How to set up a MS-Win VM for development

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Many of us work on Linux so can't easily reproduce bugs that manifest on MS-Windows or test that features we develop work on that platform. The natural answer is to have a virtual machine for that use. I'll here talk through the steps to set up a virtual machine, running Windows 8.1, for building Qt and a simple test program with MSVC 2012 and 2015. I'm using VirtualBox (because I'm using Debian, which has easy packages for it) but I'm sure other virtualisation approaches shall be similar.

Basic installation and set-up

I assume you have MS install media for the version you want; put it in your machine's drive ready to boot from. Get your virtualisation system to give you a new machine ready to boot, with at least 45 GB of disk and plenty of RAM. Boot the new VM from your install media, go through with whatever makes sense there.

When it's time to create a user account on the machine, the installer may try to make you use a Microsoft account; if you don't want to use an existing account for your VM, or if you have no such account, you can bypass this by opting to "create an account" (which you won't actually do). The form that takes you to has a "Sign in without a Microsoft account" link at the end, which lets you just fill in user-name, password and hint to create a local account on the machine, not connected to anything else.

You may be invited to upgrade to a newer version of MS-Windows; don't be shy of declining, if what you actually want is the version you're installing. You may have to say "do it later" and then "decline the update" to get there, and it'll probably hassle you to upgrade for ever after, but it will let you say no.

Once you're done installing, remember to take out the install media - you don't want to boot into that next time your real machine reboots ! It's probably installed a bunch of apps for which you have no need. This is a developer machine, not the home entertainment platform it expects you to want it to be. The screen's bottom left corner will get you to the "start" system; you can right-click on any toy in there to get a menu that'll often include Uninstall. Some toys may lack that entry; you can at least unpin them from start and from the task-bar (at the bottom of the usual desktop screen); or you can change the size. A down-arrow at the bottom of the start screen shall get you to a full list of apps installed; go through that weeding out any junk you don't need. My estimate of how much disk space you need (above) is based on what I ended up with; I uninstalled everything I didn't need, at this point; so, if you don't, you may need slightly more than my estimate.

After install you probably need to do some reconfiguring. It'll have set

  • time-zone based on your choice of language and
  • screen resolution to some default;

If you have cause to change those, do so in the Control Panel (found via the start system, via screen bottom left corner, or via the setup app). Once you have that open, look for:

  • Clock, Language, and Region -> Change date, time, or number formats
  • Appearance and Personalization -> Adjust screen resolution

You can also futz with other stuff to taste. It may forget some of this on first re-boot, but I find repetition usually bludgeons it into submission.

Mounting a partition shared with your real machine

I find it useful to share some disk with my real machine, via which to move things to and from the virtual one. Your virtualisation system hopefully has some way to expose a local directory as a "network" share to the MS-VM. You can potentially do this several times, if you need to share more than one local folder.

To do this in VirtualBox, you need to get the "guest additions" ISO image; on Debian that comes as the virtualbox-guest-additions-iso package; or you can download it from Oracle. In the VM's container, Devices -> Optical Drives -> Chose a disk image and select that ISO image. Then Devices -> Optical Drives should list the image; check its check-box. In the guest, the file-system Explorer should now expose a drive described as "VirtualBox Guest Additions"; double-click to run its installer. This tends to hide behind Explorer; dig it out and Next your way through it, accepting dialogs as the come up. That'll end with a reboot. In Devices -> Optical Drives, you can now unselect the Guest Additions ISO.

You only have to do that once on any given VM. For each folder you would share, you can now configure it as a drive. Now Devices -> Shared Folders -> Shared Folder Settings ... brings up a dialog. Right-click Machine Folders in the tree display; an Add Share dialog comes up. (Alternatively, there's a blue folder icon with a green + to the right; it'll also Add Share.) In Folder Path, drop-down to select Other; a file-chooser comes up. Pick a directory you want to share with the VM. Back in Add Share, it'll fill in a folder name to go with that; edit to taste and select any check-boxes that seem apt; I usually just check Make Permanent. OK and you're back to the Shared Folders Settings dialog; OK and you're done.

Once you've configured a share, the MS local file-system Explorer should be able to see it; you need to configure it to mount this share as a local drive (or you can just access it as an UNC share). For VirtualBox, that shows up under (in the left panel) Network -> VBOXSVR; open that to expose the share. Right-click on the share to select "Map network drive..." Select a drive letter you want to use for it, check suitable boxes and go. You should now see your shared directory as a drive in Explorer.

I usually share my directory of bare repositories (via which my working repositories mostly interact with upstream), which includes a sub-directory of noddy scripts for use to set PATH and other environment variables suitably for the Git Bash shell and for the Command Prompt I'll be using below.

Installing the tools you need

We'll be installing MSVC 2012 express and 2015 community, Strawberry perl and OpenSSL. For MSVC and perl, the links above should take you to a page with a suitable download link; or your favourite search engine should recognise the names given above. Each MSVC install takes a fair amount of time; be ready to find some way to amuse yourself while they're busy.

For MSVC 2012, you probably want wdexpress_full.exe, the self-installer. This doesn't offer you options, it just does what it does. If you're feeling adventurous, you might want to fetch the iso (possibly to your host instead of the VM; then expose to the VM as a mounted drive) and do a custom install.

For MSVC 2015, the installer offers you options; select a Custom install. It'll then ask what you want to install. Uncheck "Windows and Web Development". At the bottom of the list, open Common Tools and check Git for Windows. At the top, expand Programming Languages -> Visual C++ and check MFC for C++ and Common Tools (for C++). (The git this provides comes with a version of perl that can't cope with open(P, "|cmd") if the cmd has any backslashes in it, which it typically does in what we'll need for OpenSSL below; which is why we need Strawberry perl.) If you don't install MSVC 2015, you'll need to separately find and install Git for Windows.

Once you've got Git for Windows installed, it's worth going back to Start and visiting the list of apps at your disposal; find the Git Bash app and right-click to pin it to the taskbar; you might also want to do similar for the developer versions of the Command Prompt, for MSVC 2015 and for MSVC 2012.

The web page for Strawberry perl has an obvious box labelled "Recommended version" with a link for each of 32-bit and 64-bit; click the one appropriate to your VM. Once the installer comes up, do what it needs. Its install path can't have spaces in it; so don't try to put it under C:\Program Files\ ! Its default install location is C:\Strawberry\, which works fine for me.

Build and Install OpenSSL

You've actually got versions of OpenSSL already:

  • Git for Windows includes a MinGW sub-system that includes OpenSSL libraries and might even include headers; but I found mine incompatible with my system headers;
  • Strawberry perl also includes OpenSSL libraries, possibly with similar problems; and without headers, so you can't build against it anyway.

There are also places you can install it from the web; but we'll be building it from source. Who do you trust ?

Visit the openssl.org source download page. You can either follow their github link to get a clone URL or download a tar-ball. Pick a place you'd be happy to build OpenSSL and either clone the git repo or unpack the tar-ball. If using a git clone,

  • use the git config settings the project recommends to handle line-endings;
  • ask git branch what branches are available; a recent OpenSSL_M_m_p-stable (with digits for M, m, p indicating Major, minor and patch level releases) branch is probably what you want; or ask git tag and checkout the most recent official release, OpenSSL_M_m_pR for some letter R.

Your instructions are in INSTALL.W64 or INSTALL.W32; the latter is more complete, but the former does what you need for 64-bit, aside from installation (which I'll come to). Since nmake install won't work (the generated makefiles assume way too much Unix-ish-ness), you'll end up doing an install by hand; but it's still worth passing Configure a --prefix=... saying where you do want to install; I chose --prefix="C:\Program Files\OpenSSL\" for this.