The Thinker

The joys, glee and occasional giddiness of virtualization

We are living increasingly virtualized lives. From posting about our lives in Facebook, to wearing Google Glass, to playing games online where we don alter egos, most of us mask ourselves behind walls of electronic processors, networks and software. I’m typical. As for me, aside from Facebook there is this blog, which is not quite a true representation of me. Rather it is a projection of some part of me, perhaps my ego that I choose to share with the world. Most of you don’t know who I really am, which is by design. I go so far as to hide my domain details behind a proxy.

But there are other meanings to virtualization. In the computer world, virtualization is running a computer inside a computer. In my case, I am running Windows inside my iMac. It used to be I had separate machines, and the Windows box was a laptop provided courtesy of my employer. When I retired, I turned in the laptop, leaving me Windows-less. This normally would not be a problem, unless you need to teach a class where students will be doing work on Windows. That’s when I decided that rather than buy a new computer just to run Windows I would cheat. I would run Windows virtually inside my iMac instead.

There are a couple of ways to do this. The cheapest (free) way is actually to use Bootcamp. This allows you to boot to a Windows partition when you start your iMac. This works fine but is inconvenient. You must shut down Windows and go back to Bootcamp to boot your computer as a Mac. What I really want it to run is Windows and the Mac operating system at the same time and be able to share content between them. In short, I needed virtualization software.

Ah, but how to do it on the cheap? Windows computers aren’t that expensive, after all, so a virtualization solution would have to be cheap. It helps to be teaching a class, because I qualify for software at an academic price, roughly half the retail cost. That’s how I acquired Parallels, neat virtualization software that allows me to run Windows (and lots of other operating systems) virtually on my iMac. With discount it cost me just under $40. The only downside was I had to wait a couple of days for the USB drive with the software to arrive in the mail.

There was also the question of how to get a cheap license for the Windows operating system, as I didn’t have one lying around. Fortunately, the college where I teach has an agreement with Microsoft, which it uses on its desktop computers, wherein we teachers could install a free Windows license at home so we could do our work without having to come to campus. If you already have a license for Windows, you could install it in a virtual instance too. And after installing Windows, that’s where I stopped. I did not feel the need for a license for the Microsoft Office suite for Windows. I already have one for the Mac. Frankly, Microsoft Office is becoming obsolete. My needs are modest. I can generally do what I need using Google’s free tools, and they have the bonus of being easily sharable not to mention accessible in the cloud pretty much anywhere.

I did wonder if virtualization technology really would be reliable. I thought there must be some Windows software that simply cannot work in a virtualized environment. And there may be, but I haven’t encountered it yet. It all works perfectly fine. On my spiffy new iMac it runs at least as fast as it would if I had a dedicated Windows box.

Why bother in the first place? It’s not like I like Windows. For the class I teach, the students install a “lite” version of Oracle, Oracle 11g Express Edition, and it’s available for Windows and Linux, but students will install it on Windows. Even in a “lite” version, Oracle is a CPU and memory hog, so I was skeptical it could be run virtually, but it worked fine.

There was some puzzling installing Windows in a virtualized environment. I needed a Windows image file, which I got from the college. Since Parallels is a virtual wrapper around Windows it is software too, specifically it is a hypervisor. This is software that oversees virtual operating systems. In principle, a virtual operating system instance runs in its own little sandbox and cannot harm my iMac’s operating system. In practice though, the Windows instance may be virtual but it is still susceptible to viruses like a non-virtualized operating system, so I loaded the free Avast antivirus to keep it safe.

Aside from my needs for Windows for teaching, I have found it’s useful for other purposes. In retirement I earn income from consulting. Since I am doing web work, it helps to have web environments to do work in. Over the weekend I was involved in a hairy upgrade of a very large forum (about 670,000 posts) from phpBB 2 to phpBB 3. I tried it a number of times on my client’s shared hosting, and it kept failing. I ended up downloading both the programs and the database to my machine. I placed it in my virtual machine and converted it there. While it’s possible to install web server environments on the Mac, it’s more of a hassle. There are turnkey solutions for Windows web server environments, like XAMPP that I am using, that are so much faster to install and maintain. On my machine of course I did not have the limitations of a shared server and I was able to convert the forum.

There are some things that are just done better or more elegantly on Windows. Obviously, if you do any work for a business, they are likely using Windows, so having a Windows environment may be necessary. But there are some programs for Windows that are so nifty that there really is no equivalent for the Mac. Winmerge comes to mind and it is also free. I do have DeltaWalker for the iMac, but it is much harder to use. I have a version of Quicken for the Mac. The Windows version is much better. At some point I may move my Quicken files into my Windows virtual machine and take advantage of all these new features.

Beyond Windows, all sorts of virtual machines can be created using Parallels. I don’t have much need to install versions of Linux like Debian, but I can install it rather easily if needed and still have my iMac purring away. Parallels is also smart enough to allow copying and pasting rather easily between operating systems. In the Windows world, copy and paste is done with CTRL-C and CTRL-V. In Parallels, it will recognize the Mac’s CMD-C and CMD-V, which is more intuitive. Sharing files is more problematic. There are ways to do it, but so far I’ve been moving files on flash drives.

Overall, I am impressed by the ease of the Parallels virtualization technology. I effectively got a Windows machine without having to buy any hardware. With a free Windows license, my only real cost was the cost of the Parallels software. I have the benefits of both a Windows and a Mac without a lot of Windows hassles. I can do eighty percent or more of my work in the Mac operating system, but when I need Windows it is there reliably and transparently. Should I choose to get rid of Windows, it could not be simpler. I simply tell Parallels to remove my Windows virtual instance. Bing! Done!

So my computing life is good. I feel like I won the lottery. Among all the other benefits, virtualization technology is also environmentally friendly because I am running one physical computer instead of two. In short, it’s a slick and easy to use solution. Don’t be afraid to virtualize this aspect of your life.


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