Parallels Takes Virtualisation Crown: Review


Good management means Parallels. Mac virtualisation beats VMware Fusion, Oracle Virtual Box

A superior mobile client and mass deployment support make Parallels Desktop 7 a winner for Mac-based virtualisation.

One of the facts of life a Mac user has to face is that a substantial body of software simply isn’t available for the platform. In some cases, that’s not a problem if equivalent applications for Apple’s operating system exist. But all too often, corporate users and the people who support them don’t have that alternative – especially in the case of applications built in-house.

Parallels shines at remote management

Workarounds for such a situation amount to choosing between dual-booting Mac OS X and a corporate Windows image on the one hand, and on the other, using virtualisation tools that allow users to run a variety of operating systems within the Mac environment. Parallels Desktop 7, which was released in early September, provides a solid foundation for the second approach and goes beyond merely supplying a platform for such “foreign” applications.

What sets Parallels apart from tools such as VMware Fusion or Oracle Virtual Box isn’t the mere capability to run foreign operating systems as guests of a Mac host. That’s something one can now take for granted, although all three vary somewhat in their support for specific guest platforms. Nor is it the ability to seamlessly present applications from an installed guest operating system within the context of the Mac environment. That, too, is common enough that its absence is more likely to be noteworthy.

Instead, Parallels shines best in its remote management features. The Parallels Mobile app for iOS devices – a separate purchase through the iTunes App Store – allows users to remotely control Parallels Desktop from an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch from just about anywhere. Virtual machines (VMs) can be launched, suspended or shut down from the Parallels Mobile app, which is a great convenience for road warriors who want to travel with a minimum of hardware.

The new release of Parallels Desktop, as one might suspect, adds support for the new user interface elements of OS X Lion. This includes integration with Launchpad and Mission Control, and support for Lion’s Full Screen mode when working with Windows applications. In my testing, which used server and client installations of Windows – including the client version of the Windows Developer Preview – I found no noticeable difference between the performance of Parallels Desktop 7 on either Lion or Mac OS X Snow Leopard and similar use of VMware Fusion 4. I’m sure that someone, somewhere, has benchmarks “proving” that one of these is somehow faster. But as I found, the big difference isn’t a matter of speeds and feeds.

Managing scores of installations

In addition to the basic and “switcher” editions of Parallels Desktop 7–the latter includes a USB cable that allows users to transfer an existing Windows installation from a PC to a guest VM, and video tutorials for the novice user–Parallels offers a volume licence option, the Enterprise Edition. This debuted in July (at the time, as an option for Parallels Desktop 6) and allows mass deployment by way of an install package builder.

The Parallels Desktop Enterprise Edition works with a variety of remote management tools for the Mac platform, including Absolute Manage (formerly LANrev), JAMF Software’s Casper Suite and LANDesk, as well as Apple Remote Desktop. It’s an easily configured way to ensure that a deployment of scores or hundreds of installations is done consistently from one machine to the next.

Another feature of Parallels Desktop that stands out is the simplicity of setting up new VMs. The Parallels Wizard allows one to convert an existing physical installation, whether on a different computer or external storage device. It lets one download prebuilt Parallels appliances running Fedora, Google Chrome or Ubuntu. It allows one to copy existing VMs, whether created under Parallels or VMware. And it facilitates the purchase of Windows 7 directly from Microsoft or the use of physical media for installing Windows.

The basic requirements for Parallels Desktop 7 include a Mac with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and at least 2GB of physical RAM. The company recommends 4GB for use with Windows 7 as a guest operating system. But as with any virtualisation software, I’d say that if one plans to use a guest operating system regularly, there’s a good case to be made for going whole-hog and springing for at least 8GB of physical memory. Parallels Desktop 7, as noted, will reach its full potential under OS X Lion, but it can be used with the final releases of Leopard (10.5.8) and Snow Leopard (10.6.8).

Parallels has the advantage

The remote access feature isn’t perfectly foolproof, but it’s awfully close. I had some difficulty when trying to configure a Parallels Desktop client for this feature, when the server on Parallels’ side of the cloud wouldn’t accept a user ID and password until I’d stopped a service on the client, counted to 100 and then restarted the service. That may have been a fluke. At press time, neither Parallel’s engineers nor I had been able to replicate the problem. Once that was sorted out, the Parallels Mobile client performed flawlessly, allowing me to access Parallels Desktop clients in eWEEK’s San Francisco lab and my personal workbench halfway across town with equal ease.

Having recently taken a look at VMware Fusion 4, I couldn’t be better placed to compare it with Parallels Desktop 7. In the end, they each offer a solid platform for virtualisation on the Mac and support a wide range of guest operating systems. They are fairly mature and stable products and are fairly straightforward to use.

Although Fusion offers a somewhat more Mac-like user interface and is a better choice for working with VMs that will ultimately end up running in a data centre environment, Parallels has an edge in mass deployment scenarios. As the icing on the cake, the Parallels Mobile client is far ahead of anything that VMware offers for mobile devices. Advantage: Parallels.

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