Using a virtual machine to run 32-bit software on a modern PC

In this post, I’ll talk about how to set up a virtual machine on a PC, in order to run outdated software that may have been optimized for a different version of Windows. For example, a collaborator of mine uses the EPA Water Treatment Plant model which only seems to work under 32-bit versions of the operating system.

  1. Get the virtual machine. Download VirtualBox which is the virtual machine software. VirtualBox is free, and seems to work well with what we’re doing, but note that there are also other virtual machines as well. Essentially, this program sets up an entire new “virtual” computer within your computer, so you can install different operating systems, etc. The computer that you are actually sitting and working on is the “host” computer, whereas the computer you will set up later will be called the “virtual” computer. Be careful when you are downloading VirtualBox: select the proper “host” computer. For example, if you are sitting at a Windows machine, make sure to download VirtualBox for Windows.
  2. Obtain a copy of the operating system you want to install. For University of Colorado Boulder students and faculty, you have access to various versions of Windows software for free online. The current link to download Microsoft Software is here for faculty and staff. If you are a student, visit this link, log in with your CU Identikey and Password, click the gear in the top right, “Office 365 Settings”, select “Software”, and you should then have the download page for Office 365 available to you. If either of the links are outdated, or you are at another institution, do an internet search for the office of information technology and see if your institution has a site license. Anyway, if you are trying to work with the EPA Water Treatment Model as I mentioned above, you will want a 32-bit Windows operating system, and I found Windows 7 to work just fine. So download the Windows 7 32-bit image: it will be a *.iso file. Take note of where you store the file, you’ll need it later. Another quick note: the iso file is large, and the virtual machine software can be somewhat taxing on your computer, so if your “host” computer is old and without space, this might not work for you.
  3. Install VirtualBox After you install the program, you may have to restart. When you first open it, the program will tell you that you don’t have any virtual machines set up on your computer. Click the plus button to add a new one, and when prompted, tell it that you want an operating system that matches the one you downloaded. If you are working along with the EPA example, it will be Windows 7 (32 bit). It will then ask you where your Windows 7 software is installed. This is when you set the path to the iso file you downloaded up in step 2.
  4. Install Windows within the “virtual” computer. Once you go through that process, it will now look like you are installing Windows 7 on a little computer inside your computer. This is good! Wait for the installation process to proceed, and answer the questions it asks you when necessary. One question for example, will be whether you want to upgrade your Windows installation or start a new one. The answer is you want a new installation. Remember: Your virtual computer is like a new computer! So you’ll want to have a new installation of Windows, because there is actually nothing to upgrade here.
  5. Set up the ability to transfer files from the host to the virtual computer. Keep in mind: Nothing is shared with the virtual computer until you set it up to be shared with it. So, you may have a folder on your host computer, or a USB stick or the like, but the virtual computer will not “see” it until you set it up. First you need to set up VirtualBox to set up shared folders. Shared folders will not work until you do this! So first, under the Devices menu in the VirtualBox, click that you want to insert the Guest Additions disc. This sets up a set of drivers on your virtual computer that enable you to set up shared folders between the host and virtual machine. Next, you can set up the ability to copy and paste between machines, or set up a shared folder.
  6. Start running your model! Now you should be ready to set up the model on your virtual computer. When we were working with this, we set up a shared folder on the host and virtual computer. Files from the host will be in a network drive on the virtual computer. Open up that virtual drive, and then you’ll be able to see your files properly. Important! Sometimes you might not want to actually work in that shared folder. That’s because some features of the file may not be available to you. For example, in the EPA Water Treatment Plant model, you need to right-click on the file properties in order to enable compatibility mode for, say, Windows XP. Instructions on how to do this are here, when you scroll down to “manual” settings. We found that changing compatibility settings only worked if the file was actually stored on the actual virtual machine, not in the shared folder.

Hopefully this gave you some good information on how to set up and use a virtual machine! Please write comments below if you have any questions or you need more information.

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