IT pros make a case for virtual Apple Mac OS with VDI

Apple doesn’t condone using desktop virtualization to abstract its Mac OS X, but some IT pros say reasons for having that option have grown.

Apple doesn’t condone using desktop virtualization to abstract and manage its Mac OS, but IT pros say there are...

new reasons for that capability and would like the option.

Recent news that Apple’s server operating system is now supported as a guest OS in VMware vSphere 5 has created curiosity about whether Apple will extend virtualization support to its desktop OS.

“There is now a bridge between these two companies that didn’t exist before, and once you start running traffic on that bridge, the door is open to other possibilities,” said Eugene Alfaro, a VDI architect and IT engineering director for Cornerstone Technologies, Inc. in San Jose, Calif.

The ability to virtualize Macs would be practical and valuable to IT pros, particularly those in Bring-Your-Own-PC shops where many employees choose Macs over Windows machines, Alfaro said.

“Even if you only have a small population of Mac users and a lot of Windows thin clients, laptops and desktops, you still have to maintain those Macs, and you have to do that separately,” he said.

The people we see bringing in Macs are ... the CIOs and CEOs; the people who make IT buying decisions.

Michael Oh, founder, Tech Superpowers

If Macs could be virtualized using VDI products, IT pros would be able to manage Macs and Windows in the same way. Presumably, the demand for that capability will grow as Mac use in enterprises increases.

IDC analyst Ian Song said Apple devices are making inroads in businesses, especially MacBooks, thanks to executives who have Apple gear for personal use.

During the first quarter of this year in the United States, Apple had 9.3% of the PC market share, up from 7.3% in Q1 2010, according to Gartner Inc.’s Worldwide PC Shipment report for Q12011. Apple’s percentage growth between Q1 2011 and Q1 2010 is about 19%. Meanwhile, PC market leader HP (26%) experienced a 3.5% sales decline and Dell, which has 22% of the market, lost 12% during that same timeframe.

Gartner doesn’t distinguish enterprise from consumer PC adoption in that report, so it’s tough to tell if Apple PCs have made headway in the enterprise. But anecdotally, IT pros say there is no denying that Apple’s presence in businesses has increased.

“The Mac is becoming a first class citizen now,” said Michael Oh, founder of the Boston-based IT consultancy Tech Superpowers, which specializes in Apple products.

“The percentage of Macs in enterprises is definitely still small, and when you walk around the cubicles of any large enterprise you will see mostly Windows machines. The people we see bringing in Macs are at high levels,” Oh said. “It’s the CIOs and CEOs; the people who make IT buying decisions.”

Apple licensing prohibits Mac virtualization

Though VDI can technically abstract the Mac OS from Apple hardware, Apple’s software licensing rules prohibit virtualization.  Apple did not respond to a phone request for comment, and referred to its licensing policy link in an email.

According to Apple’s Software License Agreement for Mac OS X, “all components of the Apple Software are provided as part of a bundle and may not be separated from the bundle and distributed as standalone applications.”

Some say those rules won’t change anytime soon, because the software side of its business facilitates the hardware sales, and Apple is a hardware company. Plus, Apple tried that trick before with negative results.

Before Steve Jobs came back for the second time in 1996, Apple licensed the Mac OS to run on other hardware. “The Mac OS became a commodity and the value decreased,” Song said. “Also, if Apple loses the hardware advantage, it cannot guarantee the user experience. It isn’t going to make that mistake twice.”

The only way a company can guarantee the user experience is by keeping its software and hardware proprietary. Given that virtualized desktops don’t offer a native user experience, particularly when it comes to graphics support, it’s highly unlikely that Apple will allow VDI use with its operating systems anytime soon, IDC’s Song said.

While there isn’t a legal way to run an Apple desktop OS on Windows devices, there are many ways to do the reverse using desktop virtualization.

Citrix recently improved its Mac client, Citrix Receiver, and VMware introduced a View client for the iPad. Quest Software also offers a Mac client that supports its VDI and Terminal Server products.

IT pros can also put a Type-2 hypervisor such as VMware View Local Mode or MokaFive on Macs to run Windows environments in virtual machines on Apple devices. Those products also tie into management systems.

Citrix is moving towards getting Mac on the Hardware Compatibility List for its Type-1 hypervisor XenClient, which the company demonstrated at Citrix Synergy back in 2009, but Mac won’t be supported until 2012 (if at all), Song said.

VMware Fusion, Parallels Workstation and VirtualBox also have Mac versions of their Windows products.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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