Computer Laboratory

Choice of operating system on managed machines

There is a certain amount of choice in the operating system available on Lab managed machines. This page summarises the available options.

Members of the laboratory will be allocated a desk, and a computer of some sort will be provided there; we refer to this computer as your desktop machine. Your desktop machine should be the main computer that you use, but it is not necessarily the only one. It will run some variety of Linux, Windows, or MacOS X. You will be able to use your desktop machine to login remotely to a number of time sharing machines within the laboratory running various variety of Linux or Windows. So, whichever operating system your desktop machine is running you will be able to use machines running some other operating system.

You may choose which Operating System your desktop machine runs.

Your choice may be influenced by a number of factors: you may need a particular system for your work; you may have previous experience of one system or another; or you may want to use a system that your colleagues suggest. (It may be useful to discuss the matter with your supervisor; also, see distinguishing Linux features below.)

The choices available are listed below.

You will be given an account, which is the right to login to a particular set of machines. This will initially include the publicly available machines, and those in your group (which of course includes your own desktop machine). All machines authenticate using a shared Kerberos server, hence you only need one password, whatever managed machine you are going to log in to.

You will have normally local administrator access to your desktop machine. (Of course, if you irrevocably ‘break’ your machine by exercise of those privileges, the department offers no support — your machine will be ‘cleaned’ and the operating system reloaded.)

The following operating systems are available for use on your desktop machine:


The laboratory supports Ubuntu, which has "stable" and "bleeding edge" versions. We strongly recommend use of the stable "LTS" version, which has support for five years, rather than the other versions which are only supporetd for nine months. A PhD student selecting a "stable" system should be able to use the same system for three years without requiring an upgrade. Those selecting "bleeding edge" are likely to want to keep up with the latest version, with a rolling upgrade to the latest version (either "early" in the cycle to try the latest features, or "late" to wait til teething problems are sorted). There may be pressure to upgrade if a system is no longer supported and there is a security problem with the system. Permanent members of staff are likely to require either rolling upgrades, or occasional reinstalls.

The system aims as far as possible to be a simple “out of the box” installation: the criterion for altering things is purely to make the system interact comfortably with the laboratory infrastructure (such as printers, and the file servers which house your home directory among many other things), provide a "standard" set of packages, and to protect the security of the system.

All Linux systems are provided with a default set of packages installed; you can add further packages from local repositories with little fuss. Security updates and the like will be provided as seamlessly as possible.

At the start of 2009, we moved to using krb5 NFS security. Logging in to the machine remotely is trickier, and long running (relatively straight forward up to a week) and cron jobs may have problems accessing the NFS server (if only local filestore is used, these should not be problems). Consider using a time sharing system if there are problems.

Laptops and other machines which may not always have access to the Lab infrastructure can be managed in a very similar way, but do not normally use Lab facilities such as fileserver, LDAP and Kerberos.

When selecting which distribution, you may care to consider:

  • Whether a particular distribution is needed by your work
  • Which distribution is used by others working in your field
  • Any previous experience you have of the distributions
  • Whether you want the latest and greatest bleeding edge or very stable code

Further information is available from the respective project web sites:


We offer 64b Microsoft Windows 7 and 8 on laboratory managed desktop machines. The system installed is pretty much as supplied by Microsoft; access to the file server and to the printers is not significantly different from what you would expect from any networked windows system.

A wide range of software is provided for installation, but we cannot guarantee that we can make every commercial product freely available – research group funds may need to pay for some packages.


As of 2009, users can opt for a Mac instead of a PC, but note that as this is cost-neutral, the spec of the machine is likely to be less that than of the standard PC.

MacOS X can access the filer (using CIFS), the departmental printers, and setup a VPN.

Note that users are expected to manage the machines themselves.

Other (self-managed) Systems

Departmental Machine

Users who are used to running other systems may be able use them, so long as they can access the departmental filer using per user Kerberos authentication (i.e. "sec=krb5" NFS or CIFS). Some systems (e.g. FreeBSD) may have reasonable support, but the level of central support for other systems may be significantly less than for those listed above, if there are problems it may be necessary to reload the system from scratch.


If you bring your own device then it can usually be connected to enable access to the same services as a self-managed machine provided by the department. However, the extent to which we will be able to assist you in the process will depend upon our familiarity with the operating system you have installed.

Dual boot

We strongly discourage those who ask for the installation of multiple operating systems (dual booting) on their desktop machines. This is a practical matter: while dual boot is sometimes necessary on home machines, it is often no more than an “time sink” in a well-provisioned work place.

If you need more than one operating system on your computer, because of the need to access specialist attached devices then you may be able to use a suitable virtualisation technology. For workstations we generally suggest VMWare player.

We also have a pool of Xen Enterprise servers on which virtualy machines can be hosted - this is especially useful if you need an always-on server.