Open Source Virtualization, dream or reality?

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Since Apple decided to switch to the Intel chipset (it seems like ages ago already) Windows on the Mac has been a viable reality. Gone were the days of horrible VirtualPC performance, or the need for a dedicated PCI card with a PC core on it. Parallels was first to market with a desktop virtualization product aptly named “Parallels Desktop for Mac.” VMware was out the gate shortly thereafter with VMware Fusion. (Both Parallels and VMware have windows and Linux products as well)

Over the past few years, we’ve standardized on the Mac platform for our techs for a number of reasons, but the most compelling has been the ability to run Windows simultaneously with the Mac OS. The ability to run both is paramount to our techs being able to help our whole installed base, instead of having to worry about having specific techs for Mac clients or PC clients. Not that each tech might not have certain strengths, but at least they have the tools they need.

It’s almost comical how the lines have been drawn. Half of our team has been steadfastly in the Parallels camp, and the other half in the VMware Fusion camp. It’s a geographical thing as well, with one side of the office all about Fusion and the other side on Parallels. I think I might be one of the very few who’s tried both.

Recently I’d heard about an Open Source Virtual Machine from Sun, Virtual Box. Sounds good on the face of it, it’s free. I like free. Sometimes free is good for not costing you anything, sometimes it’s free but costs you a lot of time, rarely is it free and really good. My initial experience with Virtual box was a freelancer who came in to the office for a bit who was using it. I hadn’t payed too much attention, until something they were doing for us was lost irreparably when the VM crashed and was unrecoverable. I admit I didn’t invest too much of my time in helping get it back, which I probably should’ve, but it did give me leave to discount the product.

In the past Month or so, Sun released version 3 of Virtual box (it’s cross platform too, fyi) and we’d recently had an intern come on board who would benefit from the same toolset that the rest of the team works with, so I foisted upon him the task of using VirtualBox. At the same time, I decided to test things out myself, on my home machine (also behooving of the toolset).

Turns out, 3.06 works merrily with Snow Leopard and it’s a snap to setup and use. It’s not quite as polished as Parallels and VMware Fusion, but that doesn’t mean it’s not polished at all. It pretty much does everything that both the others do, 3d acceleration, bridged and NATed networking, shared folders, and resizeable and fullscreen video. Version 3.0 has snapshots, so you can save copies of your VM in case of explosion, something I wish our freelancer had been taking advantage of. The kicker is, however, that it’s damn fast. On a rather older machine with not TOO much ram and a fairly older processor, it boots windows in under 2 minutes most times, and I swear its been under a minute once or twice unless I’m taking crazy pills. I haven’t figured out how yet, but I’ve been told it can use VMware .vdk files in the virtual environment, lowering the barrier to entry and hopefully making it possible for everyone to use whatever VM sofware they like best.

I’ve always found the toolset that Parallels Desktop offers to be very polished, professional, and versatile so I’m not quite ready to ditch Parallels yet. However, I would definitely recommend VirtualBox to clients, friends, and even enemies as a useful tool in their arsenal, especially since it’s FREE.

Be well.


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