Will Apple ever fully liberalise Mac OS X virtualisation?

Eric Lai
17 September, 2008
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Over the past two years, running Windows and Windows apps virtually on Apple hardware has become a popular way for consumers to dump their PCs in favor of Mac gear.

Microsoft’s liberal attitude, while hurting hardware partners such as HP and Dell, has also enabled the spread of Windows to Apple’s previously-inaccessible hardware.

In contrast, Apple has only grudgingly allowed Mac OS X to be run on virtual machines. The regular client version of Leopard cannot be run virtually, whether on Apple’s hardware or not.

Only the server version of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard can be turned into a virtual machine, or guest. That must be on Mac hardware, though desktops, laptops or servers are all allowed. The VMs must also run on top of the base Leopard server OS.

The implications of these limitations on price are huge. It costs a minimum of $598—the retail price for Apple’s smallest 10-pack of OS X Server Leopard licenses—to run Leopard virtually today. Meanwhile, a 5-pack of regular Leopard licenses retails for $249.

Pete Kazanjy, marketing manager for VMware’s Fusion (read First Look: VMware Fusion 2.0 Beta 1) Mac-Windows virtualisation software, says that from a technical standpoint, there’s “no difference” between the client and server versions of Leopard.

Users have not been stopped by the barriers to circumventing Apple’s license.

A small vendor, DiscCloud, released software last month it claims can be used to legally enable non-Apple PC servers to host Leopard-client virtual machines.

“It’s on a lot of peoples’ minds,” said Kazanjy. “Apple has built its business model of pairing really wonderful hardware with their wonderful software. They are really leery of letting things slide in there.”

“We’ve heard requests from our customers” to virtualise the Leopard client, said Ray Chew, senior product manager at Parallels, which earlier this summer released the first software to enable Leopard Server to be virtualised. “We have to tell them you can’t do anything against Apple’s EULA [End User License Agreement.]”

An independent technology analyst, Laura DiDio, recently completed a survey of 700 businesses and found 23 percent were virtualising Windows on at least some of their Macs. She said she heard from several respondents who were interested in virtualising the Mac OS X client, mostly for software testing purposes.

She said one respondent wasn’t letting the higher cost of virtualising Leopard Server stop its plans of streaming out Leopard virtual desktops from Mac servers to 4,000 Mac client computers.

Kazanjy is hopeful that as customer demand builds for virtualising the Mac OS, Apple will relent.

“Apple is a very reasonable company. If they see the market opportunity, they will open up,” he said. Especially if it involved “cementing” the Leopard client to Apple hardware, as the server version is, Kazanjy added.

“We have our fingers crossed,” he said. “If it happens, we will be all over it, as we have a bunch of very sharp engineers rarin’ to go.”

Others think the demand won’t ever be large.

“This is going to be a minor, minor scenario,” said Brian Madden, an independent desktop virtualisation analyst. The main reason users want to virtualise Windows is to run Windows apps that are unavailable on the Mac. There are very few Mac apps, especially in the business area, that aren’t also available on Windows, he said.

The ones that are unique to the Mac tend to be big, weighty design and animation apps that are so resource-intensive that they aren’t good candidates for virtualisation, especially Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), which involves streaming VMs over a network from a server to a client machine, Madden said. He argues that Macs continue to lack the management software that would make virtualising Macs attractive to enterprises.

“A lot needs to happen first,” Madden said.

Parallels’ Chew thinks that Apple’s licensing now only makes virtualising Leopard attractive to software developers. To encourage use of Mac OS X for VDI, he suggests a possible compromise: to let Leopard clients be virtualised but require users to buy a license for every individual piece of hardware that would receive a VDI stream, which is what Microsoft does.

“We’re working very closely with Apple to see if we can expand the scope of virtualisation,” Chew said. “But this is something that customers need to take to Apple.”

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