Why Linux on M1 Macs is Exciting

It’s just not pretty

Key Takeaways

  • Virtualization company Corellium has gotten Linux running on an M1 Mac.
  • You can install it on your MacBook Pro or Air, but you’ll need an external USB keyboard and mouse.
  • Soon, Mac users will be able to virtualize Linux.
Linux displayed on a Mac screen.
Sai Kiran Anagani / Unsplash

Linux now runs on Apple’s M1 Macs. Virtualization company Corellium—which is currently being sued by Apple—has ported the open-source operating system to Apple Silicon Macs. 

Corellium’s business is virtualization. It lets you run iOS, Android, and Linux virtualization on ARM processors, the kind of processor used in Apple Silicon. So it’s no surprise that it has managed to port Linux to M1 Macs so soon. But what does Linux on the Mac mean for you?

"When Apple decided to allow installing custom kernels on the Macs with M1 processor, we were very happy to try building another Linux port to further our understanding of the hardware platform," says Corellium in a blog post published on its website.

"As we were creating a model of the processor for our security research product, we were working on the Linux port in parallel."

"The Mac hardware is really good. Even Linus Torvalds [the inventor of Linux] wants one."

Linux on the Mac

Linux is an operating system like macOS, Windows, Android, and so on. It can be used as a desktop platform, but you’re far more likely to find it in a phone, embedded in electronic devices, or even in supercomputers. Because it is open source, it can be customized.

Android phones run on Linux, as do NASA systems. If you have a smart fridge, odds are it’s Linux-based. Linux, then, has been tweaked to run on pretty much anything with a computer chip inside. And now that list includes the M1 Macs.

The M1 Macs do support booting from non-macOS operating systems, but it wasn’t easy to get Linux up and running. Apple likes to custom-build its hardware and software, and this made even simple-seeming tasks like connecting to a USB keyboard and mouse complicated.

The initial port worked on the Mac mini, but Corellium has since gotten it running on MacBooks. "Today we added CPU clock management (30% speed improvement) and support for the MacBook Air and pro," said Chris Wade, Corellium's chief technology officer, on Twitter.

If you want to try it out on a laptop, you’ll need to follow Corellium’s instructions. "It still requires external keyboard, mouse, and USB to boot," Wade wrote on Twitter. "But we are working on adding support for those."

What Does This Mean?

Most of us will never do anything but run macOS on our new Apple Silicon Macs, and that’s fine. But porting Linux is handy for several reasons. One is that it means you can virtualize Linux on your computer.

The Corellium port currently requires that you boot directly into Linux. Virtualization is an option that lets you run an instance of Linux in a window on your Mac, just like any other app. The instance of Linux inside this window is running directly on the Mac’s hardware, but it’s a lot more convenient for users. 

However you run it, though, Linux on the Mac lets people buy these amazing, powerful machines, and use them for their jobs. Scientists and researchers often use home-made or open-source Linux tools, and soon they’ll be able to use them on a silent laptop with all-day battery life, no fans, and little heat.

"We were very happy to try building another Linux port to further our understanding of the hardware platform."

They also could get access to the custom chips that Apple puts into its devices. Tensorflow, an open-source machine-learning platform, is already using Apple’s "Core ML" machine-learning tech on M1 Macs. Linux users could repurpose the custom Apple hardware for their own uses. 

Also, there’s the challenge. "Linux users like to prove that Linux can run on anything," technical writer and Linux user Chris Ward told Lifewire via direct message. 

"The Mac hardware is really good," says Ward. "Even Linus Torvalds [the inventor of Linux] wants one."

Apple also wins here, because it will sell more Macs. It’s not crazy to think that server companies might equip their data centers with Mac minis running Linux, to take advantage of their powerful, cool-running chips.

For the typical Mac user, this may not make any difference. But for people who care, this is a very big deal indeed. And that’s good news.

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