I’m replacing all of my computers that operate with Windows XP; I have one laptop that runs Windows 7 Pro; I run one program, a specialty program for Dentistry with the Windows Virtual PC, XP mode, on that Windows 7 Pro laptop. Is running this in Windows XP mode as risky as running Windows XP after support for XP ends?
This is a really good question. I’m glad you asked, because I’m afraid that a number of people might be making some dangerous assumption about virtual machines and XP mode.
It is in fact, one of the common recommendations for folks that have software such as you do, that can’t be run on anything after Windows XP, to use a virtual machine to be able to run Windows XP and that special software. (XP mode is really just a virtual machine.)
Is it as risky as running XP natively? Well, yes and no, but mostly yes.
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A virtual machine is best thought of as a completely separate machine. So, what that means is that running XP in a virtual machine isn’t technically any less risky.
XP, or any operating system you might run in a virtual machine doesn’t really benefit from being in a virtual machine in any significant way when it comes to security. It’s still connected to your network and to the internet.
Perhaps most importantly, you cannot count on it benefiting from the security software that you might be running on the containing or host machine – your Windows 7 machine in this case. The fact that you’re running anti-malware tools in your Windows 7 machine actually means nothing to the Windows XP virtual machine. The anti-malware tools have no way to peek inside or secure the virtual machine. So you really do have to treat the virtual machine as if it were a completely separate physical machine.
With XP, that means the usual litany: anti-malware tools; turning on the XP firewall, and of course using common sense to keep it as safe and secure as possible.
Protecting the host
What the virtual machine does do however is protect the host machine. If the XP machine gets infected, the host is not immediately impacted. It’s just as if a Windows XP machine somewhere on your network is getting infected. Whether it can spread to other machines on the network then depends on the specific malware, the vulnerabilities that it’s exploiting (which are hopefully fixed on your post-Windows XP machines) and of course, your own security measures.
Another advantage to running Windows XP in a virtual machine is that it makes it somewhat easier to back up. Rather than running back up software in the virtual machine – which you can certainly do if you like – it’s actually much simpler to shut down the virtual machine, and back up or make copies of the files that contain the virtual hard disk and the virtual machine definition.
So, mostly so far, all I’ve said is no. No, your XP machine in a virtual machine isn’t really any more secure than XP on a real machine. But I did start by saying yes and no.
The additional security is you
The “yes” part really comes from what I’ll call the change in your usage pattern. By having your Windows 7 operating system as your primary operating system, which is supported, up to date, and secure, you can do one very important thing: use the XP virtual machine only for those things that you can do only in Windows XP. No email, no web surfing. All that should happen in the host operating system; the one that’s supported, secure and up to date.
By restricting what you do inside of that virtual machine to the bare minimum required, you’re actually reducing what security people like to call the “attack surface”. The number of ways that your computer can be compromised is reduced simply because you’re doing your potentially riskier endeavors in a different and supported environment.