Virtualization

Desktop Virtualization: Parallels vs. VMware vs. VirtualBox

virtual
Virtual machines are the best way to accommodate different application needs in a datacenter environment. Whether you need to run your apps on a specific platform, or just need to meet scaling requirements, virtualization is the solution to a lot of IT manager's problems, thanks to fast and cheap memory.

But what about the desktop? As a technology writer, I use virtualization all the time, primarily to review new Linux distributions without taking up an entire machine's worth of data and resources. For everyday users, virtualization seems to be an unneeded luxury than anything else. Why would you need to run two operating systems at the same time?

Desktop virtualization first steps

I can think of three good reasons why virtualization on the desktop is a good idea.

Security. One of my favorite recommendations for all users is to install Linux as their primary desktop machine, saving their personal data on an external drive before they do. If they have Windows applications that they simply cannot part with, then they can use a virtual machine application to install Windows, and re-install just the needed apps. Then they're off, moving their saved data back onto either the native Linux system or the virtual Windows machine, as needed. This gets them the flexibility of the apps they need, while letting them connect to the Internet on a much more secure and stable platform.

Convenience. Sometimes, you need to have the option of running multiple operating systems. OS X Lion users, for instance, were unpleasantly surprised to learn that they could no longer run financial software Quicken 2007 on the new version of Apple's operating system, thanks to Apple's decision to drop support for Rosetta, which was the tech needed to run old PowerPC applications. Running a Windows instance on OS X, then, is one solution for this problem.

Give users the virtual desktop they want

Cost. If you want to have two (or more) machines in your home or office setup, it's a lot less expensive to run a virtual machine than buy a whole new one. Even the cost of buying an additional hard drive and Windows OEM license is less than what you would spend on a whole new machine. Especially since some virtualization clients are free-of-charge.

In this article, we will explore three popular cross-platform virtualization clients and see how they stack up for personal use.

Behind the scenes of Wellesley College's desktop virtualization rollout

vmware
VMware

VMware is probably one of the most recognized names in the technology industry. Many people have heard of it, even if they don't quite know what the company does. VMware is, quite simply, one of the strongest virtualization software companies in the world, if not the strongest. Their software offerings are widely used in virtual datacenters and desktops in businesses all over the world.

It's a strength you can tap into as well, though at a cost.

VMware has two primary desktop offerings: VMware Workstation and VMware Player. Each virtual client can virtual machines flawlessly. But Workstation has more features, such as dual-monitor support, Unity interface integration, and (most importantly) the ability to create virtual machines. Player does just what it's name suggests: it plays virtual machines, like a DVR playback.

vmware player
This limits Player for personal use if you want to install an operating system on your own virtual image. With Player, you will have to acquire a virtual machine that's been prebuilt. With open source software, that's not too hard. But "acquiring" such an image of a Windows or OS X instance will be illegal in most places on the planet, since using an operating system without paying the appropriate licensing fees is considered theft.

For the functionality, I would really like to recommend VMware Workstation. I have used it on Windows and Linux machines, and have found it incredibly easy to use. The setup wizard is straightforward, and intuitive enough that most users with a little technical experience under their belts can understand what's going on. And, even for those who don't, the default settings are good enough that you can run any recognized operating system very efficiently.

The Unity view tries to incorporate elements of the virtual machine directly within the interface of the native operating system. So, icons and windows from a Windows VM would appear to run alongside those of a, say, Ubuntu operating system. For the most part, this worked during my tests, but it was slow enough that I preferred keeping the virtual machines I tested inside the single VMware client window.

There are two things holding me back from a full-on Workstation recommendation: first, (like Player) it's only available for Linux and Windows. Mac users who want to create virtual machines have to use VMware Fusion, which is currently selling for $49.99.

And price is definitely the second issue. Unlike Player, which is free, the list price for VMware Workstation is a whopping $199. That's a big chunk of change for a virtual client, no matter how many features it has. Not when there are comparably featured clients out there (including the Mac-only Fusion) with smaller (and no) price tags.

This is too bad, because VMware Workstation is a good, full-featured virtual client. If you have a virtual machine image already created, don't hesitate to pick up and run VMware Player for a free-to-use VM client.

parallels
Parallels

I had not really tried Parallels Desktop before this review, since I was more familiar with VMware and the other client in this review, VirtualBox. But having used it for the past week in an office environment on an OS X Lion machine, I have to say I came away impressed.

Parallels Desktop is a commercial-only client, which means that, after the 14-day trial, you're going to have to pay for it; there's no free "mini" version as with VMware Player. At $79.99, it's not as sharp of a bite on the wallet as VMware Workstation, but that's still something to pay attention to.

parallels on a mac
Parallels, the company, seems focused on the Mac version of the Desktop product, though there are Windows and Linux versions of the Desktop client as well. But while Desktop for Mac is up at version 7, Desktop for Windows and Linux is all the way back at version 4. Interestingly, that $79.99 list price applies to all versions of the software -- something I found interesting because the Desktop 7 for Mac seemed to be loaded with better features.

The most important of these was Parallel's Coherence view. Like Unity in VMware, it integrates the windows and menus from the guest virtual machine into the native machine. It does a very good job, too, as I found when I ran Internet Explorer on my OS X desktop alongside Firefox 6.

Parallels is, in my opinion, the friendliest VM client to set up. It was simple to set up new virtual machines, and you can even purchase a Windows 7 license from within Parallels to use directly on the Desktop client.

One very cool feature is the ability to open up virtual machines that were created by VMware's products. I grabbed an old VMware Fedora test machine image I had lying around, and after a very fast conversion, the virtual image was running right where I left it a year ago.

Because of the lower price tag and its availability on all of the Big Three platforms, I have to give this one the nod over VMware Workstation on Windows and Linux -- and I'd even recommend it over the less expensive Fusion on OS X. The Coherence view was very compelling on the Mac version, much more so than VMware Fusion's Unity. If you have an OS X machine and want a seamless look and feel for your applications, I might advise you to plunk down the eighty bucks and pick up the Mac flavor just for that. Windows and Linux users, hold off. You can do better, for a lot less.

virtualbox
VirtualBox

Better for a lot less translates into the final client in this review, VirtualBox. Made by Oracle (acquired in its purchase of Sun Microsystems), this is a great VM client for Linux, Windows, and OS X.

Best of all, it's free of charge.

VirtualBox is, nominally, open source software, though you have to specifically download the ASE version to actually use the open source client. The proprietary one is not much different, so it's really a matter of your personal philosophy.

Setting up virtual machines with VirtualBox is a little less intuitive than in VMware or Parallels. It wasn't entirely clear at what point the process called for connecting to an existing ISO image to use for creating the new VM. It worked all right, but less-advanced users might have trouble parsing out the steps at first try.

One feature I missed: there's no interface integration tool in VirtualBox like Unity and Coherence. Everything runs inside one virtual window.

On the other hand, a feature I really liked was the capability to create VMs that could be used in other virtual clients. I walked through creating a Parallels virtual machine in VirtualBox, moved it to the Parallels test machine, and the VM opened without a hitch in Parallels.

Given its cost, and the fact that it is a true cross-platform client, overall I would recommend VirtualBox to anyone who needs virtual machines that set up and get moving quickly.

Read Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe . For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook .

Read more about virtualization in Computerworld's Virtualization Topic Center.

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