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A beginner's guide to installing Linux

Welcome to the new series-based blog that provides our consultants something to do when powering up lab and analysis systems running *certain versions of operating systems. These are quick-hitting blogs that provide insight to current things we’re investigation or analyzing, or neat tricks and solutions we have come up with to answer sometimes crazy problems, or really any musings that are appropriate. Our goal: is it really possible to finish a blog before a system reboots? So, when you are waiting on your system to cycle, jump on a Linux box and read a blog!

Begin blog: 16:05 EST. System restarting: Windows Server 2003

That opener was on the first blog of the What We Do series, I noticed a slight issue with it: it was written by John “Linux Guru” Melvin, my counterpart for this series. I on the other hand could go by Kerstyn “young enough to be spoiled with Windows GUI systems since childhood” Clover. My introductions to Linux systems and command-line interfaces were in high school and college as a look back to how things used to be. I am sorry if I just made you cringe, my superpower is making other people feel old with my presence. I hear it will fade in time.

In any case, today I wanted to give a quick, high-level overview to starting up your own Linux system so that you have something on which to read our wonderful blog while your PC is hanging on a shutdown. If you already are well-versed in the topic, this might not be for you. But if you want a brief overview and links to help play around in Linux, then stick around.

Pick your flavor

“Flavors” or “distributions” of Linux are just different versions of the operating system. I will let you look for yourself because there are lots of options, but the three main ones are UbuntuFedora, and DebianLinux Mint also gets a mention because it is what I found most accessible when I was first getting interested in the topic; I think the XFCE interface looks nice.

Get your install ready

If you have never installed an operating system before, this might be new or strange. You do not usually want to build a bootable USB or CD/DVD the same way as you use them for storage. First, you want to find your flavor’s download page and save the .ISO file it offers you. If you are not sure which one you need, there is often an option for “not sure? use this one!” or guides on the site offering the distribution. Next, decide on your media:

-USB Drive

You generally want 1GB or more of storage here. Fedora has a strong write up on this and their own download for software you can use to create a bootable drive.

- CD or DVD 

I tend to use these, so they can be easily labeled. In any case, they also require a special burning tool. I believe Windows 7 and later may have the ability to burn live-boot discs, but you are better off evaluating an ISO burner. There are plenty out there: pick one that you like and watch out for spam or adware included in the downloads (as you should do with any software.)

You want to use your software to burn either your USB or your disc, then moving on:

Begin your install

You cannot just pop it into a running system and start; you will want to insert your media then restart or turn on your box. It does not matter if it has an OS or not already; however, BACK UP YOUR DATA if it is a system with anything saved on it. Check out the blog on best practices for backing up data for more details. If you install the OS over the top of anything you want back, you probably will not be seeing it again, so just throw your files somewhere else.

OK, ready?

When your system starts to boot, you will want to hit F8, F10, F12, or whatever else briefly flashes on the screen to get to your boot menu. From there you want to select your media: if it is a disc, select your disc drive, and for USBs, the USB drive.

From here you may have the option to do an install or run a live version – the live version is great for playing with the OS, but not overwriting anything or actually installing the system. If you want to decide on your distribution by playing with live CDs first, it can be a good way to pick one without doing multiple installs. Just remember that when you shut down, nothing is saved to that environment – so do not decide to create an art piece in a live disk then forget to save it to an external drive.

Anyway, you should be able to follow prompts throughout the install process. I am sorry I cannot help you more here, but it will depend on your distribution. Just read the questions and if you have further questions use another system to Google it or read the distro’s FAQ page. There is plenty of help out there.

Once you are Installed

Now, the things that are not always included in “The Dummy’s Guide to Installing Linux” articles. You have got the OS installed and that is great, but where are all your icons? How do you do anything? WHERE’S THE START BUTTON?

Take a moment to get a feel for everything and locate your Terminal. This is your friend. It is text-based and if you do not ever work in the command line in Windows, it will be a bit foreign. Here are the first commands you will want to run:

- sudo apt-get update

- sudo apt-get upgrade

- sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

Sudo is short for super (or substitute) user do and is similar to running a program as an administrator in Windows. If you are logged in as a root user you may not need this in front of the command, but it is good security practice not to do that. We can get more into user privileges in Linux later – or you can read many other resources on the topic.

Let us explain these in order: apt-get update is going to update the list of packages and versions (think apps and their versions, perhaps) on your box. Next you will want apt-get upgrade, to actually install the newer versions of what is on your system. apt-get dist-upgrade is an upgrade for your version of Linux; there is some banter about whether or not it is necessary, but it does not hurt to run it after your regular upgrade command.

- sudo apt-get clean

This removes packages from your cache. If you have slow internet, you will have to re-download things after this, so skip it if you are still stuck in the sticks.

- sudo apt-get update

Similar to Windows’ need to boot, reboot, install, reboot, repeat…. running apt-get update again will help to catch anything that slipped through the cracks.

Alright, you should be ready to roll! There are a lot of security and usability tasks that you can do from here, but this is where I will leave you for now. If you are not so new to the process and have any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments.

End time: 16:32 EST. Windows manages to eke out a win this time.