Virtualization: Running Any OS Within OS X

by Devanshu Mehta Apr 13, 2006

While Boot Camp may have been a step in the right direction, the true holy grail for computer users everywhere is virtualization. With one company, Parallels, releasing a public beta last week and a few others— including a rumor of Apple—in the pipeline, the game is only going to get more interesting.

What is Virtualization?
There are many different meanings of the term virtual machine, but for our purpose, it is a piece of software that allows a user to run multiple guest operating systems within the main host operating system. That is, you may run instances of Windows XP, Red Hat Linux and FreeBSD that would, to the user, appear to be individual applications inside your host Mac OS X. For a slightly more technical overview, here is a recent article on virtualization.

There have been multiple solutions for achieving this on many platforms for years now. Only recently, however, has it become more feasible, more seamless and, most importantly, gained support among operating system developers. Microsoft, many Linux distributions and, as rumored, Apple are taking notice and are rolling out more solutions to co-exist.

Why would anyone want to virtualize?
Glad you asked! Boot Camp may be great, but rebooting to switch operating systems becomes tiresome very quickly. Most users will end up sticking with one operating system, switching only when they really have to. With virtualization, it all becomes seamless. Also, many companies and people have legacy software- that is, software that works well only with older operating systems- that they just can’t let go. Now they can run an older operating system like Windows 3.1 under their Mac OS X and all their software can live happily ever after.

Virtualization is also extremely beneficial to application developers who can test their software with different versions of operating systems or applications painlessly.

And even for the rest of us, who just want to use a few applications, that annoying browser for those arrogant web sites and those glorious Windows games, virtualization is the way of the future. A future where the device and the network are the platform—not the operating system.

All of this has become especially important for Macintosh users since the move to Intel based machines. Virtualization is a lot easier when the guest and host operating system were built for the same CPU architecture. For the virtual machine developers of the world, the Mac OS X just became much more interesting.

The Players
As usual, the open source community was the first out of the gate with a working solution called Q for people looking for virtualization on the Intel Macs. With Microsoft still not ready with Virtual PC for Intel, this market is getting larger as more people look to migrate to new Macintosh computers.

Q is an open source cocoa port of QEmu which is an older x86 emulator that allows you to install any x86 based operating system on your host OS. Q allows that host OS to be Mac OS X Tiger. It can even import old Virtual PC disk images for use in Q. Best of all, it’s free- but still in a very early alpha stage.

VMWare, the big player in the virtual machine market, is still to commit to an OS X version of their popular software. A play by VMWare would be very interesting as they have the enterprise marketshare and support structure to make it feasible for corporations. VMWare has claimed, however,  that they have gotten it to work in their labs.

The big rumored player, of course, is Apple itself. As I mentioned previously, the rumors in the Mac community speak of Mac OS X Leopard—the next version of OSX- with built in support for operating system virtualization. The arguments for and against such a move are the same as they are for Boot Camp, except that now there are no excuses to ever actually boot. This provides you a loop hole out of the Windows no-booting pledge here at Apple Matters. This is probably the best argument for virtualization yet!

And finally, there is the newest and most impressive kid on the block—Parallels.

Last week, Parallels released a beta version of its virtualization solution for Intel-powered Macs. This version is currently available for free, and with future full versions priced at under $50, they clearly outdo VirtualPC. Not only that, but if this software works as advertised, it may even make Boot Camp unnecessary. By supporting any x86 based operating system, from Windows to Linux to FreeBSD to Solaris, Parallels does a lot and what’s more, it already has a working solution. Also, Parallels has the advantage of being a company with a short but proven track record in providing cheap commercial virtualization solutions to every kind of customer. It is precisely the kind of company that could push mainstream adoption of virtualization.

It appears that the beta does work quite well—including loading Windows XP in under 10 seconds! The company also has screenshots of things you would never have though you would see in this lifetime such as Windows 3.1 and Solaris running simultaneously under Mac OS X.

Of course, the big fear for any of these companies is that Apple will roll this into the next version of OS X and any third-party development will become redundant unless it is a lot better. In either case, however, the landscape for the consumer can only get more interesting.


  • “Last week, Parallels released a beta version of tits”

    Where can I get a copy!!! ;^)

    pwbastian had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 3
  • One word: WINE

    soft_guy had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 21
  • Good catch, got rid of the extra T.

    Meiera Stern had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 12
  • “tits virtualization solution”

    God, I love technology!

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • Since Apple is working with Microsoft on the next version of VPC, I tend to doubt that Leopard will have virtualization built in.  Also, Boot Camp is a beta for what’s to come in Leopard, and BC is not virtualization.  Third, Leopard is supposed to be out this year, according to the rumor mill, and that doesn’t seem like enough time to go from BC to virtualization.

    And finally, where is the virtualization to run OS X in XP?

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • @Beeblebrox, Apple went pretty quickly from nothing to Boot Camp; I wouldn’t be surprised if they went from nothing to virtualization pretty quickly as well. In any case, Boot Camp is not a step towards virtualization; the technologies have little in common. So the fact that Boot Camp exists does not strengthen or weaken the argument for an Apple built virtualization solution.

    Devanshu Mehta had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 108
  • Apple went pretty quickly from nothing to Boot Camp

    Based on what?

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • In any case, Boot Camp is not a step towards virtualization; the technologies have little in common.

    That’s what I meant when I said, “BC is not virtualization.”

    So the fact that Boot Camp exists does not strengthen or weaken the argument for an Apple built virtualization solution.

    Not on its own, but the fact that Apple is working with Microsoft on VPC is.  And if one presumes that BC is a beta for what Leopard will contain, then Apple will either have both BC and virtualization built-in despite its work with Microsoft, or Apple will include BC while letting Microsoft release VPC, which seems to me the more likely scenario.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • It would not surprise me if Apple did pull something off with virtualization, but my bet is no. I hope I am wrong!!!  Apple has had a patent filed for some time now on multiple booting. From what I remember when reading the patent it was geared towards booting up to three OS’s of your choice. There was mention of virtualization, but not specific. The patent tended to be a little to broad to point a finger in either direction. Recently, I have loaded both Paralles software and Boot Camp on my new MacBook Pro. Although my heart is leaning and has in the past towards virtualization, it is limited at this time. Parallels software is by far the fastest I have seen, and I am dieing to see the first major release. Things are looking very promising for that company in my eyes. On the other hand, as often as I need to boote Windows, BC will do for now. It is very clear to see the future is going to be very interesting with computers and software.

    Macster2 had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 40
  • @Beelblebrox, based on the fact that for the general public there was no notification of the fact that Apple was working on such a product, and all of a sudden it was available. Similarly, a virtualization solution from Apple- if and when it does show up- may appear out of the blue with no prior clue.

    Devanshu Mehta had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 108
  • Apple didn’t notify anyone of the video iPod either, but it’s not like they built it in two days.  Boot Camp could have been in the works for a week or for two years.  Given the low level nature of the product (BC in conjunction with the firmware update), I’d highly doubt it was just whipped up in the last few weeks.

    Again, based on their work with Microsoft, the likely scenario is that virtualization will come from the new version of VPC and not be built into Leopard.  I think most of the rumors at this point are just wishful thinking.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • Acually, this is the exact phrase from the FAQs about VPC for Intel Macs: “We are working with Apple to determine the feasibility of developing Virtual PC for Mac for Intel-based Macs. “. Determining the feasibility of developing VPC kind of leaves it possible that virtualization could be in Leopard.

    dleboubon had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 17
  • kind of leaves it possible

    I’m not saying it’s impossible.  I’m talking about the more likely scenario.  And I think BC and Apple’s relationship with Microsoft make VPC the more likely solution for virtualization in Leopard.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • @Beeblebrox, I never claimed that Apple whipped it up in a day/week/whatever.

    Regardless of whether Apple makes a play or not, the cool thing about Parallels and Q is that they are cheap/free and will work with operating systems other than Windows. Boot Camp and VPC are limited in that respect. Considering there are many free operating systems out there, the barrier to trying one of them out is reduced tremendously. You have a free virtualization software and a free operating system; though still non-trivial, a hobbyist computer user can try operating systems the way we try out regular applications.

    Devanshu Mehta had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 108
  • Like I said, I’m still waiting for someone to boot OS X on a generic PC as easily as BC or Parallels does (or is supposed to, I haven’t tried either one).

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 13, 2006 Posts: 2220
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