Linux and Vista on a Mac, Part Two

Tuesday Nov 21st 2006 by John Welch
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The Parallels software enables seamless switching between the Linux, Windows and Macintosh platforms.

If you read almost any publication that talks about Apple from an IT point of view, you'll read a lot about Parallels Desktop for Mac, from Parallels. People talk about the kind of load Parallels puts on a system, or installing it, or whether it makes it easy to set up virtual machines, etc.

But what you don't see a lot of (or enough of) is what it's like to work with Parallels, and that's what I'm going to talk about here today.

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I've been using Parallels for about a month on a MacBook Pro. From an IT point of view, it is leaps and bounds better than Boot Camp, Apple's dual-booting environment for Intel Macs. While Boot Camp forces you to stop work, completely change your OS context, then do more work – and repeat those steps every time you need to switch OSes – Parallels creates context.

What I mean is that, if I need to test something in an environment other than Mac OS X, say Windows Vista, XP, or some Linux distro, I don't have to stop what I'm doing. I just start up the appropriate VM and do my testing.

My Mac OS X workflow can continue with no more interruption than if I was working in Microsoft Word and needed to open Terminal to SSH into another machine. It takes the rather huge context switch and associated work interruptions that dual or multi-booting creates and reduces them to nothing more than switching applications.

This is, at least for me, a huge increase in productivity over Boot Camp. For example, I recently needed to see how IE7 plays with our sort of Web-based terminal emulator in both XP and Vista Business RC2. With Boot Camp, I could have done one task somewhat easily, but that would require two reboots, etc. The second one would pretty much mean a second computer.

With Parallels? Dead simple. Fire up the XP Virtual Machine, get IE 7 on it, then test. Pause the XP VM and save its current state, fire up the Vista VM, then test. If I were testing on a Mac Pro, I probably could have run both VMs at once. All the while, I'm taking notes in BBEdit and doing screen shots where needed.

Matching Parallels’ ease of us – and productivity – in Boot Camp simply isn't possible.

Another example: I created a VM for Ubuntu Linux. I installed the 6.0.X release. About a week later, the 6.1.X release came out, and I found the way to run the Ubuntu update manager to do an in-place upgrade. It may not be the safest way, but it's a testing environment. Envelope pushing and all that.

So, I start the upgrade. By quitting time (and more importantly, get-down-to-the-bus time), I'd finished the download, but not the actual install. Time to really test. I paused the VM, saved state, and went home. Next morning, while I'm working on other stuff, I fire up the VM where I’d paused it, in mid-install. No problems. A little bit later, I had a fully functional Ubuntu 6.1.X VM, and I could commence to testing Open Office and Evolution in our environment.

Next page: 3D Hardware acceleration?

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True, I don't get the 3-D hardware acceleration that Boot Camp gives me, but it's not something I need at work. I don't have a great need to play Oblivion as a work task. (However, all work and no play… – and if anyone wants a review of Oblivion in Vista under Boot Camp on a MacBook Pro, we'll talk). Even outside of testing, I get a lot from Boot Camp. If I need to test SMB issues on a Unix server, I can do so from four environments with ease. If I need to test Web page appearance in a variety of environments, I can do so with ease.

Creating training and other documentation for multiple OSes is far simpler with Parallels, as I can use the tools I'm most comfortable with, like Snapz Pro to do my screen shots, or even movie captures. So now, creating documentation for users on multiple platforms is much simpler, thanks to Parallels.

Of course, I can always use my Remote Desktop Connection Client for the Windows side of things. But Parallels is just a faster environment for Windows, without the slowdowns that I occasionally get with Remote Desktop Connection.

I think the main point here is that Parallels is not just some cool new toy for the Mac, or a way to "experiment" with virtualization. It is a reliable, stable tool for getting real work done, and it's really helped me work a lot more efficiently than I could without it.

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