Category: virtual appliance

Getting started with a PhysiCell Virtual Appliance

Note: This is part of a series of “how-to” blog posts to help new users and developers of BioFVM and PhysiCell. This guide is for for users in OSX, Linux, or Windows using the VirtualBox virtualization software to run a PhysiCell virtual appliance.

These instructions should get you up and running without needed to install a compiler, makefile capabilities, or any other software (beyond the virtual machine and the PhysiCell virtual appliance). We note that using the PhysiCell source with your own compiler is still the preferred / ideal way to get started, but the virtual appliance option is a fast way to start even if you’re having troubles setting up your development environment.

What’s a Virtual Machine? What’s a Virtual Appliance?

A virtual machine is a full simulated computer (with its own disk space, operating system, etc.) running on another. They are designed to let a user test on a completely different environment, without affecting the host (main) environment. They also allow a very robust way of taking and reproducing the state of a full working environment.

A virtual appliance is just this: a full image of an installed system (and often its saved state) on a virtual machine, which can easily be installed on a new virtual machine. In this tutorial, you will download our PhysiCell virtual appliance and use its pre-configured compiler and other tools.

What you’ll need:

  • VirtualBox: This is a free, cross-platform program to run virtual machines on OSX, Linux, Windows, and other platforms. It is a safe and easy way to install one full operating (a client system) on your main operating system (the host system). For us, this means that we can distribute a fully working Linux environment with a working copy of all the tools you need to compile and run PhysiCell. As of August 1, 2017, this will download Version 5.1.26.
  • PhysiCell Virtual Appliance: This is a single-file distribution of a virtual machine running Alpine Linux, including all key tools needed to compile and run PhysiCell. As of July 31, 2017, this will download PhysiCell 1.2.0 with g++ 6.3.0.
  • A computer with hardware support for virtualization: Your CPU needs to have hardware support for virtualization (almost all of them do now), and it has to be enabled in your BIOS. Consult your computer maker on how to turn this on if you get error messages later.

Main steps:

1) Install VirtualBox.

Double-click / open the VirtualBox download. Go ahead and accept all the default choices. If asked, go ahead and download/install the extensions pack.

2) Import the PhysiCell Virtual Appliance

Go the “File” menu and choose “Import Virtual Appliance”. Browse to find the .ova file you just downloaded.

Click on “Next,” and import with all the default options. That’s it!

3) [Optional] Change settings

You most likely won’t need this step, but you can increase/decrease the amount of RAM used for the virtual machine if you select the PhysiCell VM, click the Settings button (orange gear), and choose “System”:We set the Virtual Machine to have 4 GB of RAM. If you have a machine with lots of RAM (16 GB or more), you may want to set this to 8 GB.

Also, you can choose how many virtual CPUs to give to your VM: 

We selected 4 when we set up the Virtual Appliance, but you should match the number of physical processor cores on your machine. In my case, I have a quad core processor with hyperthreading. This means 4 real cores, 8 virtual cores, so I select 4 here.

4) Start the Virtual Machine and log in

Select the PhysiCell machine, and click the green “start” button. After the virtual machine boots (with the good old LILO boot manager that I’ve missed), you should see this:

Click the "More ..." button, and log in with username: physicell, password: physicell

5) Test the compiler and run your first simulation

Notice that PhysiCell is already there on the desktop in the PhysiCell folder. Right-click, and choose “open terminal here.” You’ll already be in the main PhysiCell root directory. 

Now, let’s compile your first project! Type “make template2D && make” And run your project! Type “./project” and let it go!Go ahead and run either the first few days of the simulation (until about 7200 minutes), then hit <control>-C to cancel out. Or run the whole simulation–that’s fine, too.

6) Look at the results

We bundled a few tools to easily look at results. First, ristretto is a very fast image viewer. Let’s view the SVG files: As a nice tip, you can press the left and right arrows to advance through the SVG images, or hold the right arrow down to advance through quickly.

Now, let’s use ImageMagick to convert the SVG files into JPG file: call “magick mogrify -format jpg snap*.svg”

Next, let’s turn those images into a movie. I generally create moves that are 24 frames pers se, so that 1 second of the movie is 1 hour of simulations time. We’ll use mencoder, with options below given to help get a good quality vs. size tradeoff:

When you’re done, view the movie with mplayer. The options below scale the window to fit within the virtual monitor:

If you want to loop the movie, add “-loop 999” to your command.

7) Get familiar with other tools

Use nano (useage: nano <filename>) to quickly change files at the command line. Hit <control>-O to save your results. Hit <control>-X to exit.  <control>-W will search within the file.

Use nedit (useage: nedit <filename> &) to open up one more text files in a graphical editor. This is a good way to edit multiple files at once.

Sometimes, you need to run commands at elevated (admin or root) privileges. Use sudo. Here’s an example, searching the Alpine Linux package manager apk for clang:

physicell:~$ sudo apk search gcc
[sudo] password for physicell:  
physicell:~$ sudo apk search clang

If you want to install clang/llvm (as an alternative compiler):

physicell:~$ sudo apk add gcc
[sudo] password for physicell:  
physicell:~$ sudo apk search clang

Notice that it asks for a password: use the password for root (which is physicell).

8) [Optional] Configure a shared folder

Coming soon.

Why both with zipped source, then?

Given that we can get a whole development environment by just downloading and importing a virtual appliance, why
bother with all the setup of a native development environment, like this tutorial (Windows) or this tutorial (Mac)?

One word: performance. In my testing, I still have not found the performance running inside a
virtual machine to match compiling and running directly on your system. So, the Virtual Appliance is a great
option to get up and running quickly while trying things out, but I still recommend setting up natively with
one of the tutorials I linked in the preceding paragraphs.

What’s next?

In the coming weeks, we’ll post further tutorials on using PhysiCell. In the meantime, have a look at the
PhysiCell project website, and these links as well:

  1. BioFVM on
  2. BioFVM on SourceForge:
  3. BioFVM Method Paper in BioInformatics:
  4. PhysiCell on
  5. PhysiCell on Sourceforge:
  6. PhysiCell Method Paper (preprint):
  7. PhysiCell tutorials: [click here]

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