InfoWorld review: Desktop virtualization for Windows and Linux heats up

VMware Workstation 7 is still king for developers and techs, but innovative VirtualBox 3.1 and easy-to-use Parallels Desktop 4 gain ground

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It's to these users -- the proverbial "choir" -- that VMware is preaching with Workstation 7. Features like support for Windows Aero Glass, in VMs running Vista or Windows 7, are geared toward help desk personnel who need to more accurately replicate end-user desktops, while automatic (timed) snapshots, expanded Replay debugging, and deeper IDE integration features help to reassert the product's stranglehold on the ISV crowd. Even core changes, like the ability support up to four virtual CPUs per VM and to host vSphere 4 as a guest platform, are targeted at the company's bread-and-butter, server-consolidating and VDI-loving customer base.

Clearly, VMware no longer views the traditional desktop virtualization space as competitive -- at least, not outside of areas where it intersects with broader virtualization themes. This is the sort of complacency that market leaders get to enjoy, but it's also a double-edged sword: VMware's decision to effectively ignore the competition has allowed sleeper products, like the scrappy VirtualBox, to nibble away at the fringes of its user base. And while VMware may dismiss impressive technical feats, like 32-way virtual CPU support, as mere academic exercises (who really needs 32 CPUs in a desktop VM?), the fact that they're being accomplished by someone else, when you're the perceived market leader, is never a good sign.

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VMware Workstation 7 now lets you differentiate between logical CPUs and CPU cores when configuring virtual processors for your VMs.

In the meantime, loyal Workstation users will be pleased by the incremental enhancements that version 7 brings. During my own testing, I was impressed by Workstation 7's deft handling of virtual printing support, which is now almost entirely automated. Plus, the capability to automatically snapshot my running VMs at timed intervals gave me more confidence to push my various test scenarios, understanding that any catastrophic failure could be rolled back quite easily.

I also found Workstation 7's take on virtual CPU support interesting. Instead of merely exposing a bunch of generic x86 compute engines, Workstation 7 allows you to present a more refined view to the guest OS by letting you specify whether they appear as discrete CPUs or as multiple cores within a single CPU. This distinction is important because it affects how more recent operating systems, including Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2, interact with CPU resources. These latter-day OS support core parking and generally tune their scheduling algorithms to match the underlying processor core configuration.

Overall, VMware Workstation achieves its goal of delivering more red meat to its primary customer base: help desk operators, professional developers, and vSphere and VDI support personnel. Technical challenges from plucky open source upstarts notwithstanding, Workstation remains the gold standard in desktop virtualization.

Parallels Desktop 4 for Windows and Linux
When I last looked at a Parallels solution for Windows systems, the product in question was just a pale imitation of its better-known sibling, Parallels Desktop for Mac. Parallels Workstation for Windows, as it was called back then, delivered good basic desktop virtualization but lacked critical functionality like USB device support and bridged networking.

Locked in a death struggle with VMware on the Macintosh platform, Parallels allowed its Windows version to languish for nearly two years while it focused on defending its Mac OS X flagship. Then, this past summer, Parallels surprised everyone by bringing forth Parallels Desktop 4 for Windows, a product that was on par functionally with Parallels Desktop for Mac -- at least for a time.

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Parallels Desktop 4 for Windows and Linux lets you assign up to 8GB of RAM to each VM and sports the same user-friendly interface as its Mac cousin.
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