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Options abound for running Windows on Mac machines

The best way to run Windows on Mac OS devices depends on whether you need performance, open source support or centralized management.

There could be any number of reasons why someone would want to run Windows on Mac, from a critical need to run certain Mac- and Windows-only applications to the fact that the user may simply prefer Apple's iOS (and possibly have "VP" in his or her job title). It's also a fairly safe way to mess about in potentially virus-ridden Windows environments; the Mac is running a file and operating system totally foreign to Windows threats.

For whatever the need may be, there are a variety of options for bringing both OSes together in the same box.

Apple Boot Camp

Though it's free, Apple's Boot Camp is not necessarily the easiest or most convenient product. The user needs to choose Windows or Mac OS at startup, so there's no quick way to jump back and forth. And the initial setup isn't quite as straightforward as with other software.

Apple's Boot Camp Assistant utility, part of the basic Mac OS installation, will create a Windows partition on the Mac hard drive and then prompt you to insert a Windows installation disc. If your Mac doesn't happen to have an optical drive -- and most don't these days -- you'll need to have prepared a flash drive with the installer.

Apple's Boot Camp Assistant
Use Apple Boot Camp to create a Windows partition.

When the Windows install is complete, the Assistant will install all the required drivers for the Mac's hardware needs. As you step through Apple's walkthrough of the process, you'll discover that this is one of the more involved Apple-sanctioned processes you can perform on a Mac.

Some of the more popular Mac imaging tools such as JAMF Software's Casper and DeployStudio can handle Boot Camp partitions, though they do add a layer of complexity to the deployment process.

Boot Camp has one notable benefit: It's the best Windows performance you can get when running the OS (legally) on Apple hardware.

A taste of WINE

There is an implementation of Wine Is Not an Emulator (WINE) that runs on the Mac OS. The upside for most users is that it doesn't require a copy of Windows to run many Windows applications. It's a compatibility layer that translates Windows application programming interfaces into POSIX calls for Macs and Linux. WINE runs a growing subset of Windows applications, albeit with widely varying levels of stability, rated from "gold" to "garbage" on the WINE website.

Installing the original open source WINE generally requires a custom compile. However, CodeWeavers offers a fairly inexpensive commercial product, CrossOver, with a conventional installer and available support. WINE is more in the realm of hobbyists and gamers than enterprise shops, but bears mention.

Installing Office on a Mac with CrossOver
CrossOver is an alternative to WINE for running Windows apps.

Virtually Windows

In most cases, running Windows as a virtual machine on the Mac is the best route for most users and the folks who have to support them. Parallels and VMware have been locked in competition for some years now, and their customers have been reaping the benefits.

Thanks to its VMware lineage, Fusion has become fairly popular in enterprise environments. Virtual machines built in Workstation and Fusion are virtually interchangeable (so to speak).

According to some benchmarks, Parallels' eponymous product offers a bit better performance in some areas. Both programs can share access to the Mac's files (or not, if security is a concern) and share peripherals and networking. Parallels' Coherence and Fusion's Unity modes allow Windows apps to be launched as if they were running in the Mac's native OS.

Running Visio via Parallels
Parallels allows Windows apps to be launched as if they were running in the native Mac OS.

A feature that one-ups VMware Fusion is Parallel's ability to boot from a USB drive. Both of these applications can run Windows stored on a Boot Camp partition and can convert a physical Windows PC into a virtual one.

Oracle's entry into the virtual machine marketplace is the free, open source VirtualBox, a popular solution for enterprise customers. It has evolved into a rather polished, full-featured product with far more granular (and complex) configuration options than those its retail relatives have. It can be a good option where centralized management and distribution are key features.

Running Windows in Oracle's VirtualBox
VirtualBox has useful features for enterprise configuration.
VirtualBox's options for Windows 8.1
Oracle's VirtualBox provides management options for Windows 8.1.

There are actually a lot of reasons why Mac users may want or need to run Windows on Mac while sticking with their OS of choice. Fortunately, you have enough options to find one that will work for you, your users and your enterprise as a whole.

Next Steps

Using Mac Activity Monitor to manage desktop processes

Mac OS isn't so different from Windows functions after all

Five things for admins straddling OSes to remember

Mac tools and terms for desktop admins

Some IT shops scrutinize alternatives to Windows 8

This was last published in January 2015

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What program do you use to run Windows on Mac? Do you need any workarounds?
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Microsoft Access dominates the world of small-medium business database development needs and leads easily into more substantial systems like SQL Server or Oracle if needed. Unfortunately, Microsoft has never added Access to its Office suite for Macs (like Word, Excel and Powerpoint). As a preferred Mac user I have been forced to use a windows emulator for the last 20 years. And I don't see that need changing.
Another significant App that requires this service is Canvas ( a graphics, imaging, drawing program from ACDC) which was originally developed for Macs in the 90's, then ported to Windows OS and the Mac side dropped. (Rumour has it that a new version for Macs will be released this year, but I won't hold my breath).
DataSense . . .
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I think the first questions to ask before buying an Apple with the intent of installing Windows is "Do I really need both operating systems?" and "Will I be able to successfully use two operating systems?"

I can't tell you how many users I had call about our application not working in a VM'd or dual booted Windows environment on an Apple who did not understand what they were doing at all. The story usually went along the lines of: I bought an Apple because I saw they were easy, and I heard they don't get viruses, and my kids said they are the coolest and the best. Then I discovered some of the applications I use only run on Windows, so I got the VM. Now I can't figure out where my files are because I don't understand how the shared file system works. Or now I can't run my program because I managed to get my program configuration files into a location where Windows can't find them.

That experience really colored my thinking on how useful a Windows VM is on an Apple for most people.
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