Spinning up a virtual machine (VM) on a pc can be easily done without much computing knowledge. Hyper-V is bundled with Windows 8 (x86_64), VMware Player and Virtualbox are free. For users of older Windows, there is always Virtual PC 2007 although it is a little outdated. As a VM is completely isolated from the host on which it is installed, it is ideal for testing/developing software. It eliminates the risk of messing up the existing operating system. Students are often asked to install 3rd party trial software during the course of their study, whether it’s for learning how to use the software or for a couple of exercises. This should preferrable be done in a VM as the simple process of installing/uninstalling a program can mess up the OS. I remember that one of my classmates was unable to boot into her Windows laptop after she had installed the LAMP/Moodle bundle required by one of the courses we took.
I used a Linux VM in Azure to distribute my research artefact. If you want to check out Azure or EC2 to build a VM in the cloud but are not particularly comfortable with the command line interface, a VM on a local pc will be a perfect first-step to begin the learning process. Bear in mind that creating a private cloud with a dozen of VMs in a local machine is rather painless and costs nothing while Azure or EC2 charges by the hours.
I use Virtualbox running on Mint LMDE. While I have not completely ditched Windows (still need it for playing games or Netflix), my experience with Mint LMDE is so good that I have changed it as my default boot. Now I run Windows as a VM inside Virtualbox if I want games or Netflix and there is no need to boot to Windows on the physical disk at all. (There is but one got-cha in running Netflix in a Windows VM inside Virtualbox - DON’T emulate more than one cpu for the guest machine).
Most Linux distro should run equally well as a VMware or Virtualbox guest. There is no practical difference as far as performance and ease of use are concerned. VMware workstation used to be free and now only VMware Player is available free for non-commerical users. VMware Player’s functionality is limited in comparision with Virtualbox or Hyper-V. As for Hyper-V, one main drawback I have found is that it does not sync to the host display. The only way to get to full screen is through remote desktop which seems a clumsy way to achieve what VMware or Virtualbox can do with an extension.