First Look: Living in a Parallels universe

Other operating systems

So much for the routine “let’s see how it handles XP” stuff. The other really impressive thing you can do with Parallels Workstation is to run any number of different operating systems. You can choose between Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, OS/2, Solaris, MS-DOS, and “other” as pre-defined types. Within each of these types, there are multiple versions—Linux, for instance, includes Red Hat, Debian, Fedora Core, SUSE, Mandriva, and then three different “generic” Unixes. If you have a need (or desire) to use another operating system, Parallels Workstation makes it simpler than its ever been.

To install a new operating system, use Parallels Workstation’s wizard to choose the options that best match the OS you’re installing. Tweak the Memory setting as necessary, insert the operating system’s installation disk, and click Play. Walk through the installer, and you’re done—just like that, you’ll have another OS on your machine, ready for your use. And you don’t need to have a physical CD or DVD, either—Parallels can install off of a disk image as easily as it can a real CD.

Linux

Since Linux distributions can be downloaded for free, I thought I’d test PW out and see how far I could get. Keep in mind that I have about zero experience installing Linux—I once installed Red Hat Linux at a prior job, and I recall it being the worst six days of my IT life. OK, maybe it just seemed like six days, but you get the idea. Linux is not my strong suit.

Nonetheless, I downloaded Fedora Core 5 and Debian Linux, and hauled out my old Windows 2000 system disk, and got to work… or was it play? If you’ve never installed Linux before, the process has certainly become easier since the last time I tried it. In many ways, both Debian and Fedora Core were as easy to install as OS X. Both Debian and Fedora Core ask you a series of questions, and based on how you answer, they choose which programs to install, create your user’s workspace, and configure the attached devices.

After installation, Debian Linux booted up just fine, but the screen resolution was limited to only 640-by-480 or 800-by-600. After some frustrating attempts at fixing the issue, I posted for help on Parallels’ forums. The solution, which mostly worked, showed a key differences between Linux and OS X—things can be a bit more complex in Linux! Here’s a shot of Debian running the GIMP open-source image editing program. (Signed copies of my abstract masterpiece “Colored Lines” will be available later.) Click on the image (and most of the rest that follow) for a full-sized original:


When I tried to boot Fedora Core, though, I had no success—the virtual machine kernel panicked shortly after it started to load. Again, the Parallels forums came to the rescue. It turns out that, at least in the beta 3 I was using at the time, Fedora Core won’t boot if you allocate more than 516MB to its virtual machine. Once I dropped the RAM down to that level, it worked perfectly. This may have been corrected in beta 4, though I haven’t bothered to try booting it with a higher RAM allocation yet. Here’s a shot of a complex Word document open in Open Office 2.0:


One thing to keep in mind with any non-Windows installation in Parallels—there is no Parallels Tools package available for non-Windows OSes. So you don’t get clipboard synchronization and other niceties, and your mouse will be a bit jumpy. Also, without Parallels Tools, your mouse operates in a “captive” mode—the virtual machine will own it, not letting it escape until you hold Control and Option. With the Tools installed on XP, your mouse can wander anywhere onscreen. This is a bit of an annoyance, but not a major issue.

With both Linuxes (Linuces? Linusi?), I tested basic functionality—Web browsing, office applications, and networking. I was able to connect to my G5’s shared drive and copy documents in both directions. Everything pretty much worked as I expected, and with good speed, too. After using both for only a few hours, if you told me I had to pick one or the other and I couldn’t use OS X any longer, I think I’d pick Fedora Core—it just felt more polished and accessible than did Debian.

So with only a couple minor issues, I now had two Linux distributions and Windows XP running in their own virtual machines. What next? How about another version of Windows?

Windows 2000

To me, this was the first “usable” version of Windows (though some would argue we’re still not there with XP). I haven’t installed it in years, but I still had my CD, buried in the depths of my assorted tech bits and pieces. (“See, honey, I told you I’d use this again someday!”) Installation was fast, quicker than XP (as is OS 9 over OS X, I know), and it worked just fine after the virtual machine rebooted. (You’ll want to install the Parallels Tools here, too.) Of course, there were quite a few updates to install to make it current, but this too went off without a hitch.

Testing with Windows 2000 revealed that everything here worked as expected—and reminded me that I still prefer Windows 2000 to XP. (The first thing I do to any XP machine I have to work on is to revert the theme back to the Windows 2000 look.)

Multi (OS) tasking

Now my Mac mini had five—count ‘em, five—operating systems installed and functional: OS X, Windows XP and 2000, Debian Linux, and Fedora Core Linux. I actually tried to install Solaris, too, but that failed. The install worked (slowly, it took well over an hour), but then I couldn’t get Solaris to start. This may have been more my fault than that of Solaris or Parallels Workstation, given my total lack of knowledge of anything to do with Solaris. So what to do with five OSes then? What else than to try running them all at once!

My first attempt was mostly successful, as you can see:


That’s a shot of three Parallels Workstation virtual machines running—Windows XP, Fedora Core, and Debian. I configured the two Linux VMs to each run in 256MB of RAM, and the XP VM was given 384MB. This setup worked quite well, and all three OSes were very usable. Granted, I wasn’t then stressing the CPU on top of this by doing something like running four different compilers simultaneously—that might have been pushing my luck!

This ability to run multiple OSes is the true power of virtualization technology over something like Boot Camp. Such a setup might be useful for an IT professional who needs to support multiple operating systems. Or for a software developer looking to test their program on multiple OSes. It will, of course, also appeal to the die-hard tech hobbyists, who will do it simply “because it can be done.” Given more RAM, which isn’t possible in the mini, you could probably get six to ten VMs running at once, if you so desired.

The way Parallels implements multiple-at-once VMs is a bit unique. With a given VM open, you select File -> New Window, which doesn’t actually do what you might think. Instead of opening an actual window, it launches another copy of the Parallels Workstation application. So you can’t simply toggle between VMs using OS X’s “next window” (Command-`) command; you must use Command-Tab or the Dock to switch to each instance of the PW application. The only problem with this is that each instance has an identical name, making it difficult to figure out which VM you want to activate, as you can see in this movie.

Now let’s see…where did I leave that Fedora Core VM…was it the second one? The first? Hmmm. Ideally, each VM machine would use the active VM as its name, but I’m not sure that’s technically possible. So the real answer here is…switch between VMs using Exposé. Then you can just mouse over each window, and you’ll see not only the name of the app, but the name of the window, making it simple to identify which machine you wish to activate.

Going for broke

With four OSes (counting OS X) up and running, I decided to add in the last VM, Windows 2000. The first time I did so, however, I paid the price—the machine (the mini) kernel panicked. I made several more attempts, always with the two Linuxes running, and had nothing but issues. If the machine didn’t panic, it would restart. Or Parallels Workstation would quit. Or one of the VMs would crash. So it seems I did succeed in “going for broke”—it was definitely broke!

But after much trial and error (and error and error and…), I got it working. In the end, I wound up reversing the VM load order by booting both Windows versions first, then adding in the Linux systems. So here, courtesy of Exposé, are all four VMs running at once on the Core Duo mini:


Four VMs plus OS X, and all were usable and stable (once I had them all running), on what is the second-cheapest computer that Apple currently sells. Fairly amazing. Even more impressive is the fact that the VMs continue to operate in the background—switching from one to the other doesn’t pause that VM until its reactivated. The Linux systems, for instance, were both showing screensavers while I was working in the XP VM. Despite all of that, the frontmost VM, even if that “VM” was OS X itself, was always responsive to clicks, and I didn’t notice any dropped characters when typing, or other annoying slowdowns. I can’t wait to see what will be possible on the high-end Macs when they’re released this fall.

Conclusion

I hope I’ve given you a good sense of the possibilities that Parallels Workstation offers. It’s not presently something I would roll out on production machines, given the occasional kernel panics and crashes I’ve experienced. The good news is that each successive beta has gotten notably better, and offered more features—full screen and dual monitor support in beta 4, for instance. When Parallels Workstation exits beta, I’m confident that it will be a stable product, though there may always be a minor chance for a crash when you’re doing something as complex as this.

For now, though, it lets me check Web sites in XP and Linux, and open the occasional Windows-only file I receive, all without leaving the comfort of my preferred OS X environment. Boot Camp still gets used when I need full hardware support and/or accelerated graphics, but for everything else, I’ve found Parallels Workstation to be an excellent solution.

[Even after running all these other operating systems, Senior Editor Rob Griffiths’ heart remains with Mac OS X, as you can see at the MacOSXHints.com Web site.]

Editor’s Note: This article was updated at 3:42 p.m. on April 19, 2006 to correct information about how many copies of XP you need, and modify some information on RAM requirements for XP.

Editor’s Note #2: This article was updated at 9:09 a.m. on April 20, 2006 to remove a comparison of Word on Fedora and XP. My Word display setting on XP was preventing a cover graphic from showing. With the proper (page view) setting enabled, both documents were identical.

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