A Free, Open Source Way to Run Windows and Linux on Your Intel Mac
by Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First
published in Low
July 27 2007: Mac2Windows
is a hot topic amongst computer users; it's getting a lot of interest
from IT departments wanting to be able to run multiple servers on a
single piece of hardware. In particular, this lets them run older
software, such as applications designed for Microsoft's
no-longer-supported Windows NT 4.0 Server, without having to keep an
old computer in operation.
Software developers and Web designers
are able to test their creations on multiple platforms without having
to actually have dedicated Windows, Linux, and Mac computers sitting on
Virtualization has been particularly of interest
to Mac users; it allows them to run individual Windows applications
(like Microsoft Access database) that lack Mac equivalents or to
connect to Internet Explorer-only websites if necessary without having
to hunt down a Windows PC. Apple's move to Intel-powered Macs has
resulted in newer and better ways to run Windows, Linux, and other PC
operating systems and software in virtual sessions on Macs.
Virtualization on the Mac
now in version 3.0, is the best known and most widely used of this new
generation of Mac virtualization products. VMware, long a leader in
virtualization software for Windows and Linux is nearing the release of
its first product for the Mac. Competition has pushed both of these
US$79 products to improve performance and increase features and ease of
But these two commercial products aren't the only options
for creating and running virtual computers on your Intel Mac. In
January 2007, InnoTek released VirtualBox
as a professional-level virtualization program that's available as open
source software under the GNU Public License (GPL). As open source
software, any interested can download, examine, and alter the source
code. While corporate users are expected to buy licenses, it can be
freely used by anyone for evaluation or personal use.
is available in versions for Windows, Mac OS X (Intel), a growing
number of Linux distributions, and other so-called host operating
systems. I installed it onto a computer running Ubuntu Linux and onto
an OS X-powered iMac. Note that while the current version 1.40 is an
official release version for Windows and Linux, at the time of writing
the Mac version is still in beta. (And, like Parallels and VMWare
Fusion, it's only usable on Intel-powered Macs).
The VirtualBox Mac installer notes the following beta issues:
"Currently, we are aware of the following issues:
- No support for Host Interface Networking
- No support for Internal Networking
- No support for audio input
- No support for VT-x/AMD-V (rarely required)
- No support for raw disk access
- On OS X 10.4.10, USB memory devices cannot be
assigned to a VM
- The NumLock emulation isn't implemented yet
- The VirtualBox kernel extension is currently
accessible from all user accounts
"Note that we are planning to address all known issues."
all these virtualization products end up doing the same thing -
installing a 'Guest' operating system that runs on top of a 'Host'
operating system - it's not surprising that they are similar to one
another. Having worked with Parallels Desktop and VMware, along with
older emulation software for PowerPC Macs like Virtual PC and Guest PC,
getting VirtualBox up and running seemed pretty familiar. Users are
walked through the process of creating a new virtual system with a
relatively user-friendly wizard.
are asked to pick their desired Guest operating system from a list.
While relatively straightforward for Windows, this may confuse wannabe
Linux users: Rather than listing supported Linux distributions (Ubuntu,
Fedora, SuSE, etc.), it lists Linux kernel versions; how many of us
know which kernel is used with, say Ubuntu 7.04 vs. Ubuntu 6.10? Since
I was installing the latest Ubuntu release, I picked the latest kernel
listed, crossed my fingers, and hoped for the best. It seemed to work.
can accept the default settings for RAM and hard drive size or easily
alter them - I increased the default RAM sizes to 512 MB for both
Windows 2000 and Ubuntu 7.04 Linux.
a virtual hard drive takes several steps, even if you're accepting the
defaults. A nice feature - the default is to create a so-called
dynamically installing drive image. With this, the virtual 8 GB drive I
created for my Ubuntu Linux system won't automatically require that
much space on my Mac's hard drive - instead, it only takes up as much
space as is actually required by the files on the virtual drive (at the
moment, 2.68 GB).
these are configured in the wizard, just pop in the install CD for your
desired guest operating system and click Start. (Advanced users, which
I'm not, can create scripts to replace the Wizard).
you start up a virtual session for the first time, another wizard walks
you through a few steps necessary to get the guest operating system
installed. In particular, it checks whether you're installing from a
'real' CD or DVD in your computer's optical drive or whether you're
using an image file. Most of us would probably be using a CD.
that's done, you're in business. Your guest operating system installer
should load, and everything should run as normal, just as if you were
installing onto a real, physical PC.
virtualized system includes virtual hardware for a network adapter,
sound adapter, video display adapter, etc. A few things to note: The
sound adapter is turned off be default; you can easily turn it on, but
be sure to pick the Core Audio option - the Null Audio option leaves
sound turned off.
display adapter uses 8 MB of RAM for video by default. While both
Parallels and VMware are working on adding DirectX support for Windows
gaming, you won't find VirtualBox a gaming powerhouse - even if you
increase the amount of RAM set for video. The default 8 MB gave me
32-bit graphics in a 1024 x 768 window, which was fine for me.
haven't tested Windows Vista, but I suspect that regardless of the
amount of video RAM set, it wouldn't support Vista's Aero graphics
transparency and other eye candy.
As with sound, USB support is
disabled by default; it too can be turned on giving access to USB
printers, and more. (Note that 'USB Memory Devices' such as flash
drives are not supported in the OS X Beta version I tested.)
like Parallels and VMware virtual sessions, you're going to want to
install "Additions" for improved functionality. Additions are included
for Windows and Linux; they offer improved video and USB performance
and smoothly integrate the mouse between the Mac and the guest desktop.
(This can cause problems, and once installed it can be turned on or off
- when this is not installed or turned off, users need to press the
left Command key to get access to the mouse for the Mac.) The Additions
can be installed from the program's Devices menu; once chosen, a CD
image is loaded and appears as a drive, ready to run.
Windows additions installed without a hitch in my test Windows 2000
guest OS. I had to do a bit of fussing to make the Linux additions
install on my Ubuntu session, however. Double-clicking on the
VBoxLinuxAdditions.run file tried to load it in a text editor rather
than running the file. In the end, I copied the contents of the virtual
CD to a new folder on my desktop, opened a Terminal session, moved to
that folder, and from the command line typed:
After prompting for my password, the Additions installer ran. (Linux
gurus probably know more elegant ways to make this work).
the Parallels and VMware additions provide drag-and-drop between the
guest OS desktop and the Mac desktop, VirtualBox lacks a similar
feature. As well, the software promises the ability to set up Shared
Folders - designated folders on the Mac that will appear as virtual
drives on Windows or Linux virtual systems. The documentation tries to
walk users through steps required to mount these virtual drives in
Windows and Linux, but this needs to be made more automated. In any
event, I couldn't get it to work - this seems to be what the beta
warning quoted above meant by 'Internal Networking'. As a result, it
wasn't as easy to move files between my Mac and my virtual sessions as
it is using the commercial virtualization programs.
seemed fine - as with Parallels and VMware, virtualized sessions
running on an Intel Mac seem to work at nearly full speed . . . at
least if you've got enough RAM to throw at them. I've got 2 GB of RAM
on this iMac; that lets me share 512 MB of it with my virtualized PC
If you already own a copy of Parallels
Desktop, VirtualBox probably offers nothing new. But if you've got an
Intel Mac and want to try out Windows, Linux, or some other PC
operating system, this free and open source virtualization software can
be a usable and attractive way to do it. It lacks some of the
cutting-edge features of Parallels or VMware (such as Parallels'
Coherence Mode or the ability to run a Boot Camp installation as a
virtual session), yet it's an impressive piece of software. And the
price is right!