Real-world lessons from users working with dual-boot Macs

Introducing a virtualized desktop to users needing to run Windows apps on Macs seems like a good idea until you start logging all the support calls. Erik Eckel offers a reality check.

Introducing a virtualized desktop to users needing to run Windows apps on Macs seems like a good idea until you start logging all the support calls. Erik Eckel offers a reality check.


Enterprise administrators sometimes forget a critical fact: users rarely possess technical proficiency. Sure, you're familiar with virtualized operating system environments. Technology professionals, too, are adept at navigating the myriad printing, peripheral, disk partition, networking, performance, licensing and other issues that inevitably arise. But users? Not so much. This is why I've decided that introducing a virtualized desktop environment to enable running Windows inside Mac OS X, is a mistake. At least for most enterprise users, and at least for the foreseeable future.

Complicating already complicated processes

Computers, VPNs, business applications, wireless networking, printing, and even simple document formatting and mail merge processes are enough to overwhelm many users. Adding the complexities of a virtualized desktop environment further complicates tasks many users already find perplexing.

The great potential promised by VMware and Parallels have failed to materialize in the real world, at least for my users. Software that was to enable simple dual-boot Windows support has frequently failed to deliver simple operation. Unless the user possesses sufficient technical chops, virtual desktop environments have largely proved frustrating.

I first began encouraging users to test third-party Mac dual-boot applications some five years ago. That's when unusually large numbers of complaints began arriving from Mac users running Windows inside Mac OS X using a virtualized environment.

What goes wrong with a dual-boot Mac?

The resulting complaints have never been limited to a single issue. Instead, criticism stretches across a broad spectrum of pain, encompassing everything from sluggish performance to the inability to properly connect USB peripherals.

For example, I've had to troubleshoot sophisticated color printers that would not print properly. I've had to try synchronizing BlackBerries with Outlook when the virtualized Windows installation couldn't even see the handset.

Other users could never successfully navigate the integrated A/B switch for printing within one popular platform, resulting in panicked calls late in the evening, as critical documents couldn't be printed. Many complained of significant performance limitations, both in Mac OS X and Windows, when running the virtualized environment. Still others failed to understand the need to initiate and suspend virtual Windows sessions, resulting in frustration, lost data and general dissatisfaction.

What to do?

My experience suggests enterprise users are better off using Boot Camp to enable running Windows and powering Windows applications on a Mac. In fact, with the exception of a few users complaining they cannot access their iTunes on their Mac (technically, a problem that can be remedied by migrating those iTunes to the Windows installation), I can recall no real world complaints associated with running Windows using Boot Camp.

That's how I've chosen to load my MacBook Pro, which receives heavy use each and every day. It's the main system from which I operate and manage my business. I have encountered no performance troubles, printing issues, or peripheral connectivity problems, even though I regularly use the laptop to join dozens of different networks.

Organizations that must, for whatever reason, deploy virtualized Windows environments run inside Mac OS X should plan on adequately training users to understand the desktop virtualization software they receive. Training shouldn't be limited to just a ten minute session consisting of "click here, click that, select this and start that" instruction. Instead, a fairly comprehensive session should be scheduled to ensure users are taught the platform's limitations, common workarounds, and other best practices for maximizing productivity using the virtualized installation of choice.

Enterprise administrators, too, should provide users with written documentation summarizing all the related steps and instruction. Without such reinforcement, my experience shows it's likely you'll spend an inordinate amount of time fielding support calls related to these issues.

What do you recommend?

What method does your enterprise recommend? When users must run Windows or Windows applications inside their Mac OS X installations, what software and instructional methods does your organization choose?

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Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...


Confused by title. I always thought dual boot and virtualization are two different things. I would do a true dual boot, meaning when you boot from power on you choose your OS to run. Multitasking between the two is severly limited but you don't have the performance issues of a virtualized environment.

Well... I set up my iMac using BootCamp when both were new to the market and am running XP on the BootCamp persona. I haven't had problems with peripherals or anything like that though I did need to re-connect my wireless keyboard in Windows. But I do consistently find that after a short period the Windows machine inevitably crashes. I don't use the Windows persona often enough to invest the time in troubleshooting this, or even to delete and re-create the Windows installation. But it's a bit limiting.


I have been dual booting Macs since 8 something, both multiple Mac systems, yellow dog Linux and Windows systems. I don't see a problem.

At the tech school I am attending for network admin training, virtual machines on students' laptops are used for training in things such as Windows servers, Linux, Exchange, and so on. After two years of this, my own experience and that of other students suggests that the biggest problems are due to lack of VM extensions in the processor -- Intel's procs are all over the road map when it comes to compatibility with VMs, unlike AMD; unsupported or OEM modified networking chipsets, and lack of sufficient RAM -- students trying to run VMs within Vista have more problems than those using XP, Win7, or Mac OSX. The worst problems come from under-powered hardware, lack of sufficient RAM, and CPUs that don't support virtualization. And the school doesn't provide training in virtualization, either, go figure.


I also could not disagree more. We are running Fusion 3 and have no problems whatsoever with performance, device compatibility or user issues. Many of our users are non technical and have no day to day problems of any sort. We also have various odd items of specialized usb and IP hardware that we have to interface to and again we have been pleasantly suprised to find no compatibility issues. In fact, overall, by using Macbook Pro's with our old desltop PC's migrated over to VMware Fusion 3 we have found great day to day productivity increase's and also now have all our tools with us at all times. We have also found the solution to be more stable than running windows on PC's. When you think that prior to implementing this back last year we were all totally anti-mac, the results are surprising.


I think the kinds of users who are having the kinds of problems you described in the article, are going to have the same problems whether or not they are in a virtualised environment, unless you're talking about the kind of virtualisation software that was available years ago. I use an MBP with VMWare Fusion 3 with multiple Windows virtual machines running inside for various purposes, and many USB devices and printers. I've never encountered any kind of problems.


I have low problems with Mac users only, lots of problems with Windows users only, an in between lesser figure with virtual Windows on Macs, and major headaches with virtual machines on Windows products. As the virtualisation hosts improve, speed and general machine agility has certainly improved. I absolutely agree totally with you on the training aspect, and also to creating at least some documentation relevant to the users, with preferable access to online (and updated) procedures, even if it means contracting specialist writers. What costs in training and ongoing support for users, can certainly make up for the lost productivity, paying bums on seats when the user stops work altogether whilst waiting for help, less help desk operators, less support staff....etc. However it seems almost impossible to get this point over to the upline management realistically. The global financial crisis has resulted in less access to training and other "non productive" methods. In some cases on call support firms are being utilised, as the in-house support staff simply can't cope when it seems that every user has problems all at a similar time. One thing that has surfaced, is that users with virtualisation on Macs can actually have standard Windows faults occur, as if they were using Windows only! From a psychological point I've noticed that the normal "happy Mac" users get much more irate at the problems with Windows on their machines, than the Windows users who have to put up with faults etc much more constantly. A final point is that going virtual with Windows on Windows or Server is certainly a much greater "challenge" to us poor lot who try to sort the difficulties out. But hey, that's why we get paid the big bucks!!!!

I've seen similar among some of the mac users at my tech school. There was one student who had both XP and Win7 running on his Mac. His XP install developed a habit of crashing, and he had to boot into Win7 in order to get through the class (some of the apps used in the class were Windows apps).


Mr. Spearson summed it up, per usual it's always the total configuration that matters. I'd wager most of "us" have higher-end machines (2.4ghz or faster Core2 Duo with 4GB of ram or more), and have gone in and hacked the Windows config to eliminate the problematic. Contrast that to your "average" user this article referenced, who may be running a far lesser machine, with original factory "stripper model" configuration. We're not having issues with our power package, but the poor sod with hand-crank windows? Now as-noted elsewhere, it's often what we O.F.s would say, was "normal windows" issues. Not Mac and Virtual ware specific... but the user frustration is real and palpable. Those special Windows moments like: "You JUST printed to that machine - HOW can it NOT exist?!" BTW Mr. Spearson - no curricula for Virtualization? Not surprising. With luck you're not working on IBM System 7s, and PCs with Windows ME - though you'd learn all the possible issues, if that was the case!

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