Why and how to run Linux in macOS ... for free

Parallels Desktop Lite is a free of cost app that allows you to run Linux distributions inside of macOS.

macOS Ubuntu
Swapnil Bhartiya

MacBooks are quite popular within the commercial open source community. I cover a lot of open source events and all I see are MacBooks running macOS. I myself carry a MacBook to such events.


The short answer is that it just works.

The longer answer is that macOS is UNIX so you get access to all utilities, commands and tools that you get on your desktop Linux box, including running cronjobs, rsyncing files and writing USBs with the ‘dd’ command from macOS's native Terminal app. 

However, there are occasions when you do need to run Linux desktop. For example, a developer may want to check an application's platform compatibility. An IT admin may want to run a specific Linux application that’s not available on macOS. A tech writer  may want to review a Linux distribution.

A virtual machine is ideal in such cases.

I use the Parallels Desktop app, which offers great integration between the host macOS and guest machines. But it costs over $70 per year.

Now there is a ‘free-as-in-beer’ solution available in the App Store called Parallels Desktop Lite that you can run any Linux distribution on (though if you want to use Windows on it, you have to pay $60).

Parallels Desktop Lite offers five Linux distributions from the app itself. You can download Chrome OS, Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian and CentOS from within the app and install it. The only major distro missing from the list is openSUSE.

macOS Linux Swapnil Bhartiya

You are not limited to the five distributions; just like the standard version of Parallels you can install any Linux distribution on it.  The only issue that you may come across is support for the Parallels’ Tools, which may result in lack of support for Retina display.

So far, the only difference that I noticed between the standard version and Lite is the lack of Coherence mode that allows me to run Linux and Windows applications inside of macOS.

Key features

These are some of the core features that I use on Parallels, and there are many more that you can explore depending on your requirements:

Performance: Parallels does a good job of allocating resources to the virtual machines. I even play games like Call of Duty in Parallels.

Hardware access: The most important feature of Parallels is that it offers complete access to system hardware, including any external hardware that’s plugged into the system and detected by macOS. You can use the ‘dd’ command from the guest Linux operating system to create a bootable USB stick of Linux.

Shared storage: Parallels allows sharing space for storage services.  You can simply share Dropbox and iCloud folders between Linux and macOS to keep your files synced.

Drag & drop: You can easily drag and drop files between macOS and Linux distributions.

Copy & paste: It offers seamless integration between macOS and Linux, which means you can copy & paste text from between textEdit and Gedit or between Pages and LibreOffice.

It’s not just the Linux desktop, you can also run Linux servers on Parallels to create a development environment. I use Ubuntu and Debian servers on my MacBook to test WordPress and NextCloud installation before deploying them on my live servers running on Linode.

If you happen to be an IT admin running macOS, now you won’t miss your Linux desktop, you can run it inside of macOS, for free.

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