Virtualization: VMWare, Parallels or VirtualBox

You may choose between three solutions to run guest operating systems on a Mac. Even more luxury: you can try them out for free.

MacObserver in a recent review is very enthusiastic about the commercial offerings from VMWare (Fusion 5) and particular Parallels (version 8), leaving VirtualBox behind. But there is one caveat: their review strongly focuses on virtualizing Windows 8.

I am into this game for different reasons. I use VirtualBox to run Linux as a guest operating system so I can develop and test on a similar operating system environment as where deployment will take place. Besides I also virtualize Windows, but just for the occasionally 'does-it-also-look-right-in-IE'-question.

MacObserver finds in their review a large performance difference between VirtualBox and the other two. That makes curious, and is a reason to reconsider the options. I did some tests and looked at all three products. Nevertheless, I don't have the intention to do the ultimate shoot out, please keep that in mind when you read this.

How about performance?

When performance is the big thing, how does that turn out on Linux? Will I enjoy five times the speed in Netbeans? It turns out the answer is no.

I ran Geekbench. The difference is on all categories about 10 percent higher on Parallels compared to VirtualBox and another 10 percent higher on VMWare. VMWare seems to be the winner here, however the margins are thin and I didn't bother to repeat the test several times. .

After all, it is almost impossible to do a precise analysis of the performance differences between these kind of products. First, they have many settings that can be tweaked and lots of other choices that are hidden and that are not the same among them. Even more important, you should not only measure the performance of the virtualized guest but also its drain on the host. Otherwise it would be tempting to build a highly performant virtualizing solution by just consuming maximum resources from the host.

VirtualBox lately

VirtualBox has been proven over the years as a stable product, not difficult at all to install, reliable, and with frequent updates. Performance for Linux guests is OK, performance for Windows 7 is really not great.

Installation of Linux OpenSuse on Parallels

The installation of OpenSuse itself went fine. But then you need to install the so called guest additions to enable smooth mouse and keyboard support, video and more. This is difficult as it conflicts with the Suse installation disk, and fails on a difference in kernel version. It cost me a lot of time and frustration before I finally got it to work. The installer looks like 1988 and gives little feedback about what exactly goes wrong or is missing. The installation is much more difficult than in VirtualBox. After finishing the guest additions the video is still not what it should be. In a Parallels forum post I find a dozen lines of terminal commands that are needed to get it to to run well. Why they are not included in the installation process - no idea.

How much attention does Parallels spend to virtualizing Linux? After this experience I am becoming a bit suspicious and the fact that my Linux virtualized guest gets a Microsoft Windows icon in the taskbar (yes, really) doesn't help also.

Intermezzo: childish competition between Parallels and VMWare

Two companies that seem to be enrolled in a live or death fight. Both have 'cross grade' offerings, that are about half the list price and which tell me that their products are way overpriced in the first place, and second, that they see the other product as a viable alternative. Both companies compare their products with the other in a way that no customer feels happy with. They even found a way for their cross grade program to check the validity of the license key of the other company. So funny. Pleas improve your marketing and lower your prices.

Installation of OpenSuse Linux on VMWare

The installation is a warm bath. VMWare asks the necessary settings at the beginning of the process and then the installation goes on auto pilot. By the way, the same is true for Windows 8. The guest additions are a different ball game and are more of the cold shower type. After the first attempt I don't have proper video drivers, which prevents the guest window from properly resizing. The clue is that I need to update OpenSuse and install kernel sources first.

The installation of the guest additions goes by a command line script looking like 1983. However, it asks all the right questions and leaves me totally in control about what is installed where. In the end, this is the Linux way to do things and I end up with a very nice functioning environment.

Parallels - how much integration do we really want?

When installing a Windows guest in Parallels far intruding side effects happen. Imagine you have installed Quicktime in a Windows guest. On your Mac you'll see now two QT icons when you crtl-click any movie. If you select the wrong one it will start up a virtual host, wait and wait, and boot Windows. Why? It could be useful. You receive an Access database in a mail and you open it directly in MS Access. But generally you don't want to mix things like this and certainly you don't want things twice (or three, or four times.) For most uses, this is hell.

When you open Safari you'll see a ridiculous icon has been added: 'open in IE'. With all their German 'Grundlichkeit' they even ad it to the standard taskbar so you need terminal commands to remove it. Parallels makes me feel I bought the wrong computer. They don't bother to ask about these things during the install process.

The question is how much integration do you want. I want to be able to install a guest operating system, use it, spoil it and trash it without consequences. I want it to run in a configurable amount of isolation, so that risky things during development and testing don't impact my host and the outside world. I will disable network support so that I don't accidentally send 100.000 emails during testing.

Parallels uninstall disaster

At least, after uninstalling the program icon is removed from your program folder. The dreadful ctrl-click icons still remain, just as the 'open in IE'-button in Safari. Just as they don't bother to ask when installing, they don't bother to uninstall either.

Final thoughts

I end up with an uneasy feeling in my stomach about Parallels. A difficult installation process, manual terminal commands, and above all leaving a dirty environment behind after uninstalling. Yes, I did handle everything but it cost me time and next time I might not be so lucky and end up with a compromised development environment. Besides, they have a price point like the German car industry. End of story for now.

VMWare also has some issues during the installation of the guest additions but in general things go smoothly. It costs less money and has a better license policy than Parallels.

VirtualBox. Wherever possible I prefer open source software.

I will give VMWare a go for Windows 8 and Linux development will remain on VirtualBox.

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