In my last article, "5 reasons to make the leap to Mountain Lion," I noted that Apple’s new operating system requires the latest version of Parallels (virtualization software), and my legacy edition of the software had to be upgraded. The cost of the software upgrade is $50.

I received a great tip from Matthew Smith, broker associate at ZipRealty Inc., who read the article and recommended that I give VirtualBox a try. VirtualBox is a powerful open source virtualization application produced by Oracle. I was impressed with the performance of the app and decided to put it to the test against other virtualization software that I’ve used in the past.

What is a virtualization and why should I care?

Virtualization is a computer concept that has gained a lot of traction among IT (information technology) professionals working in the enterprise environment. It has also become popular with end users utilizing virtual machines.

Virtual machines enable you to run an operating system (a guest operating system) within an operating system (the host operating system). For example, many real estate pros, including myself, run Microsoft Windows on our Macs. Virtualization software facilitates this process.

Many Realtors are Mac users and, unfortunately, some MLS applications support only Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer. Virtualization software allows us to quickly switch over to the Microsoft platform to access MLS and other Windows-based software. This flexibility gives a user the best of both worlds.

There are other valuable reasons to run a virtual machine. It’s a fantastic way to test your website or Web app across multiple platforms utilizing just one machine. And if you’re truly looking to expand your technical horizons, a virtual machine is perfect for trying out a new operating system such as Ubuntu (Linux) or Chrome OS (Google).

However, not all virtualization software is created equal. There are a bunch of applications available that sport various features and have different price points. Let’s take a look at three popular products and break down the features.

1. Parallels

Parallels Desktop for Mac is a product that I have used for some years now. The application features multiple view modes allowing you to customize the experience and seamlessly run apps. However, the installation and configuration process can be somewhat laborious. The software supports Mac, Windows and Linux. The cost is $79.99 (the upgrade is $49.99). This does not include the guest operating system.

Click here to learn more about Parallels.

2. VMware Fusion

Another popular virtualization application is Fusion developed by VMware. It is developed specifically for Macs with Intel processors. One of my favorite features of Fusion is the ability to launch Microsoft Windows programs directly from the dock on your Mac. Like Parallels, you can customize the viewing experience. Fusion includes a full screen view, single window view and unity view. Fusion 5 is the latest version of the application, and it supports Mountain Lion and Windows 8. The price is $49.99. This does not include the guest operating system.

Click here to learn more about Fusion.

3. VirtualBox

VirtualBox is a robust, open source virtualization software platform. The application has been around for quite some time. It is currently being produced by Oracle after its acquisition of Sun Microsystems two years ago. The software supports Mac, Windows, Linux and Solaris.

I have been extremely pleased with its performance. The setup and configuration is different than that of Parallels and Fusion. However, I found a wealth of support and tutorials online. Once the software is set up and configured, adding additional guest operating systems and switching between them is a piece of cake.

VirtualBox is open source and free to use. Its developers describe it as an "extremely feature-rich, high-performance product for enterprise customers," and claim it’s "the only professional solution that is freely available as open source software under the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL) version 2." This does not include the guest operating system.

Click here to learn more about VirtualBox.

Whether you’re looking for an alternative to Parallels or just want to try out a cool new app, look no further then VirtualBox. The application has a ton of features and is available for free.

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