An evolution of my advice for getting started with Linux

I used to think that the best first step to explore Linux was through a live Linux CD. A live Linux CD is a bootable CD that contains a complete Linux installation compressed onto a CD. The KNOPPIX Linux Live CD, is perhaps one of the first and most popular examples of a bootable Linux CD. In order to boot this version of Linux, all you would have to do is first, make sure that your computer is configured to boot from the CD-ROM. Most modern IBM-compatible PC's come already configured to boot from the CD-ROM. If not, you would have to modify your BIOS configuration to include boot from CD-ROM as the first option in the boot order. The only other consideration to boot the CD was whether your PC met the minimum hardware requirements.The two most important hardware components are the video graphics card and the amount of random access memory (RAM). From most people, they meet the minimum requirements and then some, because the live Linux CD is optimized to run on the most meager of systems.

This was a great option because it would allow a new Linux user the flexibility to try Linux without having to install any software. And even though you wouldn't have to install any software, you received almost all of the functionality of a full-blown Linux installation; even down to hardware detection and automatic configuration. This would mean that following a successful boot of the CD, you would have access to networking, the most popular open-source applications, and USB-devices. In addition, you would typically have read-only access to NTFS Windows partitions and complete read/write access to FAT or FAT32 formated Windows partitions. The latter feature made live Linux CDs a favorite for system administration technicians, because it allowed them to fix potential Windows boot problems while using the live Linux CD. The biggest disadvantage in using the live Linux CD was unresponsiveness. Since the operating system resides on the CD, you are often reading information from the CD. This causes the system to be slower than usual. This slowness was most painful when booting the live Linux CD; often requiring many minutes before the system would finish booting and become usable. A final disadvantage is that you'll not be able to save much in the way of operating system configuration and customization. While you can use a USB to save files and some configuration information, for the most part you'll lose everything between different boots of the CD.

Over the course of the last year, my advice evolved. Now through the wonders of virtualization, a new Linux user could boot a live Linux CD without having to actually reboot your machine. Virtualization provides the ability to create a virtual machine within your existing operating system installation. A virtual machine is a computer defined in software. Through this technology you can install Linux within your existing Windows machine. While there are many alternatives available, a subset of the choices includes Microsoft Virtual PC 2004, the Open Source Virtual Machine with Hypervisor OpenVZ, the open-source Xen, and the free QEMU, my favorite is from VMWare, Inc. With both free offerings and more feature complete enhanced products, VMWare has been very successful producing easy to use products that meet the needs of the virtual machine marketplace. While the VMWare Workstation can actually create virtual appliances (virtual machines), I've been using the VMWare Player, so I'll dive into more detail about what you can do with the Player.

This simple diagram from the VMWare website illustrates the relationship between the actual computer and the virtual machines (virtual appliances in the VMWare world). As you can see the software computer residing within a computer very accurately describes the virtualization technology.

As I mentioned, this advice has evolved as I have learned more about the technology. This first mutation, involved booting live Linux CDs within a virtual machine. With the VMWare Player you can use an image of a live Linux CD and the live Linux CD virtual appliance to accomplish the same Linux booting as described before. A live Linux CD image is the copy ( a file) of the live Linux CD that you would use to create a bootable CD by copying the image onto a blank CD. To complete the process of booting a live Linux CD within the VMWare Player, involves:

Now with this configuration you can download and test as many different Linux distributions until you find the one that suits you most. By running off of the hard disk, using virtualization, solves some of the latency problems you will observe booting the live Linux CDs from CD. However, it still doesn't solve your inability to tweak and customize your Linux virtual machine; and how boring would that be?

As I have been playing around with the VMWare Player, VMWare and a broad group of Linux distributions have been building a collection of virtual appliances. Through the participation of the community and VMWare partners, you can now download a wide variety of pre-configured virtual appliances from some of the most popular Linux distributions. As of this blog post you can download and use virtual appliances from

  • Debian
  • Fedora Core
  • FreeBSD
  • SUSE or SLES
  • and Kubuntu or Ubuntu.

There are even more available, and I know that the list will continue to grow. Assuming that you already have the VMWare Player installed, all you have to do to run these virtual appliances is download, extract (if necessary), and boot.

Booting one of these virtual appliances gives you a completely customizable Linux machine while enjoying the convenience of still running your host operating system. You can add or delete applications by using online software repositories and even custom your desktop. In conclusion, this final mutation is the best way for a new Linux user to get started with Linux. With only a small investment in hard disk space and time, you'll get as close to a full Linux experience without having to reformat your hard drive and install Linux. It solves all of the disadvantages of booting a live Linux CD and brings some incredible advantages. First, the VMWare Player has the ability to suspend your Linux virtual machine automatically. Make sure that the Player is configured to suspend on Exit, select Player->Preferences and ensure the "Suspend the virtual mahince" option is selected under the "When exiting" option. With this you'll be able to merely exit Linux and pick up almost immediately from where you left off. This eliminates any waiting for Linux to boot within the virtual machine. Second, you can create a "backup" copy of your virtual machine. While not using your virtual appliance, simply copy the directory that contains your appliance to another directory. If, for whatever reason, you want to "start-over", simply copy the back-up into a new directory and you're back in business with a fresh install of your virtual machine. This configuration provides maximum flexibility, is extremely easy to implement and use, and provides a rich and full Linux experience. If you've been waiting for an easy way to try Linux, virtualization and pre-configured virtual machines eliminate nearly all of the obstacles. Go ahead and get started, it couldn't be easier!

Kevin Shockey - Wed, 2006-05-31 11:30.

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An evolution of my advice for getting started with Linux

I’ve taken a quick look at your postings, which are very interesting. Lots of material and ideas! Congrats on being so focused!

Henry J - es (not verified) - Thu, 2007-01-25 12:55.

Live CD is still kicking

Slax. Knoppix IS slow. you are so right to say so. most live cds are. Slax is amazingly fast, and it is easy to change it to make your own live cd. But most of all, It is easy to save your configuration... to the internet.

Telling someone to run an operating system on top of another operating system via virtualization server would just confuse the heck out of many newbies much more than explaining an operating system on a cd.

Lunarcloud (not verified) - Wed, 2006-05-31 14:32.

Linux on VMware

Kevin, as an experienced Win user eager to try Linux, I found your commentary about running a Linux distro on a virtual machine very intersting.

Re VMware, I was wondering what the Workstation version can do that the free Player can not?

Thanks!

Aar - (not verified) - Thu, 2006-06-01 13:32.

I may be wrong, but...

As i understand, the free player is more or less like a live cd, while in the real version, you run it like a mini computer and actually install operating systems from scratch. Much more options as well, for a much higher price than free.

It is a good idea, but has always seemed slow to me.

Lunarcloud (not verified) - Thu, 2006-06-01 16:01.

VMWare Player vs WMWare Workstation

Having used both versions, I can give you the difference.
The only limitation on VMWare Player is that you cannot create a new virtual machine.
You can however use any virtual machine created on the workstation version or you can download a whole bunch of preconfigured virtual machines found at http://www.vmware.com/vmtn/appliances/directory/
You can play with those as much as you want and give a try to almost any linux version you can think of.

You could very well create a new virtual machine with only an empty disk on the workstation version and open it with the player to install the OS of your choice or boot a live CD.

From a performance point of view, you shouldn't see any difference between both versions of the VMWare products.

Christian (not verified) - M - , 2006-06-05 05:53.

VMWare Player vs WMWare Workstation

There are two differences between VMware Player and VMware. The first, rightly mentioned, is that you (theoretically) can't create a new VM with it. The second, is that you cannot copy and paste to move between operating systems. The second is actually more of a problem than the first. If you need to move your files to the other OS, you're limited to internet (which may or may not work) and CD/DVD-burning. You have to have VMware tools installed in the VM to copy and paste, and to accomplish that, you have to buy VMware Workstation.

There is a workaround to being unable to create VMs. You also cannot install VMware Workstation in an OS running inside VMware player. There is a binary download of QEMU that you can download and decompress (and also a Windows installer) that can create a VMware virtual machine and hard drive that VMware Player will run without questioning it. You can get it at http://fabrice.bellard.free.fr/qemu/download.html

There are instructions of how to create a Windows XP virtual Machine at http://johnbokma.com/mexit/2005/10/26/vmware-player-windows-xp.html. This is an empty virtual machine, and works really well not just for Windows, but for any OS. All you have to do is modify the memory size for your machine and change the names to fit your OS--at least the Display name. And since you create your own virtual machine, you can install and modify the heck out of the OS.

Fedora Core 5, SUSE 10, Ubuntu, and Mandriva all run particularly well in VMware Player. Puppy and Beatrix and KNOPPIX also run well, as do PC-BSD and DesktopBSD. Virtually any version of Linux runs well in VMware Player, but a few don't. Solaris 10 will not run. I have now run Windows XP in VMware Player in SUSE 10 for a year. It has NEVER crashed.

I have also been running Windows XP inside Parallels Workstation. It also runs pretty well, but somewhat slower than VMware. And VMware does run more slowly than a native OS.

Jerry Neal (not verified) - Tue, 2006-06-06 07:37.

VMware in Linux

I use Kubuntu Linux with VMware workstation running Linspire - my first LOS - and XP. XP runs nearly as fast as when originally installed as the only OS, but with 400meg RAM assigned to it, the difference is hardly noticeable. (I have 1 1/8th G-RAM installed on an AMD 1400 processor, a 250G and 40G (slave) drive installed. Kubuntu practically jumps out of my aging system. At one point, I had the above mentioned programs, plus partitions of Vector, PC-BSD, Mandrake, Debian, and W-98 all going at once. Kewl fun!

I would like to see more information regarding 'sharing' of files between the [running] systems, perhaps how to create the 'shares' the Samba or hwatever it takes. My printer only works with XP, so when I need to print, I'm stuck with XP. My attempts to share files, or cut/copy/paste have not been successful. I would greatly appreciate input from my (many) betters.

Chuck (not verified) - Tue, 2006-06-06 22:33.