't) we'd give it more simply because linux is NOT at all a resource hog. btw unity sucks and that's the ONLY reason we switched off of ubuntu and onto kubuntu.
    • VB Fan

      I have been using VB since I first started using Linux in 2010. Even though I have switched distro's quite a few times, I am still running Win XP Pro on it. It is still the same one from the start. I have had quite a few versions of Linux on it, Win 7, Win 8, etc. It is great for building and testing custom configs on.
      Brian Schrader
  • How to get Hyper-V to disply full screen?

    Hyper-V only if you don't mind working inside a small box on your screen. Virtualbox and VMware both allow the VM to use the host machine's resolution. Hyper-V needs rdp to achieve the same effect. Sometimes, you just don't understand Microsoft :(
    • Re: How to get Hyper-V to disply full screen....

      So its a reasonable assumption that Hyper-V does not have the equivalent of VMware Tools or Guest Additions.
      • Like what?

      • Hyper-V "tools"

        Hyper-V has the equivalent of VMware tools. they are called "Integration Services" and do much the same thing
      • how to get Hyper V to display full screen

        You could try RDP (remote desktop connection) to it. That is how I get full screen access to a VM running on another machine and there should be no reason why it doesn't work for a VM on the same machine (assuming that you can resolve a connection to it).
    • Hyper-V also needs rdp for guest VM audio support

      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • ... RDP for guest VM audio

        Running Hyper-V Server (which is also free, BTW) with a combo of Win8.1, Win7 and WinSrv2012R2.

        All pipe their noises thru to the RDP client on the other end.

        Or maybe I misunderstood your statement...
        • My point was that using RDP is necessary

          if one wants to hear the noises associated with audio content on their Hyper-V guest VM. As Hyper-V does not emulate sound cards.

          I do wonder why Microsoft chose not to emulate sound cards with Hyper-V ...
          Rabid Howler Monkey