Portable Ubuntu

Friday, February 05, 2010

Last week, I made note of one of the more intriguing software packages I have come across in a long time: Portable Ubuntu. I said at the time that, as a means of bringing the convenience of Unix utilities to my Windows workstation, it "might be far better" than the two software packages I had used before, Cygwin and MobaXVT (since renamed MobaXterm).

That has turned out to be an understatement, as one might guess from the Lifehacker writeup I found the day I googled around to see whether such an animal as portable Linux might exist. (The writeup is slightly outdated, though. Since then, a new release has come out, DOS: the Spanish numeral, not the operating system. You now start the program with "portable_ubuntu," a batch file that resides in the "bin" subdirectory of the Portable_Ubuntu directory.)

First of all, you are running Linux, in parallel with Windows. Portable Ubuntu is built on a sort of virtual machine called "coLinux." (Click on the "trayrun" icon that shows up during startup and you'll see the Linux VM booting in a console.) The user experience is much like running VMWare in Unity mode in that there is no switching around between desktops.

This is good for novice and expert alike: People new to Linux have an easy way to experiment with it in comfortable surroundings and experienced users can manage their Linux installation like an actual computer. This SuSE Linux user got to kill two birds with one stone on my computing "to do" list: Experiment with the Ubuntu flavor of Linux and become able to use my normal calendar and organization software in any location. (Or almost any location. Read on.)

On those scores, I updated my "new computer," added some extra software with the Synaptic package manager, and got my calendar and list management scripts of choice running. It's nice to have my productivity applications at my disposal at work again, and to know that I now will always have them regardless of what operating system I might have at hand.

The major down sides have been the space requirement -- about 4 GB -- and "seeing" the data on the "Linux side" of the disk when not actually running Portable Ubuntu. The former difficulty can be offset somewhat by uninstalling some of the bulkier software (e.g., Open Office) either within Portable Ubuntu or, in my case, any other portable application suites on the drive.

The latter difficulty might have been a deal-breaker for me since I run Linux at home and always back up my "pocket office" at the end of the day once I get home. The easiest solution lies in creating a mount point and then mounting the disk image of the Linux OS as a "loop device" and then treating it like a part of the rest of the file system. For example:

mkdir /mnt/pen
cd /media/disk/Portable_Ubuntu_DOS/images
mount -o loop rootfs.img /mnt/pen
[Do what you need to do.]
umount /dev/loop0
Another potential fly in the ointment is that, according to the Portable Ubuntu FAQ, one needs Administrator rights to run it at all on a Windows machine. I was under the impression that I did not have these at work, and yet I can run Portable Ubuntu there. Perhaps I have some sort of limited Administrator rights, and these are enough. Perhaps this information is wrong. (I don't know the answer to either of these questions.)

In the meantime, I'm enjoying this fun boost to my productivity and highly recommend Portable Ubuntu.

-- CAV


9-15-11: If you'd like to run a more recent version of Ubuntu from your pen drive go here and scroll down.

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