Reviving a dead PC with physical-to-virtual conversion

No need to have a funeral just yet. If your PC experiences a failure, you can use a P2V conversion of the hard drive to access all your applications and data from a virtual desktop.

Don't be alarmed if your PC drops dead as a doornail. A physical-to-virtual conversion of the hard drive can help breathe life back into your desktop.

There are several ways to create virtual machines (VMs) from physical ones, but most of those processes require you to purchase a virtualization platform as well as several tools to make the transition possible. Luckily, there is a low-cost -- if not free -- way to create virtual desktops using readily available software. Physical-to-virtual (P2V) conversion methods can help you recover applications and data off a failed PC.

Let's say you have a laptop that was damaged or stopped working due to a hardware failure. The unique components in a laptop computer mean that reviving the machine using traditional techniques may be out of the question. In the past, you could take the hard drive out of the dead system and place it into another. But today, that may result in a system that won't boot because of the tight integration between the operating system and the original hardware.

The good news is, if the hard drive is still functional, you can recreate the system as a virtual desktop. All it takes is converting the physical hard drive into a virtual hard drive (VHD) and then using that VHD file to create a VM. From that VM, you can launch a new virtual desktop to access the lost data.

That may sound like a complicated process, but transforming a physical machine into a virtual one is actually straightforward.

How to convert the physical hard drive

To cook up a virtual desktop from a failed machine, all you need is a recipe. Here are the basic ingredients for a P2V conversion:

  • A functioning hard drive from the dead system
  • A desktop system to serve as a virtual host
  • A method to connect the hard drive to the virtual host
  • A free P2V tool such as Microsoft's disk2vhd
  • A free desktop virtualization hypervisor such as Oracle's VirtualBox

Remove and reconnect the hard drive. The first step is to gain access to the hard drive of the system that is being converted. That may mean removing the hard drive from the notebook computer, which you can usually do by removing a couple of screws on the access cover and sliding the hard drive out.

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Next, the subject hard drive has to be connected to the host machine. In some cases, you can simply plug it in to the host PC's motherboard using SATA and power cables. However, that may involve partially disassembling the PC, which I would avoid. Instead, you could use an eSATA connector, if the host machine is equipped, or a USB-to-hard drive connection kit. Those kits include cables and an adaptor that allow a variety of hard drives to be connected to a PC via a USB 2.0 or 3.0 port.

Ideally, you should be able to plug the notebook hard drive into a desktop host PC and then have access to the volumes stored on that drive.

Create a VHD file. Once the drive is connected, it's time to grab the information off it with the disk2VHD tool.

Disk2VHD is a simple utility to use. When you launch the application, it searches for accessible volumes on connected hard drives. To convert the physical hard drive into a virtual hard disk, all you need to do is check off the appropriate boxes on disk2VHD, and then hit the Create button. The process can take a while, depending on the size of the volume being converted.

Create a new VM. After the conversion completes, you will have a VHD file that can be used by a virtualization platform such as Oracle's VirtualBox -- a useful free and open source tool for testing virtual servers and desktops. Launching VirtualBox brings you to a graphical user interface where you can start a wizard to create a new VM. The wizard allows you to set default options for the new VM, such as dedicated memory. Make sure to select the correct OS and choose the newly created VHD to build an accessible VM.

Once the wizard completes, launch the VM, and you'll have access to the applications, data files and most everything else that was on the original system. You may also want to run an inventory application such as the free Belarc Advisor, which gathers all the license keys and other information about installed applications. That way, those applications can be re-installed on a replacement system without too much hassle.

With the VM running, you can access applications, copy data or do whatever else is needed to return the user to productivity. That may even include cleaning up the VM by removing unneeded applications or legacy programs that were bundled onto the original system. Then, you can grant the user access to their virtual desktop with a locally installed copy of VirtualBox.

What else can P2V conversion do?

The P2V conversion process offers two primary benefits: the ability to recover what's lost due to failed hardware and a way to experiment with virtual desktops without incurring any costs.

For many organizations committed to virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), making a significant investment in platforms and tools is a fait accompli, meaning that the expenses have already occurred and the tools are already in house -- possibly for server virtualization. If you've converted physical servers to virtual ones, you may already understand the benefits and challenges of desktop virtualization.

Others look toward desktop virtualization with a more suspicious eye and have not yet gathered the evidence to merit an investment in the technology. To try out VDI in a free, safe way, you can use testing tools such as VirtualBox to create virtual desktops from physical machines.

This was first published in December 2012

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