Your milage may vary…


This last weekend I went with my son on a Boy Scout backpacking trip. We had a lot of fun, and I enjoyed myself, but there was one thing that distracted me somewhat during the trip: My new MacBook Pro arrived at my home the day we left.

That was unexpected. I had ordered my new laptop the previous Tuesday, and when the ship verification came from FedEx saying that it had shipped from Shanghai, the estimated delivery date was 8 days from when I ordered. That would have been 2 days after we were back from our trip.

I would never really have cancelled a trip just to have a weekend with a new laptop, but I have to admit that the thought crossed my mind

This was a purchase I had been looking forward to for some time. I hadn’t really had a “splurge” purchase in  couple of years, and I was ready. Even though my old MBP was still fully functional (and is in fact for sale), I really wanted the bump from 4 Gb of RAM to 8, the HD screen, and the i7 processor.

I don’t ask for much from my laptops. I’m not a gamer, I don’t do CAD, and I usually only have a few apps open. Those include Outlook, Calibre, Firefox, Chrome, Dreamweaver, and VirtualBox. VirtualBox is the biggie, and the reason for the blog post today.

As I’ve said before, I love VirtualBox, and I have for a while. I have used VMware Fusion, Parallels, and Boot Camp but I was never satisfied with any of those options for running other operating systems on a Mac. Fusion was slow, Parallels was unstable, and I find it inconvenient to reboot to change operating systems. VirtualBox surpasses all of those, and at my oft-stated favorite price point: free.

After about 6 hours of migration and customization I started using my new laptop to perform tasks. In comparison to my older MBP the boot times were slightly faster, my apps were noticeably snappier, and the amount of time it took Calibre to compile my daily reading went from over 40 minutes to less than 12. I was ready to start running my virtual operating systems.

When I worked at Wright Medical, I used my MBP as our lab for testing Exchange 2010 before we migrated from Lotus Notes. That means I had a domain controller, a CAS server, and a Mailbox Server all running simultaneously in virtual. Was it fast? Not even close. It did run, however.

With my old experience as a benchmark, I was looking forward to being able to run a couple VMs in different OSX spaces, and still have everything else I was doing be peppy. Doubling the RAM and adding 2 more cores should make my computing experience a pleasant one on all the operating systems I was running.

Then I booted Windows 7.

About 30 minutes later, it finished.

Hmm. This was most definitely not an improvement. Certainly now what I had expected after such a huge upgrade in hardware.

I was baffled, so I attempted other operating systems. XP, Vista, 2003, 2008, Ubuntu. They all performed horrendously. I made changes to the configuration in VirtualBox, nothing. I searched online and found others facing the same problem. Apparently this was caused by the new chipset in conjunction with OSX operating in 64 bit mode by default as opposed to 32 bit. Oracle’s suggestion was to revert the OS back to 32 bit and then everything would be fine.

First, that wasn’t really a “fix”, just a really really bad workaround. Second, some who had tried it did see performance improvement, but not as much as they had seen in older versions of their hardware. I was starting to think I’d be converting to another virtualization application.

Finally, I encountered this: http://www.virtualbox.org/ticket/8474. Yes, it is a known issue, and apparently after a few months of working on it, there is a beta fix. Needless to say, I am now running on that beta.

Still, the incident did reinforce some lessons for me:

1) Don’t expect everything to work after a migration just because it always had.

2) Research caveats that might plage your apps ater a migration.

3) Have a path to recovery. (I didn’t have one here, because selling my old MBP is part of the plan to cover the cost of the new one.)

4) Have a plan B. In my case it would have been VMware because you can convert a vdi to a vdmk.

This is what systems engineering is all about. Just like when your team “only changed one thing”, don’t think that doesn’t mean you may not be facing far reaching, unexpected consequences.

I the other hand, I do love this new laptop…

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