Virtualization is a growing market. Virtual desktop software can save a company many thousands of dollars in management costs. One of the most important market players in this field is VMware, the developers of VMware Fusion, a virtualization software for Mac OS X. Its latest version 3.1 is said to be faster than ever, with a focus on graphics, and offering better integration between Mac and third-party OS desktops through Unity.
VMware Fusion 3.1 offers more speed and integration with Snow Leopard’s Expose feature, but also support for larger virtual machines, a bigger range of operating systems including SUSE Linux and RHEL, better handling of USB devices, etc.
I tested VMware Fusion with three OSes: Windows XP Service Pack 2, Windows 7 Enterprise, and Mac OS X Server. One thing that was immediately obvious to me is that VMware Fusion is as fast as native Mac OS X when used in its non-Unity mode — the mode where you always get a separate window for the virtual machine. In Unity mode, this became even more obvious.
Although you can tamper yourself with the setting of the virtual machines you’re running, I didn’t see any need. For example, when I changed Windows 7 to use 2 processor cores instead of one, the performance gain was only marginally, and it had been good enough before. One thing that I couldn’t really test well in my setup was the graphics performance in 3D. I lack Windows versions of 3D software and Fusion has been tested extensively with synthetic performance benchmarks enough not to need my input as yet another reviewer going that road. What I did test was video performance and I can only say it’s 99% of the performance on Mac OS X run by itself.
On my Mac Mini (late 2009) the graphics — the graphics performance on that machine being what it is — in Unity mode was good, but not outstanding. When dragging windows from the Windows 7 machine, there was always a degree of ghosting, a trail of blue background screen showing through. Oddly enough, this didn’t appear when windows were sliding as a result of using Expose, which performed amazingly well.
Two of the things I imagine VMware Fusion would be used for in business environments are sandboxing and running applications that do not run on Mac OS X natively. For sandboxing, VMware Fusion simply is unbeatable. It’s fast, a virtual machine can be suspended instead of shut down, and you can take as many snapshots of a system as you have disk space. A snapshot allows you to restore the system to a known state. In sandboxing environments this even allows you to just switch back to a state before you encountered a crash or installed the software.
The second usage is what most people will use VMware Fusion for: running applications that only run on Windows. There aren’t that many, but there are still some older software programs that can run on a Windows NT or XP machine. In other cases, a program might need Microsoft .Net. In those cases, VMware Fusion offers everything that is needed to run those applications securely and well integrated with your regular Mac OS X system.
As an example I tried upgrading a ROV barcode scanner’s firmware in Windows XP. To get there, I needed to connect the scanner to the virtual machine using a Serial-to-USB interface conversion software. The key to get it to work was simply to install the driver for the interface on Windows, not Mac OS X.
Many businesses will also want to run OSes inside VMware Fusion before they deploy them enterprise-wide. That too is possible. I was surprised to see even Mac OS X Snow Leopard Server as one of the supported server OSes. Except for Mac OS X Server, VMware Fusion also supports Ubuntu 126.96.36.199: 32- and 64-bit, Ubuntu 10.04: 32- and 64-bit, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 11 Service Pack 1 and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 Service Pack 1 (32- and 64-bit), and RHEL 5.4 32- and 64-bit. The complete list of supported operating systems includes approx. 150 systems!
With VMware Fusion, publishers can keep their old publishing software running on client desktops, while printers can run colour management software that isn’t Mac OS X compatible yet (and there’s many of these out there).
More importantly, VMware develops a whole range of virtualization products, and although analysts like Gartner warn enterprises that desktop virtualization isn’t the same as server virtualization, it cannot be denied the Fusion product is part of a far bigger range of products and an associated expertise.
And even if Gartner is right, you can’t forego the fact that running older software can in some cases be more cost-effective than having to train your users on using new tools. Sometimes you just can’t do without another OS like Windows.
Of course you can set up a Boot Camp system, but Boot Camp has no integration with Mac OS X whatsoever. Which leaves us with virtualization software and for all the reasons explained earlier VMware Fusion is most probably your best option. Costing 62.00 Euros for a license, VMware Fusion can be a very smart purchase.