VMware Fusion Beta 4 for OS X shows off desktop virtualization chops

VMware’s playing catch-up for once when it comes to the Mac market … or is it?

It could be argued that VMware has played second fiddle to no one since its inception. In the decade after the first VMware products hit the market, all other comers have found competing with the virtualization giant to be tough going.

On the Mac, however, this isn’t the case. Parallels Desktop for the Mac is generally thought of as the premier workstation virtualization package for OS X, due in no small part to being the first to market and the seeming ease with which Parallels integrates into the Mac OS. VMware’s play on this market is VMware Fusion, which is currently in beta 4 with a full release expected in August.

I’ve been running Parallels on my Intel Macs since its beginning, and I’ve seen the feature set grow with each release. VMware is coming into the Mac OS market from the side, however, leveraging its existing codebase for Linux to bring the concept of VMware Workstation to the Mac. The Fusion beta has some gaps and oddities, but it’s a feature-rich solution — and the full release will certainly heat up this market.

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VMware Fusion doesn’t quite reach the same level of host OS integration as Parallels, but it has a similar layout, with VMs running in a window, full screen, or side by side with OS X application windows in a view dubbed Unity. This is roughly the same as Parallels’ Coherence mode, though lacking the Windows Start menu. However, a Windows XP guest will have the Start menu layout present in the Fusion menu bar, so accessing applications from the VM in Unity mode is simple.

Installing the Windows VMs is straightforward, and you can do so from a local CD or DVD, as well as an ISO image. PXE booting is apparently supported, but the VM creation wizard requires that a CD, DVD, or ISO image be present to create the VM. Also, this beta includes VM snapshots, though only one is available at a time.

On my 17-inch MacBook Pro with a Core 2 Duo 2.33GHz CPU, 2GB of RAM, and a 160GB 5,400rpm drive, I built a Windows XP and Fedora Core 6 VM in VMware Fusion with little fanfare and very respectable speed. The VMware tools installation following the VM builds is the same as ever for VMware products.

I did note that my MacBook Pro got very worked up at odd times, with the CPU cooling fans running at 100 percent while a VM was quiescent or even when it was hung during boot-up due to a missing ISO image. It seemed that these issues were caused by an unhandled race condition, but I didn’t have time to fully investigate their origin. Otherwise, VMware Fusion drives more or less like VMware Workstation under Windows or Linux.

This highlights a significant advantage for VMware: VMs built on VMware Server, VMware Workstation, and possibly even VMware ESX Server can run under VMware Fusion for OS X. This allows VMware to leverage the large number of existing VMware images that have begun to pop up on vendor download sites everywhere.

Fusion is definitely a beta release, as evidenced by some problems I had with such things as new disc detection in the VM when changing mapped ISO images to the virtual CD-ROM, some window quirkiness in Unity mode, and other little quibbles such as a virtual disk fragmentation warning on a freshly built Windows guest VM. Frustratingly, VMware has changed the key sequence for swapping keyboard and mouse control from the VM and the host OS. Even Parallels uses VMware’s keystrokes to handle this task.

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Also, Fusion doesn’t support Control-Click for right-click action, which I found very annoying when working with the single-button trackpad — the only time I’ve been frustrated by the lack of a right mouse button on my MacBook Pro.

I did not see any major issues with core services, however, and throughout my testing I was impressed with the speed of the VMs, especially when both the VM and the host Mac were under reasonable load. With DirectX 8.1 support, Windows XP screen redraws were exceedingly snappy.

Overall, the experience was good. Once VMware Fusion is finally released, I’ll take a much closer look, but I can guarantee that I won’t be uninstalling the beta between now and then.

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