By Zac Bolan
By Zac Bolan
Protecting your software investment with virtual machines
Virtual machines are nothing new, and out of necessity I was an early adopter of the technology. While working in prepress and later in software development a few years back, it was essential for me to have ready access to the Windows environment. Initially, this meant hauling around two laptops in my bulging computer bag, as early operating-system emulators for the Mac were sluggish and limited in function. All that changed when I discovered an early version of Parallels Desktop. With Parallels I was finally able to ditch the ThinkPad and effectively run Windows XP on my MacBook Pro.
For the uninitiated, virtual machines (VM) are complete computing environments including operating system, software and user documents/files contained in a single disk image. With a software emulator such as Parallels Desktop, an appropriately configured host computer can run a VM and its applications alongside host-native applications.
When I reviewed Parallels Desktop 8 (PrintAction, February 2013), I had just made the transition to a new MacBook Air with a Solid State Drive (SSD). The differences in speed between the SSD and a conventional hard drive is remarkable, making a virtual machine respond just like a hardware-based Windows workstation. Suffice it to say that the SSD completely changed the way I used virtual machines and put Parallels Desktop on my daily use list.
Released in September 2013, Parallels Desktop 9 improves an already robust hardware emulator with a host of new features, including: Support for Windows 8; Thunderbolt and Firewire device access; multi-monitor settings remembered; iCloud, SkyDrive and Dropbox sync; and an enhanced wizard making it considerably easier to setup a new virtual machine.
The biggest reason to upgrade is speed, however, as Parallels Desktop 9 runs noticeably faster than version 8. Parallels claims up to 40 percent better disk performance in Desktop 9 in addition to faster start-up, shutdown and suspend times. While I often take marketing claims of this nature with a grain of salt, this one seems to stand true. My virtual machines were significantly speedier after migrating to Desktop 9.
Of course, your mileage will vary based on the configuration of your host computer. To be effective, virtual machines need to live on a speedy machine such as a late model iMac, MacBook Pro or Air. While the stated memory requirements for Desktop 9 start at 2GB, users will find that more is better in this department, as a sizable block of memory must be assigned to the virtual machine OS. My current MacBook Air has 8GB RAM which is more than adequate for Parallels Desktop 9 – but my next Mac will have at least 16GB RAM or more, if available. Likewise, you do not need an SSD to run Desktop 9, but your user experience will improve dramatically if you do. Fortunately, SSD prices are coming down as more manufacturers include them in new machines and aftermarket upgrade drives become commonplace.
Alongside Desktop 9, Parallels launched Parallels Access, an iOS App enabling users to access and run applications from their Mac and VM on an iPad. Parallels Access is available on an annual subscription basis.
Why do you need a virtual machine?
You would be forgiven to think that the only reason to run a virtual machine on your desktop is to get Windows running on your Mac. After all, Parallel’s Website and packaging both scream “RUN WINDOWS ON YOUR MAC” in large red print. What many do not realize, however, is that Parallels Desktop can accommodate a wide range of 32-bit and 64-bit Guest Operating Systems including Linux, Solaris and every flavour of Windows ever devised, as well as legacy Mac OS X operating systems back to OS X 10.5 Leopard Server.
So why would you want to run an older version of Mac OS X as a virtual machine on your Mac? Simple – protecting your legacy software investment. As prepress departments deal with a wide range of clients and an even wider range of source files, it is important to maintain older versions of production critical applications such as Adobe Creative Suite and QuarkXPress. Many prepress pros concurrently keep multiple generations of these applications on their workstations so they can work with customer files in the specific version in which they were created – thus avoiding text reflow and other potential file problems.
Also, with each new Mac OS X iteration comes new features and enhancements enticing users to upgrade. These new capabilities often come at a price, however, as older applications may no longer work as effectively – or at all – with the latest Mac OS X. By building a bespoke virtual machine for each major version of the Mac OS users can install and run older applications in the environment they were designed for. For example, I currently run a Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion) VM for Adobe Creative Suite 5.5 and an OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion) VM for Creative Suite 6. These VMs can either run on the host computer in their own window, in full-screen mode, or in their applications side-by-side with host applications using Parallel’s Coherence mode.
Creating a Mac OS X VM is a relatively easy process with Parallels Desktop 9. After launching Desktop 9, select ‘New’ under the File menu and the Wizard will walk you through the steps. Assuming you acquired your Mac OS upgrades through the App Store, your older operating system installers will be available under the ‘Purchases’ menu and available for download. For Mac OS X installs before version 10.6 (Lion), you will need to find your original installer DVD. Once you have created and are running your VM, install and register your legacy software as you would on any Mac.
Another major advantage of virtual machines is the ease in which they can be backed up and duplicated. Users need only copy the Parallels disk image to another drive for backup, or to another Mac with Parallels installed to use the virtual machine elsewhere.
Considering Adobe’s recent decision to stop selling perpetual Creative Suite licenses it seems prudent to ensure you will always have access to your last ‘owned’ version of Creative Suite should you decide to work outside of the Creative Cloud. Housing your second CS6 install in a Mountain Lion VM, for example, is one way to ensure you will always have access to Photoshop, regardless of how Mac OS and Apple hardware evolve.
Zac Bolan’s blog: blog.softcircus.com