When it comes to virtualization on the Mac, it's mostly discussed in the context of running a variant of Microsoft Windows. This makes sense; the ease of getting Windows to run within OS X (on Intel hardware) is one of the key reasons many first-time Mac buyers are migrating to Apple. However, Windows is hardly the only game in town.

Although the annual proclamations of "the year of the Linux desktop" haven't really panned out, thanks to distributions like Ubuntu, more and more individuals are at least giving Linux a try. Today, Canonical made both the server and desktop versions of Ubuntu 8.10 (codenamed 'Intrepid Ibex') available for download.

Even before the Intel switch, PPC users could effectively run Linux distros on their machines, but virtualization coupled with Intel hardware has made running a VM of Ubuntu -- or any Linux distribution -- fairly painless. Using commercial software like VMware Fusion 2.0 or Parallels Desktop, or open source and free solutions like VirtualBox, you can set up an Ubuntu virtual machine much like you would with Windows.

If you have ever installed a Windows virtual machine, using Parallels, Fusion or VirtualBox, the process for installing Ubuntu is almost exactly the same. Download the Ubuntu 8.10 ISO image (a slow process today with the demand for the new release; it should speed up next week, and there are Bittorrent seeds for faster service) and then select that image for the virtual CD drive when creating your VM. The process, depending on your system, should take under 20 minutes from beginning to end.

Today, I set up a virtual machine of Ubuntu 8.10 in both VMware Fusion 2.0 and VirtualBox 2.04. Parallels Desktop works with Ubuntu, but I had problems trying to get Ubuntu 8.04 installed and am still reading reports of problems with 8.10. Parallels might work just fine with Ubuntu 8.10, but keep in mind that it might be kludgy.

Read on for more install options.

Laurent Bois wrote up a fantastic guide for installing Ubuntu 8.04 in VMware Fusion, but the process for 8.10 is exactly the same. If you are using Fusion, be sure to take note of the section about VMware Tools (the drivers and utilities to make the guest OS, in this case Ubuntu, work better within OS X, have a better graphical interface, share data, have copy-paste work across OSs, etc.). The official VMware build included with Fusion is incompatible with the current Linux kernel. If you try to compile those tools, you'll get nothing but errors. Thankfully, a set of Open Virtual Machine Tools is being maintained and Laurent's guide details how to download and compile them in Fusion.

LowEndMac wrote up a VirtualBox install guide last year and Steve has also detailed his VirtualBox experiences. I had a hard time getting the Guest Addons to install properly in VirtualBox and not all of my hardware was available, as it was in VMware -- but I was able to successfully install Ubuntu 8.10 just the same.

Have any more links or tips and suggestions for running a virtual instance of Ubuntu (or any other distro) within OS X? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Oh -- and for anyone who wants to dual-boot OS X with Ubuntu (similar to a Boot Camp config for Windows), check out this approach, which leverages the parted partitioning tool and the rEFIt boot menu -- older guides here and here as well, and quasi-official instructions from the Ubuntu help site are here and here. If you're trying to dual-boot on a Hackintosh, see this guide from February. It isn't nearly as straightforward as doing a virtual machine, but it is possible.

Note that if you want to set up Ubuntu as a ride-along with your Windows config in Boot Camp, as Ricky points out below, there's another very simple approach: use the Wubi installer, which creates the entire Ubuntu root partition as a virtual disk file on your Windows partition, and then adds a boot manager to allow you to pick between Windows and Ubuntu at startup. Unfortunately the Mac-only Wubi build (Mubi) is still a work in progress, so if you know any developers with time on their hands...

This article was originally published on Tuaw.