Tech Friday: Installing Ubuntu on the Mac and the PC

I’ve been drinking a lot of coffee today, and I think it affects my ability to concentrate. So, one thing has been leading to another and another, and I’ve ended up installing the latest version of Ubuntu Linux on both my PC and my MacBook using virtual machine software.

Why Virtual Machines?

A virtual machine allows you to host multiple operating systems on a single physical computer. The classic reason for doing this is to run some form of Windows on the Macintosh OS because you just can’t live without some crucial Windows program. (Think Quickbooks, or OutLook, or in my case OneNote). The Virtual machine program is a thin layer of software which sites between the original OS (on the Mac this is OSX), and one or more “guest” operating systems, (in my case Windows Vista). There are a couple to choose from. The people at our university recommended Parallels. Installing Vista and Parallels went pretty smoothly. So, as I hadn’t seen a Linux desktop for while, I thought I’d try installing the latest and greatest Ubuntu.

Why Ubuntu?

Ubuntu appears to the current favorite for a “desktop” Linux. It is available on some Dell machines. It comes with a large number of applications, and an attractive desktop. There are several versions available for specific purposes. It is well supported.

I started with this step-by-step tutorial, which is available for a couple different combinations of Parallels and Ubuntu.

While waiting for this to install, I fiddled with Microsoft Virtual PC on my Windows box and found that I was using an older version 2004. I downloaded and installed version 2007. Looks just like 2004, but includes support for Vista as reported at Linux.com. After a couple of false starts dealing with the mouse, I was able to get Ubuntu installed.

Once installed there are several additional tweaks that need to happen which required editing the boot loader parameters and some config files to get the mouse working. Then a similar process is required for sound drivers, and network drivers.

Rather than go through all that, I downloaded VirtualBox and installed it on my workstation. Then I reinstalled Ubuntu. Mouse worked immediately. Networking came right up. The sound card worked as soon as I changed the default VirtualBox configuration to include the sound card. So far, Ubuntu works fine, and is surprisingly fast, and VirtualBox appears to be superior to Microsoft Virtual PC, at least when installing non-Microsoft operating systems.
Meanwhile, back on the Mac, its been more of a struggle. Here a couple issues and solutions:
  1. When choosing which version to install, choose the “alternate” form of the Ubuntu installer. (There is a checkbox for this on the download screen.) This is a text-based installer. Otherwise, it will just hang as you start to do the install, and you’ll get a funny message saying somthing like “Tried 6 times to start the X-Server and something is seriously messed up”.
  2. When you download the .iso file from the mirror, it will appear on the desktop as a disk. However, this is actually, just a pointer to the file ubuntu-7.10-alternate-i386.iso which is located in your download directory. This caused a lot of confusion, because when you attempt to assign an “image” for the installation process through Parallels, you have to point to the actual file with the .iso extension. (If in doubt…just burn it to a physical CD for heaven’s sake; I should have done this and saved myself an hour of futzing. To be honest, my problems with the disk and the .iso are due to unfamiliarity with OSX on the Mac, not the fault of Parallels or Ubuntu.)
  3. When installing, you’ll be given the opportunity to select the screen resolutions that you want to install. The excellently named Muffin Research discussion page suggests selecting two resolutions: 1440×900 for using full screen, and 1280×800 for use when you have Ubuntu running in a window. Once you have installed, if there is still a problem, you can run the following command to start the selection process again:

    sudo dpkg-reconfigure -phigh xserver-xorg

  4. Parallels gives you the opportunity to set up networking to use the existing Mac network addressing, (shared), or the not-so-well-named (bridge). The bridge will treat the Ubuntu VM as a separate machine, so it will get an IP address separate from the Mac. There is an icon in the “system tray”, located in the upper right hand of the Ubuntu desktop window, that shows if you are connected. If not, just click once on the icon and select “Wired Nework”, if that is how you’re connected.

More from LifeHacker on running Parallels on the Mac.

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