Running Ubuntu as a Virtual OS in Mac OS X

Our intrepid writer installs and tests Ubuntu Linux within both VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop on Mac OS X. Can you really run both Linux and Mac OS X simultaneously and achieve nirvana?

Let's start right off by tackling the most pertinent question for this article: why the heck would someone want to run Linux on a Mac system that already has a very nice Linux distro hidden beneath Mac OS X? Built atop NetBSD, there's quite a bit of Linux sitting there waiting to be utilized in the system, including niceties like crontab, robust account management and much more.

Go to Applications→Utilities, and you'll even find X11, a tightly integrated version of the popular Linux windowing system that plays nicely with the graphical interface that defines the so-called Mac experience. What more could a geek want?

The best answer is simply to quote Sir Edmund Hillary, or perhaps misquote him slightly. Why run Linux on a Mac? “Because you can.” If it just feels too wacked to you, take a deep breath and proceed to the next article in the magazine—no harm done.

Still with me? Great. So let's look at the two ways you can run Linux. You can set up a Mac to dual boot, using Apple's Boot Camp system, which is included with Leopard 10.5 and available for download if you're still running Panther (10.4) from Apple's Web site, but somehow that seems clunky at best given the great virtualization capabilities on modern Apple hardware. As a result, I'm going to focus on getting Linux up and running simultaneously with running Mac OS X.

Two robust applications let you run another operating system within a virtual environment on your Mac: Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion. The former is a Mac-only company, but the latter might well be familiar to those of you who have run Windows within Linux or Linux within Windows, and so on. I've personally used both products for many years.

I settled on Ubuntu, a Linux distro that has been gaining market share during the past few years and is one of the most popular available. It's also preconfigured for both Parallels and VMware Fusion, so that makes it even better. Free operating systems (that is, anything but Microsoft Windows) can be downloaded easily from vendor sites as a preconfigured data image, alleviating the need to install anything at all—simply download.

Both companies refer to these operating system data images as virtual appliances, and I do so throughout the rest of this article too. You can find Parallels' virtual appliances at, and VMware Fusion's virtual appliances are at

VMware Fusion Download

Each repository is impressively broad. For example, the VMware Fusion catalog offers you the ability to download Ubuntu 8.04 alpha 1 or 2, Gentoo 2007.0, PCLinux S, GEubuntu 7.10, OpenSUSE Alpha0, Ubuntu 7.10 Jeos with VMware tools already installed, Linux Mint 4.0 Daryna, and many more Linux distributions, all configured and ready to go. Perhaps even more interesting, you also can download gOS 1.0.1-bagvapp, described as “Google-Wal-Mart's Ubuntu Gutsy-based OS for 'Green PC'”. What Wal-Mart's doing with its own Linux distro, I will leave for another article.

I downloaded Ubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon) Desktop—English for VMware Fusion (657MB). Interesting to note, the description states, “perfect to test drive Ubuntu or as a secondary operating system running within Windows.” Windows? We'll see how portable these operating system virtual appliances are I guess. At least it includes a useful set of apps: 2.3, Firefox 2, Evolution 2.12, GIMP 2.4, GCC 4.2.1, GNOME 2.20 and X.Org 7.2, all atop Linux kernel 2.6.2.

Downloading files of this size takes us into the world of file sharing: you either can download a single monolithic file in RAR format (RAR stands for Roshal Archive, named after inventor Eugene Roshal) or grab the same file through BitTorrent, which requires a BitTorrent client. I strongly recommend the latter, and I recommend Transmission as the client to use ( It took me a little less than two hours to download this file.

Parallels Desktop Download

While the Fusion Virtual Appliance was slowly chugging down the pipe and I was waiting for the black helicopters of the MPAA or RIAA to show up and kick in my door (just kidding, mostly, on that last one), I popped over to the Parallels virtual appliance directory. Although better organized, it had considerably fewer appliances available, and there was, in fact, only one reference Ubuntu option, described simply as Ubuntu Desktop. Digging a bit further revealed that it was version 7.04 and was helpfully described as “The virtual appliance is the default Ubuntu Desktop Linux installation. There are various GNOME-based applications.”

That's what I wanted, nonetheless, and at 727MB it was broken into either four 199MB RAR files (yeah, that doesn't add up to 800MB, but you know what I mean) served up by or eight files of 100MB from I have to say that this is a significant mistake on the part of Parallels, as these file repositories are confusing, and not having the file accessible through the BitTorrent network is a massive drag. The download is more of a hassle, although it downloaded faster: less than an hour when I, uh, borrowed the network connection at the local café. The biggest problem is that downloads cannot be resumed, while BitTorrent is designed to handle frequent outages, which effectively means you never need to download the same byte twice.

An important thing to note when you do download these virtual appliances is the default user account and password for the OS. For the Parallels virtual appliance, it's ubuntu and the password is 123, and for the VMware Fusion virtual appliance, it's jars, with the password jars. Forget those and you'll be digging through your Web browser history to find the pesky information.


Dave Taylor has been hacking shell scripts for over thirty years. Really. He's the author of the popular "Wicked Cool Shell Scripts" and can be found on Twitter as @DaveTaylor and more generally at


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Mac OS X's Unarchive Utility and Passwords

lowell's picture

Wow. I think he gets the message. Mac OS X is UNIX, not Linux because of its NeXTSTEP origins.

Anyways, you /didn't/ have to re-download anything. Mac OS X's default unarchiver can't handle password protected archives (though it never explicitly warns of that) - and it looks like you inadvertently invoked that instead of whatever app you had intended. Next time, remember (and use) either the app's shortcut key or control-click and use the context menu to unarchive to make sure you invoke the right program. Or you can reassign the filetype altogether in cmd-I.

I just wanted to say that

Anonymous's picture

I just wanted to say that having the vote star ajax thing above the article prompted me to just try it out and give it one star. it should be placed below the article so people might read before voting...

Mac OS X is built around a

Teddy's picture

Mac OS X is built around a *fully* compliant 100% certified UNIX kernel. There is no Linux there. Apple is the world's largest supplier of UNIX-based machines...


David Herron's picture

You left out VirtualBox -- which also runs on Mac OS X. I use it quite a bit with various operating systems and it does a really good job as well.

I just wanted to say that

Anonymous's picture

I just wanted to say that having the vote star ajax thing above the article prompted me to just try it out and give it one star. it should be placed below the article so people might read before voting.

not only does X11 run on

Anonymous's picture

not only does X11 run on unix, that's where it was fucking created. linux is the late comer to this game. i like linux as much as the next engineer, but seriously, the opening lines of this article were so inaccurate i gave up and stopped reading.

OS X = Unix
linux ≠ Unix
linux is "unix-like", and linux isn't a fucking OS, it's a KERNEL. get it through your fucking heads.

It took me until he said all

Anonymous's picture

It took me until he said all operating systems were free except for Windows. Last I checked, there was a price tag on Leopard.

sounds like a pissed off asshole to me.

Anonymous's picture

Who pissed in your corn flakes? You seem like the type to "help" users by giving code to wipe out drives. Go smoke some weed.

or maybe ....

Anonymous's picture

Or maybe someone who gets tired of misleading information, especially when it comes from an authority like Linux Journal.


Anonymous's picture

Not being able to have desktop effects via Compiz is what bugs me most about running virtual.

Why virtualize?

Anonymous's picture

Although Mac OS X is built upon BSD, I was having some trouble getting some bioinformatics C++ code to compile on my Mac. As such, I used VMWare Fusion and Ubuntu 7.10 Server, and it worked great (I already had a few other Ubuntu servers doing the same thing). I was able to allocate one of the quad-cores as well as 4 GB of RAM just to that virtualization.

I haven't used Parallels, so I can't speak to that, but certainly here is at least one example of why someone might want to virtualize Linux on a Mac.

Nice article!

Mallory not Hillary

Anonymous's picture

Just a little correction - the quote you allude to in the 3rd paragraph "Because it is there" was made by George Mallory not Sir Edmund Hillary.

Wow! Thats amazing ! You

Anonymous's picture

Wow! Thats amazing ! You used a virtual machine to store...a...virtual machine...

Next up you should open up the chess app to see if it really plays chess!

Free alternatives to Fusion and Parallels.

Narcoblix's picture

i know of at least two free alternatives to Fusion and Parallels. One is VirtualBox, and the other is Q. I would recommend VirtualBox over Q, as VirtualBox is much more polished, but Q is lighter weight, and can be installed without admin privileges. Check both out if you don't have the cash, or just want to experiment without investment.

Parallels is not a "Mac-only company"

Withakay's picture

There is a version of Parallels for Windows too

There is also Parallels Server and Parallels Virtuozzo Containers.
It does not inspire confidence when an article has this many basic errors...

Yawn, OS X as a guest OS and

Anonymous's picture

Yawn, OS X as a guest OS and Linux as the host OS using Virtual Box, now there is a worthy article.

Use Sun VirtualBox, works GREAT

Mr. Save My Money's picture

Save all your money. Use Sun VirtualBox (FREE) and Unbutu (FREE) on OSX and it runs great.

I have it running right now! Works great.

Mac OS X is built on top of UNIX not Linux.

Anonymous's picture

Mac OS X is built around a *fully* compliant 100% certified UNIX kernel. There is no Linux there. Apple is the world's largest supplier of UNIX-based machines.

"Built atop NetBSD, there's

Anonymous's picture

"Built atop NetBSD, there's quite a bit of Linux sitting there..."
Mac OS X is built atop the Mach kernel, using FreeBSD userland tools and the Objective C based interface from NeXT/OPENStep(to the best of my understanding) and again there is no Linux "sitting" there...

well said A. Seda


AriX's picture

There are a couple of inaccuracies in this story... Mac OS X is NOT built off of Linux, it is built off of Unix. Please correct this, as the open source fanboys do NOT like it when you mistake the two.

Secondly, not only is Mac OS X 10.4 called Tiger and NOT Panther, you can NOT download Boot Camp for Tiger from Apple's web site. Boot Camp is currently only available for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard.

How much RAM

shampoo's picture

How much RAM do you have on your Mac Book and how much did you dedicate to Ubuntu ?


A. Seda's picture

I think you might want to clarify some things in your second paragraph.

"...already has a very nice Linux distro hidden beneath Mac OS X..."
In all cases what is beneath Mac OS X is Unix or Unix like, not Linux.

"Built atop NetBSD, there's quite a bit of Linux sitting there..."
Mac OS X is built atop the Mach kernel, using FreeBSD userland tools and the Objective C based interface from NeXT/OPENStep(to the best of my understanding) and again there is no Linux "sitting" there...

Overall is very nice article....

Virtualization software

Anonymous's picture

As well as Parallels & VMware, there's the free, open source virtualization software called VirtualBox (

Also, you can just download a LiveCD of the distro of your choice and install that way (no matter which virtualization software you use), straight from the .iso file - no need to download a virtual disk.

Wow, you missed the point.

Anonymous's picture

Wow, you missed the point. Sure, you could download a live cd, but Dave's method saves you the install. You aren't downloading a 'virtual disk', but a pre-configured VM w/ guest tools installed already.


Anonymous's picture

You might want to clarify your opening paragraphs; it almost sounds like you're saying that NetBSD and Linux are the same things. OS X is built on top of a Mach kernel derived mostly from FreeBSD, with some chunks from NetBSD as well. X11 runs on the BSDs and other Unixes as well as Linux.

After that, well done :)

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