Computer Laboratory

Installing Unix/Linux on your own PC

We encourage students who own a PC to install and try out one of the freely available Unix-like operating systems: Linux (Ubuntu/Kubuntu, SUSE/openSUSE, Debian, RedHat/CentOS/Fedora, Gentoo, Mandriva, Knoppix, etc.), FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD.

Linux is more popular on home computers than the BSD Unix derivatives: it provides more comprehensive support for PC hardware and it has larger and more up-to-date collections of pre-compiled software packages available.

There are many different Linux “distributions”, which are large collections of Linux-related open-source software that all come with their own branding, installation and system-management process, and on-line support community. The different Linux distributions are all very similar to use in the end; the main differences have to do with installation and system-administration procedures, and which flavour of graphical “desktop” interface (e.g., Xfce, Gnome, KDE, Unity) is offered by default. Linux newcomers may be well advised to simply pick a distribution (and desktop interface) that a nearby friend who can offer advice is already familiar with.

As a new Computer Laboratory student not already familiar with one of the above, you might as well choose the Linux distribution that is currently used on our MCS Linux practicals machines, or what many staff and supervisors currently use on their office PC. For the academic year 2012/13, this is Ubuntu Linux 12.04 LTS, for which updates will be available until April 2017.

You can try out many Linux distributions quickly using a “Live CD” (or equivalent bootable USB memory stick), which boots the operating system without doing anything to your harddisk. But for long-term use, you want to install Linux onto your harddisk, which loads faster and preserves updates and configuration changes that you make.

Harddisk space

Before installation, first make sure your harddisk has space for a new partition. While an expert can install a minimal Linux system in just a few hundred megabytes, partition sizes of at least 5 GB are recommended for a full-featured desktop system. If your entire harddisk is already reserved for use by another operating system, you may want to first reduce the size of an existing disk partition (e.g. Windows C: or D: drive). This can be done easily using a partition editor such as Parted Magic or GNU Parted.

Linux distributions will usually offer you to repartition your harddisk during installation, and will install the GRUB bootloader in a “dual-boot” configuration that preserves access to any existing operating system. After you switch on your computer, GRUB will then display each time a menu to choose which operating system you want to boot.

Installing Linux in Cambridge

If you are not yet resident in a Cambridge college, simply follow the installation instructions provided on the web site of your chosen distribution (see above).

If you install a Linux distribution from your College room via the Cambridge University Data Network, it is a good idea to install from a local server in Cambridge, rather than from outside Internet sites, as this is not only much faster, but may also safe you money in case you are charged for large Internet downloads.

The Computing Service’s Unix Support team runs local FTP and NFS servers that contain all the files and updates for some of the most popular Linux distributions: Ubuntu, openSUSE, Fedora, Debian.

The instructions below outline how you need to adjust the normal installation instructions to download from local University of Cambridge servers instead.

Installing openSUSE Linux 12.3 in Cambridge

The following steps outline briefly, how to install openSUSE Linux on your PC. openSUSE Linux 11.4 was the operating system used on the University's MCS Linux machines in 2011/12. We hope to have soon ready instructions for installing Ubuntu Linux 12.04 LTS, which is what the MCS Linux machines use in 2012/13. Both are perfectly good choices.

There are three options for getting the software onto your PC:

Directly from the network:

  • Go to the openSUSE download page, select installation medium: “Network”, download method: “Direct Link”, your type of computer (32-bit PC, 64-bit PC).
  • If your PC is connected to the Cambridge University Data Network, then note the filename of the offered ISO image (e.g. “openSUSE-12.3-NET-x86_64.iso”). Instead of downloading it from the provided link, get it from the local Computing Service mirror directory. Burning CD-Rs can be done using any CD writing application, on a Linux machine for example with with xcdroast, k3b, or the good old cdrecord. Alternatively, you can transform the ISO into a bootable USB stick.
  • After having booted that CD or USB stick, configure your network address and then configure as the “installation source medium” the Computing Service server that stores the remaining installation files:
    • protocol: NFS
    • server name: nfs-uxsup.csx.cam.ac.uk
    • directory: linux/opensuse/12.3/repo/oss
      (addons: linux/opensuse/12.3/repo/non-oss)
  • To perform online updates after the initial installation is complete, add in YaST as the Installation Source also the local Computing Service mirror:
    • protocol: HTTP
    • server name: www-uxsup.csx.cam.ac.uk
    • directory: pub/linux/opensuse/update/12.3
  • More information can be found on the openSUSE download, Network installation and documentation pages.

Using the Computing Service as an installation source will not create network traffic outside Cambridge, for which your college would otherwise be charged. If you are not on the University network, use the regular download site.

From self-made DVD: Alternatively, you can burn yourself the full installation DVD from the ISO images mirrored by the Computing Service. There is also a (possibly not quite up to date) Installing openSUSE/SUSE/Novell Linux page there.

From borrowed medium: you may find that fellow students have already an installation medium that you can use.