Installing Linux (e.g. Ubuntu) on Windows and Mac Computers

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Why Ubuntu?

Unix, Linux, Debian, Ubuntu. Unix is an operating system originally developed in 1969. There have been many Unix implementations or "dialects" around, but during the last decade, the open source implementation called Linux emerged as the de facto standard. Another popular implementation, Free BSD Unix, forms the core of the Mac OS X operating system. Ubuntu is a user-friendly Linux version much recommended for students, scientists, and engineers. Ubuntu is built on top of Debian GNU/Linux, which is one of numerous Linux versions. The great thing about Debian, and therefore also Ubuntu, is that it comes with almost 30,000 packages containing all sorts of software.

Easy installation of packages. Ubuntu has recently become a very popular operating system for people working with numerical simulations, simply because the Debian repository of software is now by far the richest collection of mathematical software in ready-made compiled form for easy installation. Typically, a package X, and all the packages it depends on, can be installed by running a one-line command in a terminal window:

sudo apt-get install X

Mathematical software is often very complex and therefore potentially difficult to compile, link, and install. One package may also depend on a dozen of other packages. Getting all this to work is challenging. On Ubuntu, this challenge is replaced by a one-line command, like the one above, that takes a few seconds to run. There are many other systems similar to Debian (RedHat, Suse, Fink, MacPorts), but for mathematical software none of these are as extensive and as regularly updated as Debian.

Windows. On Windows machines, software is usually installed by running an .exe file, which is very easy. However, each package must be installed separately, and two packages may depend on different versions of another package. This may easily cause trouble and is a reason to adopt Ubuntu.

Mac. On Mac, packages are packed in .dmg files which can be run to install the software and its dependencies. Unfortunately, when working with mathematical software, one often has to combine packages for which there are .dmg files with other packages which must be manually built and installed. Compiling and linking software on Mac, and getting it to work properly with packages installed via .dmg files, quickly requires extensive experience with build processes on Mac systems. Unless you have such competence and know very well what you are doing, we recommend using Ubuntu instead. Software installation on Ubuntu is just an order of magnitude easier.

The user gets more power with Ubuntu. Ubuntu offers a graphical working environment much like those on Windows and Mac systems. However, the real power of Unix-based systems is the terminal window where the user can issue commands to run applications and work with files and folders. Basic commands can be combined to form new adanced operations. Moreover, a set of commands can be automated in small scripts and thereby increase the efficiency of computer work dramatically. Many software developers, scientists, and engineers feel much more productive with Unix commands than in graphical environments with much tedious clicking.

How to run Ubuntu

Given a standard Windows or Mac computer, there are two ways of running Ubuntu:

  1. introduce a dual boot solution and boot the machine in Ubuntu,
  2. run Ubuntu in a virtual machine, i.e., in a separate window.
The great advantage with the latter method is that you can easily switch back and forth between Ubuntu and Windows/Mac. This flexibility comes with an efficiency cost, as the Ubuntu machine running in parallel with your original operating system requires quite some memory and computing resources, but this is usually a minor issue on today's laptops.

Dual boot

Dual boot means that you have two operating systems on your computer, and you decide when you start the machine which system to use. On a Windows machine you can very easily install Ubuntu in a dual boot fashion using the tool Wubi. On a Mac we recommend to run Ubuntu (and in addition perhaps Windows) in a virtual machine.

Virtual machines

A virtual machine runs another operating system (i.e., another "machine") in a separate window in your Mac OS X or Windows 7 operating system. There are three popular products for running virtual machines:

The cost of the latter is at the level of a textbook in science and is our product of choice since it is known to minimize hardware integration problems among the three mentioned products.