Are there some CDs that you use often? If so, you should consider copying them to your hard disk for faster access. This is also useful for servers since that means not going to the server room every time you have to insert a CD. However, there are some CDs which only work properly, if they are in a CD drive. The trick is to create an image of the CD and use CD drive virtualization software to mount the CDs to a drive letter. This post introduces some free CD virtualization tools.
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The first tool I tested was Circle Virtual CD 1.0. Just like other similar tools, its primary purpose seems to be copying games to the hard disk. You can use it for other purposes, of course. The tool uses a proprietary image format. So, if you ever switch to another CD virtualization tool, you can't use those images anymore. To access the image, you have to "insert" the ISO image into the virtual drive. The default drive letter is Z, but you can use any other drive letter. Another of its shortcoming is that you only can work with one virtual CD, i.e. you have to "eject" the virtual first to access another one.
Virtual Daemon Tools 4.03 doesn't have this restriction. You can specify the number of virtual drives you want it to use; four drives is the maximum. This way you can mount different CDs simultaneously. The setup routine installs an adware program. But you can remove it after the installation. Virtual Daemon Tools doesn't support the creation of images. So you need a third party tool for that.
All professional CD burning programs support creating ISO images. If you don't have one, you might want to check out this list of free CD burning tools. I tried Burnatonce to create ISO images. It is a simple easy-to-use tool that also works on a Windows server.
The functionality of MagicISO Virtual CD/DVD-ROM 1.2, the third tool I tested, is more or less the same as that of Virtual Daemon Tools. The software's name already makes it clear which image format it uses. Unfortunately MagicISO also can't create images. You can use another tool from the same company, Magic ISO Maker, though. However, the free version only supports images not bigger than 300 MB. The commercial version costs $29.95.
The tools discussed here are free and relatively simple. There are more professional, commercial CD virtualization tools. Most of them target gamers who want to circumvent copyright protection (which is not the topic of this article). If you are looking for professional software that supports multi-user and network-based CD virtualization, I can recommend Virtual CD. This program is not comparable with the tools discussed here, though. If you have a 100 CDs or so that you want to share in your network then Virtual CD might be of interest to you.
One of the three tools reviewed here should be sufficient, if you only have a few CDs. You can also use them in a network, as you can access the ISO images using network shares. I decided to use MagiISO because I am always a bit suspicious about programs which install adware. If you don't worry about this, Virtual Daemon Tools is also an option. Circle Virtual CD doesn't support ISO images, that is its biggest disadvantage in my view.
A last tip: If you need more than four virtual drives, you can use Virtual Daemon Tools and MagicISO together. Use MagicISO for the first four drives.