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Virtualizing OS X: Is Apple Missing the Boat?

By John Rizzo
September 20, 2007

Opinion: Virtualization is the hottest trend in enterprise IT, but Apple customers are missing out on the most enticing benefits. It's not a cross-platform compatibility hurdle, but Apple's desire to hold on to its growing hardware market share. But the prohibition could backfire.

Last week's VMworld 2007 in San Francisco was called the hottest tech show of the year by eWeek. Nearly 12,000 attendees and over 100 members of the press attended workshops and sessions and dozens of new virtualization products on the show floor. The draws were big energy cost savings through sever virtualization and consolidation, better management of clients through workstation virtualization, and increased reliability, security, and system restoration that takes minutes instead of hours, or hours instead of days.

Twenty server hardware manufacturers, including Dell, HP, NEC, and IBM, announced that their server products would imbed VMware's new ESX Server 3i when it ships in November. Intel and AMD promoted quad-core processors with virtualization-assisting features built in. Cisco (which owns 1.6 percent of VMware) was bullish.

"There is a fundamental shift and it is occurring much faster than any market transition I've seen," said Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers on the conference's second day. "Virtualization unlocks the capability for changing business models."

This sentiment isn't simply fanciful projection, but a reflection of one of the fastest-growing technology segments today. VMworld attendance has doubled every year since the first conference in 2004, and the first VMworld Europe is planned for next February in Cannes, France. Last week, the San Jose Mercury News reported that VMware stock was worth over $25 billion, making it the third most valuable software company after Microsoft and Oracle. The day after VMware's wildly successful IPO last month, Citrix' acquired of virtualization up-and-comer XenSource for $500 million. Microsoft is developing a competing product to VMware ESX Server, called Viridian, to be released next year. This week, Intel announced an initiative with SWsoft, Parallels' parent company, in which SWsoft will be using Intel's VT-d virtualization technology. And dozens of software and hardware companies are continually joining the virtualization party.

Except that Mac aren't invited. Or rather, Apple has returned the invitation, unopened.

Although you can run a virtual machine in Mac OS X, you can't run Mac OS X in a virtual machine. And this is where the big benefits are. The driving force in the industry has been server consolidation: taking eight servers running on eight computers, and running them in virtual machines on a single server box. This may not mean much for Mac OS X Server, as most enterprises just don't have enough Mac servers around to reap the benefits.

But there is increasing focus on virtualization desktops: putting the user in a virtual machine. The benefits are in terms of deploying desktops, managing them, and recovering from disaster. You can set test, configure, and roll out a complete OS and application configuration to a large number of user PCs, all in a virtual machine. Admins can configure the PC so that user sees only the virtual machine OS, never touching the host OS. If something goes amiss, IT can replace the virtual machine rather than troubleshoot. There is even software available that automates and controls virtual machine life cycle management. There is flexibility, too, as any user can run any app in any OS.

Any OS except Mac OS X.

Virtualizing OS X

Mac users were used to sitting back and watching enterprise technology trends pass them by. Then came the switch to Intel, and enterprise started looking at Macs again. But a stroll through VMware showed that Mac OS was visibly absent.

It's not a technical issue. There are hacks all over the Internet to describe how to install Mac OS X in a Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion VM. (See this how-to, for instance). You can even Google to find pre-patched OS X virtual machines available as bit torrents. But illicit hacks are not the material of enterprise toolboxes.

One startup company, Moka5, has already virtualized Mac OS X to run on non-Apple hardware. (See MacWindows' coverage Beta app virtualizes Mac OS X in Windows; first VM to support DirectX 9). But Moka5 does not mention OS X at its web site. They don't want to get on Apple's bad side. Parallels and VMware have said they could easily enable Desktop and Fusion to run Mac OS X in a virtual machine. Representatives from both companies said they won't virtualize Mac OS X until Apple gives them the go ahead. Which won't be anytime soon.

The issue is Apple's Mac OS X end user license agreement, which says that the user must run the OS only on Apple hardware. Apple does not want Mac OS X running on non-Apple computers. The bigger profit margins are in Apple's hardware. Allowing the OS to run on cheap PCs would eat into Mac sales, which recently reached 2 million shipped per quarter.

Many Apple customers would be thrilled to run Mac OS X in virtual machines on Apple hardware. They'd get the same benefits as departments that virtualize Windows desktops, and they could use the same virtualization management tools to rollout desktops and recover from disaster. But it would be nearly impossible for Apple to prevent customers from running Mac OS X VMs on non-Apple hardware. The guest OS doesn't know what hardware it's running on. Apple could add language to the end user license agreement, but there'd be no way to enforce it.

The problem for Apple is that as client virtualization becomes more prevalent, there will come a time when the inability to run Mac OS X in a virtual machine will be an obstacle to Macs in the enterprise, much as the lack of an Intel processor or cross-platform networking once was. At that time, Apple will have to reevaluate its virtualization policy, and perhaps its low-cost, flat pricing structure as well, or lose market share in the large business, government, and educational sectors.

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Copyright 2007 John Rizzo. All rights reserved.