Desktop virtualization smackdown: Parallels vs. VMware vs. VirtualBox

Virtual machines are the best way to accommodate different application needs in a datacenter environment. Whether you need to run your apps on a specific platform, or just need to meet scaling requirements, virtualization is the solution to a lot of IT manager's problems, thanks to fast and cheap memory.

But what about the desktop? As a technology writer, I use virtualization all the time, primarily to review new Linux distributions without taking up an entire machine's worth of data and resources. For everyday users, virtualization seems to be an unneeded luxury than anything else. Why would you need to run two operating systems at the same time?

Desktop virtualization first steps | Free download: VDI shoot-out: Citrix XenDesktop 5.5 and VMware View 5

I can think of three good reasons why virtualization on the desktop is a good idea.


Security. One of my favorite recommendations for all users is to install Linux as their primary desktop machine, saving their personal data on an external drive before they do. If they have Windows applications that they simply cannot part with, then they can use a virtual machine application to install Windows, and re-install just the needed apps. Then they're off, moving their saved data back onto either the native Linux system or the virtual Windows machine, as needed. This gets them the flexibility of the apps they need, while letting them connect to the Internet on a much more secure and stable platform.

Convenience. Sometimes, you need to have the option of running multiple operating systems. OS X Lion users, for instance, were unpleasantly surprised to learn that they could no longer run financial software Quicken 2007 on the new version of Apple's operating system, thanks to Apple's decision to drop support for Rosetta, which was the tech needed to run old PowerPC applications. Running a Windows instance on OS X, then, is one solution for this problem.

Give users the virtual desktop they want

Cost. If you want to have two (or more) machines in your home or office setup, it's a lot less expensive to run a virtual machine than buy a whole new one. Even the cost of buying an additional hard drive and Windows OEM license is less than what you would spend on a whole new machine. Especially since some virtualization clients are free-of-charge.

In this article, we will explore three popular cross-platform virtualization clients and see how they stack up for personal use.

Behind the scenes of Wellesley College's desktop virtualization rollout


VMware is probably one of the most recognized names in the technology industry. Many people have heard of it, even if they don't quite know what the company does. VMware is, quite simply, one of the strongest virtualization software companies in the world, if not the strongest. Their software offerings are widely used in virtual datacenters and desktops in businesses all over the world.

It's a strength you can tap into as well, though at a cost.

VMware has two primary desktop offerings: VMware Workstation and VMware Player. Each virtual client can virtual machines flawlessly. But Workstation has more features, such as dual-monitor support, Unity interface integration, and (most importantly) the ability to create virtual machines. Player does just what it's name suggests: it plays virtual machines, like a DVR playback.

[Author's Note: Following paragraph corrected to account for PLayer's capability to create virtual machines.]

There are some limits to using Player: while it can create VMs, it has limited settings to edit those machines, compared with Workstation. If you are using VMs for run-of-the-mill desktop guesting, then Player is adequate. But Workstation really is the superior offering of the two.

For the functionality, I would really like to recommend VMware Workstation. I have used it on Windows and Linux machines, and have found it incredibly easy to use. The setup wizard is straightforward, and intuitive enough that most users with a little technical experience under their belts can understand what's going on. And, even for those who don't, the default settings are good enough that you can run any recognized operating system very efficiently.

Older Fedora 9 test machine on Ubuntu 11.04 host in VMware Workstation

The Unity view tries to incorporate elements of the virtual machine directly within the interface of the native operating system. So, icons and windows from a Windows VM would appear to run alongside those of a, say, Ubuntu operating system. For the most part, this worked during my tests, but it was slow enough that I preferred keeping the virtual machines I tested inside the single VMware client window.

There are two things holding me back from a full-on Workstation recommendation: first, (like Player) it's only available for Linux and Windows. Mac users who want to create virtual machines have to use VMware Fusion, which is currently selling for $49.99.

And price is definitely the second issue. Unlike Player, which is free, the list price for VMware Workstation is a whopping $199. That's a big chunk of change for a virtual client, no matter how many extra features it has. Not when there are comparably featured clients out there (including the Mac-only Fusion) with smaller (and no) price tags.

This is too bad, because VMware Workstation is a good, full-featured virtual client. If you have a virtual machine image already created, don't hesitate to pick up and run VMware Player for a free-to-use VM client.

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