Are virtual machines free?

Virtual machines (VMs) allow users to run an operating system within another operating system. This provides flexibility and security benefits. When considering virtual machines, one common question is are virtual machines free? There are both free and paid VM options available.

Are virtual machines free?

Benefits of virtual machines

Virtual machines offer unique advantages for users:

  • Isolation and security: VMs run risk-free in an isolated environment without impacting the host or other VMs. This makes them great for testing applications or browsing unsafe sites.
  • Run multiple operating systems: VMs allow using Windows, Linux, and more on one device. Users can access programs or features exclusive to a specific OS.
  • Portability: VMs can transport between devices or be backed up without compatibility issues. This enables smooth workflows and continuity.
  • Scalability: IT teams can provision VMs quickly to meet changing infrastructure needs. More resources can be allocated to VMs as necessary.

Free virtual machine options

There are a few ways users can access and create virtual machines at no cost:


VirtualBox is an open-source VM client supporting Windows, Linux, Mac, and Solaris hosts and guests. Key features include:

  • User-friendly wizards to create VMs
  • Drag and drop files between host and guest
  • Shared folders for convenient data transfer
  • Snapshots to save VM states
  • Virtual networking and remote accessibility

As free software, VirtualBox offers full VM capabilities without restrictions. However, users must manually install guest operating systems.

VMware Player

VMware Player is a similar free VM client for Windows and Linux. It focuses on an isolated testing environment and does not include features like snapshots or guest customization. Users are limited to one VM on the host operating system.

Web Browser Sandboxes

Many web browsers like Google Chrome and Firefox provide free sandboxing features to run processes in isolated environments. This isn’t a full VM, but offers some protections when browsing online.

Paid virtual machine options

Full-featured virtualization platforms typically require paid licenses or subscriptions:

VMware Workstation

VMware Workstation enables power users and IT teams to run multiple VMs with advanced configuration options. It supports nearly any OS and snapshots, networking, peripheral passthrough, and automation through command line interface or scripts.

Pricing starts at $250 per license. Volume and academic discounts available.

Parallels Desktop

Parallels Desktop uniquely supports running Windows on Mac hardware down to the single license level. This allows accessing Windows-only software within macOS.

A standard license starts at $80 yearly for single PC use.

Oracle VirtualBox VM Instances

The paid Oracle VM VirtualBox offering adds premium capabilities like live migration of running VMs, clustering for high availability, and integration with other Oracle stack components.

Hidden costs

While core hypervisors like VMware ESXi, Citrix XenServer, and Oracle VM Server may themselves be free, building out infrastructure has expenses around:

  • Hardware: Servers, networking and data storage for robust infrastructure carries a heavy price tag. Cloud computing helps mitigate this cost.
  • Support and Management: Keeping large-scale deployments up, licenses current and workloads optimized takes manpower and tools.
  • Operating Systems and Software: The OS, databases, and applications running within VMs still require their own licensing in most situations. This is an easy hidden cost to overlook.

Even for single free VMs, the user must provide the host computing resources and install guest operating systems independently.

Use cases comparing free and paid VM options

Use Case Free VM Options Paid VM Options
Software testing/development Good option for personal use with VirtualBox Added capabilities around managing multiple OS versions
Running old applications Works for simple apps without integration needs Improved compatibility for complex legacy setups
Browse unsafely online Solid protection isolating browser sessions Commercial options add increased defense-in-depth
Train employees on software Allows basic hands-on learning More robust training setup with templates and management integration

Key Takeaways

  • There are viable free VM platforms like VirtualBox suited for personal experimentation with limits on scalability and features.
  • Full-scale virtual infrastructure requires paying for components like hardware, software, support, and OS licenses along with core hypervisors.
  • Commercial products offer improved capabilities around managing multiple VMs including portability, automation and optimized performance.
  • Consider both technology needs and long-term costs when evaluating virtualization approaches for personal use through enterprise implementation.


Evaluating the question are virtual machines free? depends greatly on the use case and feature requirements. While core hypervisors themselves may come at no cost, additional infrastructure, management, and operating system expenses can still apply in building out virtual environments. Understanding these considerations helps guide appropriate adoption of virtualization technology on an individual or organizational level. By setting up informed cost-benefit expectations around free and paid VM options, users and administrators can plan smart implementation roadmaps benefitting from these versatile platforms.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Can I use a free VM commercially?
    Most free hypervisors like VirtualBox have licensing restrictively prohibiting commercial use without purchasing enterprise licenses. Carefully review terms of service before utilizing free VMs commercially.
  2. Is VMware free for home use?
    VMware does offer its limited VMware Player desktop application at no cost for personal non-commercial use. However, advanced VMware offerings require purchase including vSphere for infrastructure management.
  3. What’s better VirtualBox or VMware?
    VirtualBox gives full VM capabilities for free. But VMware enables added VM customization, security, and infrastructure integration. Organizations with more complex needs may justify VMware’s paid offerings and associated training/support ecosytem.
  4. Can I run Mac OS on a VM?
    Running Mac OS requires Apple hardware, so it cannot run directly on third-party hypervisors. But for software testing, developers can access automated OS X VMs in the cloud through Apple’s paid Developer Enterprise program.
  5. Why are VMs important for business?
    Virtual machines allow business IT teams to efficiently allocate hardware resources, quickly provision software environments, enable infrastructure flexibility, isolate critical workloads, and reduce costs through hardware/software standardization.
  6. How do websites use virtual machines?
    Websites hosting customer data or applications often utilize VMs to isolate the separate environments needed for each client. This adds security, customization for diverse needs, and scalability to spin resources up/down.
  7. What are examples of virtual machine managers?
    Common virtual machine managers and hypervisors include VMware vSphere, Microsoft Hyper-V, Citrix XenServer, Oracle VM Server and Red Hat Virtualization. There are also open source options like Proxmox VE and OpenStack.
  8. Can you virtualize a gaming PC?
    Gaming PCs require specialized hardware for peak graphics and compute performance, which presents challenges virtualizing effectively. But tools like GPU passthrough allow assigning dedicated graphics resources to player-facing game VMs.
  9. What hardware do you need for virtualization?
    Robust servers with multi-core CPUs, plentiful RAM, fast network connectivity and enterprise-grade SAN or NAS storage arrays provide optimal virtualization infrastructure for hosting multiple VMs simultaneously with good performance.
  10. Is VMware Workstation free for students?
    Yes, students and faculty can obtain 1-year VMware Workstation Pro licenses for free via the VMware IT Academy program. Renewals require a paid license after the first year.
  11. Can I run OS X on VMware legally?
    Apple’s licensing only permits installing OS X on Apple-branded hardware. Running OS X virtual machines on unsupported VMware products or hardware configurations risks violating Apple’s EULA.
  12. What are examples of browser virtual machines?
    All major browsers now utilize process isolation and sandboxing to run content and extensions within discrete virtual environments for security. Chrome’s Site Isolation takes this further for additional browser tab protections.
  13. Can I get Windows 10 for free legally?
    Downloading Windows 10 freely involves piracy unless obtained officially through school/work schemes like Azure Dev Tools for Education. Legal use requires purchasing appropriate Windows 10 licenses for each machine.
  14. Is VirtualBox bad for gaming?
    VirtualBox gaming capabilities lag native play due to virtualized graphics drivers. Performance should improve as GPU passthrough and DRM bypass technologies mature around virtual environments.
  15. What is VMware vSphere and how does it work?
    VMware vSphere is an enterprise-grade data center virtualization platform for managing large clusters of host servers running many VMs unified under centralized rules, resources, and services for flexibility and scalability.
  16. How much does VMware cost?
    VMware has a range of products at various price points. Entry-level Essentials kits start around $500-600 for basic infrastructure. More advanced vSphere and VSAN deployments cost over $5,000 and additional for enterprise licensing.
  17. Can you run Windows 11 on VirtualBox?
    Yes, VirtualBox 6.1 and newer fully supports running Windows 11 guest VMs. Microsoft’s own compatibility restrictions around TPM and Secure Boot need to be observed when configuring Windows 11/Hyper-V virtual environments.
  18. What companies use VMware virtualization?
    Many Fortune 500 companies utilize VMware for optimal infrastructure flexibility, compatibility and management at scale. Well-known major customers include Verizon, UPS, FedEx, Citi, Ford, Boeing and more.

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