Have a Virtual New Year
This month, I thought I would use a theme for the column using completely different topics that all use the word "virtual." This includes virtual reality (VR), virtual machines (VM), and virtual private networking (VPN). Let's start with VPN.
Virtual Private Networking
Networking in this context is connecting two or more computers together. Most modern computers have network hardware and software built-in allowing connections to a network (typically Ethernet) or use of Wi-Fi to connect wirelessly and communicate with other computers. Some protocols like transport layer security (TLS) used in the HTTPS protocol are supposed to prevent others from being able to access the communications sent using these networks. HTTP does not provide this protection. Also, HTTPS is often compromised by intermediaries that either intercept or block the communication. Internet service providers (ISP) can listen to all non-secure communications, and while they cannot read the messages sent via TLS, they know where the messages are being sent.
Virtual private networking (VPN) is a protocol that uses an encrypted communications channel to send Internet data to a trusted third party, which then forwards the information to its destination. The ISP or local computer network cannot see the contents of the message, and it cannot see the message’s destination. Your ISP cannot see the contents or the address, other customers in Starbucks cannot see it, and the hotel you are staying in can't.
The VPN protects your internet traffic from being monitored on the public internet.
I expect to write a more detailed discussion of VPN in a future column. If you want more information now, you may want to look here: https://thatoneprivacysite.net/.
Virtual reality is a computer-generated environment that includes a 3D video display that may also be combined with sound and motion. Today, there are several 3D technologies that are becoming popular toys. The least expensive ones have you place your smart cell phone into a holder and run a VR app. A good example of this is the Google Cardboard viewer. You can build one yourself or purchase one on the internet for a few dollars. It is made mostly of cardboard and holds your cell phone, which runs a VR app. There are many free apps available on the Google Play store and iTunes that work with the cardboard viewer. There are also similar devices made of plastic that sell for under $20.
Virtual Machines and Emulators
This last category is about "virtual machines." A virtual machine is a computer created using software. It may run its own operating system and applications and may emulate different hardware than the hardware running the virtual machine software. The computer running the VM software is called the host or virtual host, and the virtual machine is called the guest. The host runs a hypervisor that manages the guests. Most computers using a multi-core processor from Intel or AMD have hardware designed to run a VM nearly fast as the host machine it runs on. This allows a Macintosh to run a Windows guest or a Windows host to run different versions of Windows or Linux. A multi-core CPU can often run 2 or 3 virtual machines at the same time. VirtualBox (http://virtualbox.org) is a free and open source hypervisor that runs on Windows, Apple OSX, and Linux and can easily run various versions of Windows and Linux guests.
In general, a hypervisor runs on the host and is designed to leverage the host’s hardware to support running multiple guests on the same hardware. An emulator is a special case of a virtual machine where the hardware of the guest including the central processing unit (CPU) is emulated completely in software. This emulation software is typically written to mimic the actual hardware as closely as possible.
DOSBox (http://dosbox.org) is software that emulates the 8086 processor from the original IBM PC. This allows DOSBox to run old DOS applications. If you still have old DOS games you like to play; you can run DOSBox on your Windows or Linux computer and still play them.
There are also emulators for the Commodore 64, the Apple IIe, the GameBoy, and many other old computers and gaming systems. DOSBox and some of these other emulators will even run on a Raspberry Pi. This lets these old games run on today's modern computers.
I hope your holidays are wonderful and you have fun playing with your new technology toys!