February 28, 2006

Test drive: Parallels

Author: Tina Gasperson

Parallels launched Parallels Workstation for Desktop, its first x86 virtualization software, back in September, joining VMware's proprietary Workstation and the Xen open source virtual machine applications. Parallels Workstation, which is also proprietary, offers similar features and performance to VMware Workstation, but at only $49, compared to VMware's $189 price. This month the company announced version 2.1 beta. I liked the user interface, the virtual machine wizard, and the price.

Parallels offers its desktop product free for a 45-day trial period, so I downloaded the latest release and installed it on a Gateway MX6131 notebook running Windows XP SP2 Home with a 1.4GHz Celeron M processor and 512MB of RAM.

The first time you run the program, you have to choose whether you want to open an existing virtual machine configuration or create a new one. I didn't have a Parallels configuration file, so I used a built-in wizard to create one that would allow me to run the latest release of Ubuntu. The wizard allows you to create a "typical VM" with the most common options, a custom VM configuration, or a blank VM. Parallels doesn't specifically support Ubuntu, but I was able to build a configuration file by choosing the option for a generic version of Linux with a 2.6.x kernel.

The next window showed the configuration details in a clean graphical format, with editable options for memory allocation, diskette, hard disk, and CD drives. For instance, I could choose to have the virtual machine emulate a CD drive by working from an image file, or set the memory allocation for optimal performance.

I decided to populate the virtual machine from an actual Ubuntu CD. The procedure for launching the machine is intuitive and easy. There's a set of icons similar to a CD player on the right side of the screen. I clicked "play," and the virtual machine started running the installation routine. I clicked "pause," and the virtual machine went into a sleep mode that removed it from the processes running in the host operating system. I clicked "stop," and the virtual machine quickly shut down and returned me to the summary window.

Once Ubuntu was installed, I no longer needed the CD to run it in the virtual machine. I was surprised to find that I could use several programs in the host operating system while running the virtual machine without experiencing too much system degradation, as long as I kept the memory allocation at the optimal level for my system's 512MB of RAM. Parallels' default memory allocation was set at higher than 350MB, not an unreasonable level for most workstations equipped to run virtual machines, but it caused my CPU to run at 100% and my hard drive to spin non-stop. To fix that, I had to shut the machine down and change the default memory allocation settings to consume no more than half of my total RAM, or 256MB. Parallels worked well with key hardware, including the sound card and USB adapter.

Parallels also offers a Linux version with the same 45-day free trial, packaged in RPM and .deb formats. The installation isn't exactly smooth sailing on Ubuntu. Make sure you have the latest kernel sources and fresh copies of make and gcc installed, and pay a visit to the Parallels FAQ before you start. Post-installation, the Parallels interface and performance with Ubuntu as the host OS works the same as when Windows XP is the host, including the wizard that allows you to create a custom Parallels configuration file.

Parallels touts Parallels Workstation as a way for IT professionals to meet evolving enterprise technology needs and reduce costs, but with their easy configuration wizards and intuitive user interface, the Windows version may attract a less geeky audience as well.

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