Virtualized Macs In the Enterprise

Deploying a virtualization solution may be all it takes to make Windows- or Linux-based applications sing in perfect pitch with Mac OS X. Here are the tweaks to make it work for enterprise users.

If Mac OS X Leopard wowed you enough that you're ready to migrate your entire company to Apple hardware, one of the first things you're likely to hear from some employees is, "I won't give up Microsoft Outlook!" or, "Sorry, Boss, the CMS we bought last year only works on Windows." Fortunately, expecting your staff to relearn an entirely new operating system or wrestle a commercial product into submission on a new OS is a thing of the past. These days, deploying a virtualization solution is all it takes to make Windows or Linux-based applications sing in perfect pitch with Mac OS X.

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Although the term "virtual environment" seems a little 22nd century, the technology has actually been in use in various iterations since the 1960s. It's just in the last few years that consumer technology has evolved to a point that makes the deployment of virtual machines a viable solution for today's business needs. While there are many ways to use virtualization technology in enterprise, common desktop setups include:

  • maximizing a computer's physical resources by splitting up (partitioning) one server into several sections and allowing it to run several virtual servers at once

  • running more than one operating system on a single computer, such as running Linux-based Fedora 8 or Windows XP on a Mac

  • ensuring rapid disaster recovery by backing up data from several physical servers onto one virtual machine

  • creating a testbed where developers can quickly check software performance on a fully functional—yet separate—operating system, without risking the company's infrastructure

While virtualization solutions used to be available only to companies with deep pockets, today there are several options that range from thousands of dollars, to only a few hundred. Some open-source solutions, such as VirtualBox, are free. And Apple's recent OS X upgrade, Leopard, ships with BootCamp, a robust virtualization package that allows users to dual-boot 32-bit releases of Windows XP and Vista.

With virtualization accessible at the consumer level, many people are becoming acquainted with the technology by using it on their home computers. Virtualization in the enterprise is a horse of a different color, however, with inherent considerations of its own.

Pat Lee, VMware's group manager for consumer products, says, "While many business users need to use specific Microsoft applications such as Outlook, Visio and Project that don't exist on the Mac, enterprise customers tend to have internally developed applications or websites that are Windows-only that could be costly to replace. Virtualization enables enterprises to maintain these critical applications and extend them to Mac users in the enterprise."

Is Virtualization Right for You?

There are a number of things to keep in mind when assessing what your systems can handle or what you might need to deploy a virtualization solution. "Here is an example," offers Lee. "When running Windows in a virtual environment to support Windows-only corporate applications for Mac users, IT should treat set-up of virtual machines similarly to how they would treat creation of standard corporate images for desktops." Make sure volume licensing is in place, he says, and create a standard virtual machine with all drivers, applications and other corporate utilities installed. "Follow those best practices for the creation of standard virtual machines that can be distributed to all corporate users utilizing standard management tools for pushing out files and folders to their Mac desktops," says Lee.

Jacob Taylor, CTO of SugarCRM, says nearly all of the Mac users in his 150-employee company use virtualization to run either Linux or Windows—and sometimes both—concurrently on their Macs. His advice to companies getting ready to run virtual environments is to be sure to plan ahead.

"The newer version allows you to have dynamic discs so your discs can grow," he says. "You set up your operating system with 500GB, for instance, but you only need 1GB at first. As your needs grow, so will your disk size. So make sure you set up dynamic disks or fixed size if you know exactly what you're going to use. Setting it up to be flexible early means you don't have to reconfigure your operating system later.

"Also, these are big files. Each operating system takes up its native amount of memory, so in Windows you may want a bare minimum of 128MB so if you're going to be running several operating systems on a desktop or laptop for an engineer, make sure you give them plenty of memory ahead of time or it'll really slow things down just because there aren't enough resources provided."

Taylor also recommends that you make sure you've got the right networking capacity to access your storage so working with large files and images doesn't become unwieldy.

Problem Spots

Virtualization has exploded onto the scene practically overnight and shows no signs of slowing down. Though the technology helps companies maximize their resources, it isn't a panacea. For example, the way 3-D graphics render in a virtual environment has been less than ideal. But, as Lee points out, "Virtualization continues to evolve and meet more and more of advanced computing needs. For example, VMware was the first to introduce hardware accelerated 3-D graphics with experimental support for DirectX 8.1 3-D graphics, and with VMware Fusion 1.1 we have extended that to include DirectX 9.0 without shaders."

The staff members at SugarCRM are very happy with their virtual environments as they are now; however, Taylor says that makes for a truly productive environment. "People should work as much as possible in the environment that they're comfortable in. We've got people who love their Macs so giving them a different and artificial environment to work with would actually hurt productivity. Now, of course, if they're interested in learning [another OS], they can go ahead and do it, but if they're already comfortable with what they're using, we may increase their productivity quite a bit by giving them the environment they're already used to.

"It's all about options and flexibility. With virtualization, we have the ability to give them the best of both worlds," Taylor says.

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