Posted by: Josh | October 7, 2008

A guide to running Linux

Are you tired of hearing that endless bickering of who’s a mac and who’s a pc? Perhaps you’re just tired of looking through the same old windows or picking the same old fruit off the ol’ apple tree. Or perhaps you’d like to run applications on your computer like they’ve never been run before. Meet Linux.

Linux is an operating system, just like their other more-familiar counterparts. The difference is how it’s developed and maintained. For the most part, its pieces are open source, meaning the top developers from around the world can contribute to evolve this system.

This means:

  • faster updates and bug fixes
  • stronger protection of your personal security
  • more of what users want
  • a buzzing support community
You might’ve already seen Linux being run on the latest computers from Dell, the One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) project, the eeePC, the Acer AspireOne, and the MSI Wind to name a few.

“Cool! I want to try this… but it’s an operating system – and mine seems to be working just fine!”

So there’s a number of ways you can get a get your feet wet with Linux without having to throw yourself into the deep end. We’ll explore some methods that don’t upset your existing system.

First, let’s get an idea of what distributions are out there! What’s a distribution? It’s an arrangement of the operating system and some accompanying applications which all have a certain theme or objective, fine-tuned down to the desktop itself.  Most commonly referred to as a “distro”.


Designed to replace the current leading operating systems – a rich, graphical desktop with office suites, multimedia players and high ease of use.

  • Ubuntu
    “Linux for Human Beings” – an active project from Canonical Ltd is currently rising fast in probability. My personal favourite for good compatability and customizability.  Installer fits on a CD.
  • Fedora Core
    “infinity, freedom, voice”  – another active project, from Red Hat Inc. Installer fits on a DVD.
  • openSUSE
  • countless more…
Media Centers (the ultimate TiVo):
For those computers with TV-in/out jacks, you can treat them as a dedicated media center with video recording and remote control usage, if your hardware supports it.
Designed to be light-weight and temporary (will not save to hard disk). May require a fair amount of RAM to work smoothly.
  • Slax
    Minimum 256 MB USB drive to install onto.  Available also for CD.
Low Requirements:
For that old, dusty computer you have stashed in your basement.
  • Damn Small Linux (DSL)
    Worked very well on my Pentium II 200 MHz, 32 MB RAM. Limited hardware support though, in order to stay “damn small” and optimized.
  • Backtrack
    A information security and penetration testing distro. Pre-configured with an arsenal of tools – not for the average user
  • GParted Partition Editor
    Manages hard drive partitions of several formats. Experts only!
  • Ubuntu Studio
    Based on the Ubuntu distro, with audio, video, and graphic software configured and ready to go.


Okay, now that we have a bit of an idea of what’s available, let’s see what options we’ve got for testing Linux.

Live CD – run Linux off the CD when starting up the computer. Slower than Live USB or a full install.

  1. Download the disc image (iso format) from a supported distribution. Some examples:
    • Ubuntu Desktop – regular installer has Live CD option
    • Fedora Core Desktop Live CD
    • Slax Live CD
  2. With CD burning software of choice, use it to burn the image to disc (note, not an ordinary disc with the .iso file on it). This technique varies between software.
  3. Boot computer while disc is in the drive. If system goes back into your regular operating system, try entering the BIOS while the system is booting (usually hit F9 or F11 on initial boot screen) and adjust boot options so CD is above hard drive in priority. This technique varies between BIOSes.
  4. Enjoy.


Live USB – run Linux off the USB drive when starting up the computer. Can achieve faster loading speeds relative to a CD, slower than a full install.

  1. Download the USB version of the image from a supported distribution. Some examples:
  2. This step varies depending on the distribution you choose, as procedures are selected for each distro. If you selected Slax above, follow the instructions here.
    Update: a convenient utility for Win/Linux to create Live USB called UNetBootin available here
  3. Boot computer while USB is plugged in. If system goes back into your regular operating system, try entering the BIOS while the system is booting (usually hit F9 or F11 on initial boot screen) and adjust boot options so USB is above hard drive in priority. It may fall in to the hard drive category with your existing hard disk, and if so, change the priority of it there. This technique varies between BIOSes.
  4. Enjoy.


Virtual Machine – stay within your current system and see the whole operating system come alive from within a window. Can perform a full install of Linux without modifying your current operating system. Usually slower than a Live CD.

  1. Install a virtual machine application on your current system. I chose Sun Microsystem’s VirtualBox for its ease of use. Available for Windows, Mac, Linux.
  2. Download your distribution of choice in Live CD/installer format. Slax is fastest to download, Ubuntu is good if you have a reasonably new/powerful computer.
  3. This varies between virtual machine applications, but the idea is to create a new “virtual machine” and run it. Note: if you are testing out a Live CD, you will not need to assign your virtual machine a virtual hard drive.
  4. This varies between virtual machine applications, but the idea is to run this new virtual machine. When it is running, find the option to mount a removable disc image, and select your distribution. Reboot the virtual machine.
  5. The virtual machine will now load as if it were your computer starting up and should detect the disc image. You may now boot/install Linux virtually.
  6. Enjoy (for real, not virtually).


Virtual Machine Server with X Forwarding (advanced) – use Linux applications almost seamlessly with your current operating system. Might want to familiarize yourself with the Linux command line first.

  1. Follow the virtual machine instructions above, but ensure to install a distribution instead of run it from a Live CD. If that distribution has no graphical user interface (GUI/desktop), use its command line to install xauth and xterm, and ensure an SSH server is installed. In Ubuntu this would look like, from the terminal:
    sudo apt-get install xauth xterm  openssh-server
  2. If you are using VirtualBox, follow this guide here.
  3. Install an X Server. For Windows, XMing will do.
    I don’t currently have any suggestions for Macs.
  4. Install an SSH client. For Windows, PuTTY will do.
    I don’t currently have any suggestions for Macs.
  5. If you followed step 2,  you will be connecting to localhost, port 22. In PuTTY’s SSH/X11 settings, enable X11 forwarding.
  6. Connect using the credentials you specified during setup.
  7. Enjoy. You may need to install additional applications and libraries using the apt-get install command. To launch an application, example:
    xterm &
    To install and run Firefox
    sudo apt-get install firefox
    firefox &
  8. Enjoy some more.  Transfer files using FileZilla or any other SFTP client using the credentials from step 5.
    In a future tutorial, I’ll show you how you could connect to this virtual machine (or your home computer, if this was installed as an operating system) from anywhere in the world allowing access to your files and applications securely over SSH.


Installing Ubuntu to disc kinda-sorta using Wubi (simple multi-boot, Windows only) – you’re not quite ready to let go but want to see near-native performance

You may install Ubuntu to your hard drive from within Windows and treat it as a program – that is, you may also uninstall it – without having to worry about modifying your current operating system. During boot, you will be able to select between Ubuntu and Windows as the operating system to load (multi-booting). To do this, download and install Wubi, Ubuntu Desktop installer CD, and then follow Wubi’s on-screen instructions.


Installing the real deal – you’re ready to make the switch; or, you want to multi-boot

I recommend backing up any important files, bookmarks, e-mails savegames, and other data to another disc before continuing. Find a distribution that suits your taste and burn its image to disc, and load it according to the Live CD instructions. Desktop-based distributions like Ubuntu usually have a built-in installer on the disc and will help you prepare your hard disk – whether it be erasing it completely or partitioning it so you may select which operating system your computer starts with.


If you’re looking to test it out and are unsure of which method is easiest; for Windows, I’d definately recommend Wubi and the Ubuntu install for the closest feel. In fact, you could just take the minor performance hit and run Ubuntu that way! For Macs – the newer ones with dual core processors should run virtual machines just fine.

You may get additional updates from DistroWatch, which keeps tabs on hundreds of Linux distributions. Almost every distribution has its own forums set up such as, where you can search or ask for information on absolutely any problem you experience.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions about this entry, please feel free to post them here! Hope you found this useful


  1. “Cool! I want to try this… but it’s an operating system – and mine seems to be working just fine!”

    You aced it there, Josh.

    Personal testimonial: Josh’s Live USB helped with my machine multiple times (and I still don’t have a Linux on my USB for some reason 😦 )

  2. […] SSH in to launch X Window-based applications remotely (see my previoius post about this) […]

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