Sunday, March 28, 2010

Virtualization on the Mac

Since Apple moved the Mac to the Intel Platform we as Mac users can now run just about any software we want. From software for OS X, Unix Programs, even Windows Programs. Let’s see a Windows computer do that quickly and easily. However with these new options come a number of choices for how to run Windows software on the Mac. We have a range a prices and easy of use.

Yes, I know we actually could run Windows on the Mac in the Power PC days using an emulator but emulators were much slower than their real hardware counter parts. For those who remember way back at one point Apple even made a DOS card that could be installed in some 68k Macs and was a PC on card and you could run a Mac program to execute programs on your PC on card but I digress.

Today our leading pay options for Virtualization on the Mac is Parallels and VMWare Fusion. The leading free options are Sun’s Virtual Box and Apple’s Boot Camp. You can also run Windows applications without installing Windows at all by using WINE or CrossOver. We will look at each of these options in turn.

In a recent MacTech Magazine article they compared the performance of VMWare to Parallels. Parallels won in nearly every performance benchmark. Now in order to use VMWare, Parallels, or Sun Virtual Box you have to own a copy of Windows to install. These applications provide a virtual computer to load an OS and your applications into. Parallels and VMWare both have good technical support and the ability to import other virtual machines into them. Today there are a variety of free and for purchase virtual machines you can get on the Internet and install into your Virtualization software. If you want to setup a Web Server on a virtual machine just download one with Linux and Apache pre-setup boot it and you are ready to go. It is great for testing products without impacting the machine you use on a daily basis.

Sun’s Virtual Box has come a long way and is close to being real competition for VMWare and Parallels. It started off as a very basic Virtual Machine lacking even support for external USB hard drives. Now it is a solid performer runs on Mac, Windows, and Linux as much better driver support in version 3 and while still not on par performance wise with VMWare and Parallels it is a fine choice for someone who doesn’t use a Virtual Machine on a regular basis or just wants to run some applications where performance isn’t a huge concern.

WINE and it’s commercial counterpart CrossOver have been around since before Apple went to Intel. Originally WINE which stands for (Wine Is Not an Emulator) was developed for Unix and Linux users to run Windows based apps on their machines without Windows being installed. WINE is a freeware application that is developed and supported by the community. This option is not for the technical novice or the faint at heart. It can be tough to configure and not all applications are supported. There is a commercial version of the software put out by CodeWeavers called CrossOver that is a company supported version of WINE. I didn’t have a lot of luck with it myself when I tired it out in 2007 but it may have progressed since then. I will look at it in a future blog post.

Even Apple has dipped a toe into the fray with OS 10.5 and 10.6 by introducing Boot Camp. This doesn’t technically fall under the realm of virtualization since it is just allowing you to dual boot your Mac into OS X or Windows. This does allow you run Windows apps on your Mac but not while you are in OS X. Parallels and VMWare do provide a way to launch your Boot Camp Windows partition while you are running OS X which just treats the Boot Camp partition like any other virtual machine except it has a real drive partition. Boot Camp requires you to dedicate a partition on your hard drive to running Windows and you may find a time when you just need to run Windows by itself. You do still have to buy a separate copy of Windows though.

So if you are looking to run Windows Applications on your Mac and don’t mind spending a little money a copy of Parallels and Windows 7 is going to give you the best performance and support.

If you are on a tight budget Sun’s Virtual Box and Windows 7 is a good alternative. The performance is still good and you can save the $79.00 by getting a free Virtualization software.

If you don’t want to spend any money to run Windows and have time on your hands to learn a lot about how applications work and interact with the Operating System then the best alternatives I have found have been WineBottler and Wineskin. These two apps take your Windows Application and package them into a Application that can reside in your Applications folder just like your Mac applications. When you launch WineBottler or WineSkin it will run the X11 program that is by default installed on OS X 10.5 and 10.6. For OS X versions 10.3 - 10.4 you may have to go back to your installer CD or DVD to install X11 to make these programs work.

So we have come a long way since the days of a DOS card in our 68k Macs or running Connectix Virtual PC on our Power PC machines. Now with the power of BSD Unix under the hood of Mac OS and an Intel Processor at the heart of our computers Mac users now have the power to run virtually any application or Operating System we might want to right from the comfort of our primary or possibly now only machine. So no matter what software you run or what industry you might be in or what ever you might be studying in school there is a way to configure your Mac to meet your needs today and into the future.