Parallels' Parallels Workstation 2.1

Run virtualized copies of any major desktop operating system on your Mac OS X device -- with no rebooting required.

May 4, 2006

7 Min Read
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Parallels Workstation 2.1 for Mac OS X offers what Apple's own Boot Camp dual-boot software does not--it lets you run virtualized copies of any major desktop operating system (even OS/2) on top of Apple's Intel-based devices, without rebooting. Windows running natively under Apple's Boot Camp is faster and more compatible, but rebooting every time you want to switch OSs gets old fast. Beta 5 of Parallels' upstart in the virtualization world still has some rough edges and performance bumps, but the ability to do true hypervisor-based virtualization of desktop OSs with reasonable speed could make the new Intel-based Macs with Parallels Workstation the ultimate developer's machines. Indeed, virtualized Windows on Macs makes Apple's Intel computers more palatable to almost any IT shop that has users who need or want them, from programmers working on cross-platform development to graphic designers.

All-for-One Test StationWith Parallels Workstation, it's possible for the first time to test OS X natively and Windows running in a virtual machine, and Windows running natively under Boot Camp, on the same physical machine. Benchmarking Mac versus PC apps has long been a challenge, because of the difficulty of comparing, well, apples to Apples. Almost any result could be explained or dismissed as an artifact of differing code bases, varying degrees of optimization for different compilers on different processors, and so on. Testing on the new Intel-based Macs doesn't eliminate these issues entirely, but it does reduce them significantly.

To test compatibility, we installed the complete Microsoft Office 2003 Suite, along with Visio Professional 2003, on a 2-GHz iMac Core Duo (see "How We Tested" ). All applications ran in all three modes with no major glitches. Speed, however, on the Parallels instance of Windows, was another matter. The 2-D graphics of Visio generally seemed sluggish, and 3-D graphics were painfully slow, when they could be made to work at all. Several other graphics-intensive products we tested ran at full native speed under Boot Camp, but not at all with Parallel's product. Even our Word benchmarks, which involved loading and scrolling a large document, appeared to suffer in the Windows virtual machine (see chart). Word for OS X, even though it still runs under Apple's Rosetta translation solution for PowerPC apps, was significantly faster than Word in either Windows instance.

Testing using CineBench 9.5 showed roughly comparable (and rather fast) graphical performance benchmarks between OS X and Windows XP running under Boot Camp in both 2-D and 3-D modes, but Windows XP with Parallel's virtualizer ran between four and 10 times slower. This may be, at least in part, because the Parallels software doesn't support SMP for the virtualized instance of Windows. Parallel says it's working with video card vendors to address graphics performance and compatibility issues, though the challenges are not insignificant. Beta 5, however, improved significantly on earlier versions, with support for additional native graphics resolutions and a full-screen mode that offers a number of visually appealing transitions.

Room for Improvement

Parallels states its goal is to approach native speed, and estimates its VM is 90 percent to 95 percent of the way there, but our test results show that, at least in some areas, there's significant room for optimization--hopefully prior to final code release this month. We installed version 5.1 of IntelliJ IDEA, a Java IDE that is available in Windows and OS X versions, loaded a moderate-sized Java app, compiled the code using the latest JDK for each platform, and watched as the virtualized Windows XP significantly trailed the pack to compile and make the project.Still, most everyday tasks--many of which are not as graphics- or CPU-intensive as our tests--were perfectly acceptable, and a far sight faster than all previous Mac virtualizers for PowerPC computers, such as VirtualPC, which had to emulate the x86 chip and all the other PC hardware.

Parallels is going for a lower-end market than the much more mature VMware, so don't expect the kind of enterprise-class features you'll get with that product. Although VMware is not available for OS X yet, the company said it's running its virtualization products on that OS in the lab, so an OS X release may not be far off. Parallels Workstation doesn't support linked clones, nor does it have anything in the works to compete with VMware's sophisticated virtualization management tools, the upcoming ESX3 and VirtualCenter2.

For now, compared with the Beta 5 code, Apple's free Boot Camp provides a better, and significantly faster experience, particularly for graphics-heavy apps. Other rough edges that Parallel plans to address before shipping include some glitches with ejecting CD/DVDs and minimal USB device support. I also tried to test iTunes MP3 encoding across the three OS instances, and found that iTunes wouldn't properly read and encode the CD under Parallels Workstation at all. Beta 5 adds a much-needed shared folders capability between the host OS and Windows, but robust cut and paste between the host OS and VMs is pending.

Parallels Workstation, which is also available for Windows and Linux, has come a long way in a short time, and promises to be a tremendous value. Assuming the remaining issues with the latest beta are resolved, Parallels Workstation will fill the bill for businesses that need to run Windows, Linux, Solaris, or other apps on a Mac--and at a price that'll make IT managers smile.

Richard Hoffman is a contributing editor for Network Computing. Hoffman was previously a Network Computing technology editor covering the application development. Write to him at [email protected]. How We Tested

Our tests were simple and real-world. We used an Intel-based Apple iMac with a 2 GHz Intel Core Duo processor, 1 GB of RAM (half of it allocated to Parallels Workstation), an ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 graphics card with 256 MB of RAM, and a 250 GB SATA drive with 32 GB set aside for the Windows XP physical partition required by Apple's Boot Camp.

To ease file exchange between the Mac and PC side, both the Boot Camp WinXP partition and the Parallel XP virtual drive were set up as FAT32 (OS X can read and write to FAT32). Clean standard installs of Windows XP Professional SP2 were used in all cases. Parallels Workstation provides virtual support for all flavors of Windows, all the way back to Windows 3.1, and we successfully installed Windows 2000 for testing. But since Apple's Boot Camp solution only supports Windows XP SP2, we used that operating system for all benchmarks.

All tests were conducted with identical configurations, such as screen resolution and color depth, wherever possible, but it should be noted that physical RAM allocation (1GB for OS X and Boot Camp/WinXP vs. the recommended 616MB for Parallels Workstation) is one clear point of difference.

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