Choosing a Host
To get started, you need a hosting system. The host system needs to be *nix based (though you can operate the system from any browser). Good hosts are Intel Macs (Macs built in 2006 or later) or Linux machines. If you don't have a Mac or a Linux machine, you can buy a Linux machine for under $50. The Raspberry Pi is a highly popular wallet sized machine that works well. Though they can be a little trickier to set up, we've also had good success with DMP eBox computers (at the time of this writing, the 3350MX is a little over $100); unlike other low cost hosts, they come in rugged metal enclosures.
There are many other Linux based systems which will work as hosts. Chances are, if it runs Linux, it will run the Virtual Wiring system. If you are not sure if a Linux system will work, a good test is that it has 128M or more of memory.
Which Host is Best?
Not sure what host to use? We'll give you some guidance here.
First, you need to answer this question. Do you wish to try out the Virtual Wiring system, or do you wish to make a dedicated system?
Trying Out the Virtual Wiring Software
If you are looking to try out the software, we recommend using a Mac running OSX or a PC running Linux as your host. The reason is performance. The other commonly available *nix host systems are much smaller. Smallness in itself isn't a bad thing, but small systems typically have slower processors and less capable I/O. A slower processor will run the Virtual Wiring software adequately fast, but simple things such as clicking somewhere on a web screen may be sluggish. Over time, you will be less productive. Also Macs and PCs typically have large screens and good touchpads/mice, which makes seeing things on the screen and navigating around the screens faster and easier. In summary, a large powerful system will let you do things more quickly.
If you don't have a Linux PC or a Mac and you don't want to buy one, or if you just don't want to use either of these as hosts, then you want to consider using a smaller system. For more information on these systems, see the next section.
Running the Software on Dedicated Systems
If you are planning on setting up a dedicated system, you'll probably want to use a small host. The reasons are: they use less power (many run on less the 5 Watts), they are quieter (many have no fans), they can be tucked away in a corner or on shelf, and they are very cheap (at this time, some are less than $50). If you are planning on building a dedicated system, there are very few reasons not to use a small system.
When you need to interact with the Virtual Wiring application, you will need a browser. We recommend using a browser on another system. Why? Because the browsers on small systems are generally slower than those on today's PCs, Macs, tablets, etc. Much of the sluggishness of smaller systems can be overcome by having a fast browser. Windows Explorer, Safari, Chrome, Firefox, etc. running on a PC, Mac, tablet, or even a cell phone will generally give you a better user experience than running the browser included on a dedicated system (though the screen size of a cell phone is non-ideal).
What small system to choose? There are many choices. Raspberry Pis, Beagle Bone Blacks, Plug Computers, EBOX PCs, Cubieboards, MinnowBoards, to name a few popular choices. We've experimented with most of the systems listed here, and each has compelling reasons for choosing it as a host. If you are interested in learning more about these systems, we recommend you start with this list and look around for the best system for you. Just remember, if it doesn't run Linux and have at least 128M of RAM, you are probably going to have a hard time using the system as a host.
If you don't want to spend time learning and just wish to get started, we recommend using a Raspberry Pi. Any of the various Raspberry Pis will work, but we recommend a Raspberry Pi 2 or 3. They have good performance (in our benchmark, a 2 ran about 8x faster than our Raspberry Pi B+). They are very cheap ($35 for a board at the time of this writing), readily available, and hugely written about in magazines and on the web. If you haven't heard of a Raspberry Pi before, go to the Raspberry Pi website and take a look at the little raspberry icon at the top of the page. Now go to your nearest bookstore's computer magazine section and look at some magazine covers - you should see a few more raspberries.
If you want to minimize your time setting up a system, buy a Raspberry Pi kit (which includes a board, power supply, HDMI cable, and boot card). Plug in the boot card, hook up an HDMI monitor or your television, plug in a USB keyboard and mouse, plug in an Ethernet cable, and power it on. Your system will be up and running in a few minutes. Because the Pis are so popular, their software is well tested and there are all sorts of applications. If you have any problems, you can google them on the web.
Some of the Raspberry Pi boot cards come with NOOBS software. NOOBS stands for New Out Of Box Software (it's also a pun on "newbs", which is short for "newbies", or people who are new to things). NOOBS gives you a choice of software to use. Due to the Pi's popularity, there are many competing software packages available for the system, and the NOOBS software gives one a choice of some of the most popular packages. There are many good choices, but again, we recommend sticking to what is the most popular (most written about, most used). At this time, the Raspbian distribution is the most popular Linux distribution for the Pi. If you have problems installing Raspbian, there are many documents and discussion groups you can turn to for help.