Can You Work On A Virtualized Windows Desktop?

VMware on servers has become standard practice but can you survive on a virtualized desktop?

I’m using a Macbook Pro laptop running OS X and I have Windows 7 installed on the Bootcamp partition. Normally this kind of setup only lets you boot up either Mac OS X or Windows, but with VMware Fusion 3 for Mac OS X I can run the bootcamp partition (Windows 7) as a virtualized guest operating system. The Unity feature of VMware Fusion lets Windows apps appear in their own window on the Mac OS X desktop. That always turns heads because people say, “You’re running Outlook on a Mac?”.

IT professionals have been working with desktop virtualization for years, mostly via Citrix environments. But those were specialized Citrix servers hosting user sessions across a LAN. And we've been using virtualization for servers in labs, datacenters and hosting locations. But I started to wonder, can virtualization deliver the performance and responsiveness necessary for desktop users? Not just on occasion, but as their primary desktop? That's what I've been experimenting with over the last two weeks. I've turned off my Windows 7 laptop and am only using Windows on my Mac.

Also check out the blog post: How To Run Windows 7 Virtualized On Mac OS X

The hardware platform is a reasonably configured laptop with a 2.8Ghz dual core CPU, 4GB ram and a sizable 100GB bootcamp partition on a 5400 RPM drive. Since I'm not always at one location, doing this on a laptop was my best option. With this setup, I'm able to do iPhone development while working with Outlook and my other primary Windows applications at the same time. When working with Windows 7 and Mac OS X on the same machine, I've been pleasantly surprised, thanks to VMware Fusion's Unity feature.

VMware Fusion's Unity feature lets Windows applications appear on the desktop in their own window, rather than being stuck within the normal confines of the guest OS window. Moving Outlook, Word, Windows Explorer and other windows is a bit jerky as you slide the window across the Mac desktop, but not so much so that the window sticks or freezes.

To be honest, Windows 7's performance when run as a virtualized guest operating system isn't the same as when it's run natively, but the overall experience has certainly been workable and perfectly usable. I can comfortably use Microsoft Outlook for all my email needs, just as I did when running Windows 7 natively. Resorting the inbox by a different column can take a bit longer (maybe 5 seconds or so) but not so much that I avoid the practice because the performance penalty is unacceptable. Word, Excel and Powerpoint are also very usable applications.

Where I notice the biggest performance hit is in the time it takes to boot Windows 7. It probably takes 200-300% longer to boot up and get to a usable Windows desktop state that's ready to launch apps. I'd hate to think what it would be like running Vista in this kind of configuration. Applications are also slower to start up, but the penalty is much, much less than the Windows OS boot time.

Some other things I did to improve performance were to only install the Windows software, services and startup programs that I really needed, leaving nice-to-have utilities and memory hungry apps behind. Turning Aero off and going back to an XP-like classic interface also speeds up things significantly, and has the added benefit of reducing the drain the GPU puts on battery life.

Is Windows 7 virtualized with VMware Fusion an acceptable experience? Overall, I'd say yes - very much so. I'm not planning to switch back anytime soon. Not only can I now use my Windows applications while doing iPhone development, I can use some of my Mac's video and graphics applications. Not everyone has the CPU and memory power, or may not be willing to give up the Aero interface and some of the Windows goodies that can reduce performance, but if you've got the hardware and you work on both Windows and Macs, I recommend you give this setup a go.

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