The virtualisation wars have begun in earnest with the launch of VMWare’s Fusion. Macworld spoke with VMWare’s Richard Garsthagen and Parallels’ Benjamin Rudolph about how the two products fit into the Windows-on-the-Mac world.

Fusion enables Intel-based Macs to run Windows software side-by-side with Mac OS X. It competes with Parallels Desktop for Mac – which shipped 16 months ago – and Codeweavers’ CrossOver for Mac. The key differences are that VMWare Fusion features 64-bit processing support – meaning it can run Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit edition and other operating systems designed for 64-bit microprocessors. This not only enables Mac users to run Windows, but it also supports Solaris, Linux and more than 60 different x86-optimized operating systems.

VMware Fusion is also capable of more heavy duty, multimedia tasks due to its support of multiple core processors. Parallels currently only supports one core per CPU.

Discussing the differences between VMWare and its rivals, VMWare’s Product Marketing Manager, Enterprise Desktop, Richard Garsthagen told Macworld: “All Apple computers have more than one core, some might even have multiple processors. Parallels can only leverage one singe core, one single processor. With our solution you can give more power to the more CPU intensive applications, such as Photoshop.”

Parallels’ Benjamin Rudolph is not concerned by his product’s limitations in these areas, however. “VMWare does offer Symmetric Multiprocessing (SMP) support and x64 support, but these are features that the average user a) doesn't understand and b) doesn't need. Only very high-end, power users need or want these features. That being said, we are adding them in the next several months. We've been publicly announcing that these are coming for many months now.”

Let the games commence On the flip side, however, Parallels Desktop is the only virtualization product that supports 3D gaming right now. Parallels is “the only solution that can run OpenGL applications like Quake4,” said Rudolph.

Garsthagen said: “Most of the PC games, especially the older PC games, work fine.” But he did admit that there is some way to go before the consumer gets a “true PC experience” in this area.

There are aspects of the competing solutions that appear more similar than they are. VMWare offers Unity – a feature similar to Coherence in Parallels. Thanks to Unity a user sees Window’s windows inside Mac OS X. “It looks like Coherence but it’s technically a lot different,” explained Garsthagen. “In Unity every window and every application appears seamlessly within the interface. Parallels just make the background transparent in Coherence.”

Unity lets users minimize Windows applications to the Dock, switch between Mac and Windows apps using Tiger’s Exposé feature, and use Mac keyboard shortcuts to copy and paste between applications.

One feature in Parallels that is lacking from VMWare, according to Rudolph, is Compressor, a free bundled tool that can compress a virtual machine HD by 50 per cent or more. Parallel’s implication of the Snapshot feature is also different. Snapshot Manager allows users to take and revert to as many Snapshots as they like. “Fusion has snapshots, but no manager... you can only take one,” Rudolph explained.

Parallels also offers easy to configure security settings, explained Rudolph. “It’s ideal for novices who know that security is important, but may not understand what to do about it.” The product also ships with a free six-month subscription to Kaspersky Internet Security Software.

VMWare’s advice about security is that there is less of a risk if you use their Snapshot feature. “You are reducing your risk by Snap Shooting,” explained Garsthagen. “A Virtual Machine is just a file and it is very easy to make a copy of that file and carry that on a memory stick. If something goes wrong, just dump the file back on your machine.” However, Garsthagen still recommended applying normal policies like putting virus software and a firewall on the PC partition.

Long wait Even with these additional features, can VMWare’s solution carve itself a niche in a market where Parallels has already got a strong footing? According to Garsthagen, Parallels may have become well known in the Mac market but VMWare is popular amongst PC users. “A lot of potential users are familiar with the VMWare product because they come from the PC world, and we have been very popular there. In that market segment we are more popular than Parallels.”

VMWare has a long history in the virtualisation market. Pat Lee, product manager of VMware Fusion, claims he invented x86 virtualization about 9 years ago. Garsthagen clarified: “VMWare reinvented virtualisation. Virtualisation has been around since the 60s on mainframes. We reinvented virtualisation for x86 – the standard Intel and AMD architecture.”

However, despite this history and experience, producing a Mac version of the VMWare product still tool a long time. This is because “we have not been in the industry of making consumer products for so long”, claimed Garsthagen. Also, he emphasised that the Fusion product has been designed specifically for the Mac and written in Cocoa. “This is not a port. It is designed from the ground upwards. The UI [user interface] is designed to match the way a non-technical Apple-user expects an application to work. It is not a port of another VMWare product. The bulk of the work has been designing the UI.”

The benefit, however, is VMWare’s expertise at the virtualization level. “The virtualisation layer is that same. We will keep that up to date with all the products we are developing.”

While VMWare has been tweaking the interface, Parallels has been developing its product though regular updates. Garsthagen criticised Parallels for testing its product on consumers, with an update every few months, some of which customers have had to pay for. “This has made it into an expensive product for consumers,” he said.

Rudolph disagreed; explaining that having been on the market for so long means that that his product has been well tested. “Parallels has released 2 major versions and many free minor updates in the past 14 months. Each new release, including minor updates and major releases like 3.0, is born from the requests and needs of our customers and perfected during a thorough beta cycle involving thousands of users,” he said, adding: “Fusion is a first-generation product that has not yet been proven.”

On the contrary, Garsthagen emphasised that his product is very well tested. “VMWare has a good reputation in the server industry. This technology is very well tested. It is rock solid.”

Macworld’s review of VMWare Fusion will appear in the next issue of Macworld, on sale 6 September 2007.