"Then it is dark; a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains." - John Cheever

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Portable Virtual Privacy Machine

(A review by Phaemon)

A few months back I linked to this Virtual Machine you could run from a USB drive. At the time, I'd intended to try it out as I was expecting to get a 1GB USB drive from work. It mysteriously got lost on its way to me , so I'm still waiting for one. However, I realised that I could just run the thing from my harddisk, so here's a review to let you know what it is, what it's like and what it's used for.

First, from the above link, I just clicked the Download button and then downloaded the .zip file. It's about 87 MB, so not one for those on dial-up! I then unzipped it to a folder on my Desktop, double-clicked the qemu-win.bat file, as the readme.txt had instructed, and pressed Enter to start the boot. If I was on a linux machine, I would run the boot-linux.bat file instead. (screenshot)

It then opened a window that looked like a computer booting Linux. It detected the hardware, and found my network connection. This is the point where I realised that this is *slow*. I guess it's a full machine emulator, but even running on a 3 GHz Hyperthreaded P4, 512 MB RAM, it's pretty sluggish. I did notice that it only saw one of the processors (hyperthreading means the operating system should see two). I guess at least that had the advantage of letting me write this at the same time without slowing my machine completely to a crawl. (screenshot)

When booting was done I was left at the default desktop (screenshot) Notice at the top it says "QEMU - Press Ctrl-Shift to exit grab" This just means you press Ctrl-Shift to return the mouse cursor control to Windows. It's also obvious from the screenshot that they've based this on Damn Small Linux (DSL).

Next, to try out some web browsing (yes, I know the Dillo web browser is already running; I mean on Firefox). I double clicked on Firefox and....well, it just worked...the same as running it in Windows really. These guys have a bit of an intimidating home page, but since they're trying to sell their security stuff I guess that's understandable! (screenshot) I've blotted out the network details, since they're mine, but it's pretty much what any website sees when you visit it. It's worth nothing that Firefox took 30 seconds to start, though it might have been a bit quicker as I'd made an earlier configuration error while messing around which could have slowed it down. More on this later...

OK, it can run off any drive, including USB stick, so it's Portable. It's runs in an emulator, so it's Virtual. What about the Privacy bit? Well, that's the Metropipe Tunneler icon you saw on the Desktop. I double click that, click Start Tunnel and when it says Tunneler Connected I can start (or restart) Firefox. See the difference? (screenshot) I'm now connected with an encrypted connection through Metropipe's servers. No website knows where I'm coming from, and the connection is encrypted right to my Desktop. Very easy.

Well, that's about it. Any changes you make are saved in the folder you run it from, so you can use any computer running either Windows or Linux with a net connection, to get on the net without altering their configuration in any way, and with your own customised one. I think this is a project with a lot of potential. Well worth a shot if you've got around 90 Meg of free disk space...

Free to download and use
Easy to setup (almost no setup really!) and run
Privacy and a virtual machine all in one little useful package
Can run from a folder on a harddisk or off USB stick
Can run on any Windows or Linux machine

No MacOS X support (yet; it's apparently coming)
Not running the latest software

[OK, the problem mentioned earlier and described below was my own stupid fault. I closed the Tunneler without stopping it. You'd think I could manage an application that has just two buttons...]

(Oh yes, I promised to mention that problem with starting Firefox. It was that I'd run the Tunneler in a previous session and it automatically set it up to use the Tunneler (as a proxy). When I went back in I'd forgotton to turn it off, and it had saved the setting. I now don't seem to be able to make it remember to NOT use a proxy. I can set it and run it, but if I restart Firefox, it's looking to go through the Tunneler again. Odd bug, but nothing major. I could probably fix it if I really looked...)


Colin said...

wow - impressive. but other than privacy, I'm still not entirely sure of the point, since you need a computer to run the thing anyway. what other advantages are there?

phaemon said...

Well, as mentioned, you can run your own programs in your own environment on someone else's computer without changing any of their settings, and no matter if they're running Windows or Linux. Actually, having poked about a bit more, I'm not enamoured of their actual setup, but the concept I think it great, and could be really cool with some additional work. It would be very good if qemu (the emulator program) could be made to run a bit faster. That would speed everything up. Also, I've heard there is a version of qemu for MacOS X and that *would* be cool, to be able to use a Mac as well...

john said...

that is pretty dashed cool, but don't think i've got the horsepower to run it effectively (not even on my Centrino powered work IBM T42). also i'm just not that paranoid about privacy with regard to my internet activity...

Colin said...

Depends what kind of nefarious activities you're up to on the internet... Seamus?

Colin said...
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