The Easiest Ways to Install Linux

If you’re like most people who want to learn Linux, you don’t already have access to a Linux system. So you look for instructions on how to install Linux and discover that it is quite complicated and even risky. There are warnings that you should back up everything on your computer first because you could potentially lose your data if something goes wrong. Yikes!

Fortunately, there are easier ways to run Linux that don’t require creating a bootable USB drive or putting your data in danger.   There are two general approaches:
  1. Run in the cloud
  2. Use virtualization

Run in the Cloud
You can have a Linux machine up and running in 5 minutes with Google Cloud Platform or DigitalOcean. The most time consuming part is entering your credit card information. Oh, did the mention of your credit card scare you more than repartitioning your hard drive? Well, don’t worry. All of the major cloud providers offer a free trial. You still have to enter your credit card information, but you won’t be charged unless you continue after the trial period is over or you use an outrageous amount of resources.

The three biggest players are Amazon, Microsoft, and Google. I tried all of them plus one fast-growing new player (DigitalOcean). Here are the four providers, in order of easiest to most difficult to set up:

  1. Google Cloud Platform

After filling out your contact and billing information, you just need to specify a few details about the Linux machine you want to run and then start it up. To access the machine, you just select “Open in browser window” and a terminal window will pop up. You don’t even need to log in. Google’s trial period lasts for two months and gives you $300 in credits.

  1. DigitalOcean

This provider is much smaller than the others, but it is growing quickly. The user interface looks more like a consumer application, so it is simple to get started. Instead of offering a normal trial period, though, you can get $10 in credits by entering a promo code, such as DROPLET10. To maximize your credits, destroy your droplet (DigitalOcean’s term for a virtual machine) at the end of every session. Otherwise, you will use up some of your credits even when the droplet is turned off.

  1. Microsoft Azure

Microsoft used to have a reputation for lousy user interfaces, but Azure is quite nice. It asks more questions about the virtual machine you want than Google or DigitalOcean, but it is still fairly straightforward. The biggest difficulty is that it doesn’t give you browser-based access to the Linux machine. You have to install an SSH client, such as putty, to access it. Microsoft offers a one-month free trial with $200 in credits.

  1. Amazon Web Services (AWS)

You may be surprised to see Amazon at the bottom of the list, since it is by far the most successful cloud provider. If I were listing services in order of functionality, then AWS would definitely be at the top of the list. But we’re not trying to set up an enterprise infrastructure—we just want to run a Linux system for learning—so AWS is overkill. I was still surprised at how difficult it was to set up, though. Not only do you have to go through a complicated and confusing sequence of steps, but you need to use an SSH client and public key encryption to access your Linux machine (unless your browser supports Java). The only advantage to using AWS for learning is that it offers a one-year free trial. Note that you must choose a VM from the Free Tier or you will be charged.

Use Virtualization
If you would rather not use a cloud service, then your best option is to use virtualization software. It has some major advantages over installing Linux directly on your computer:
  • You install it like any other application. That is, you don’t need to install it from a DVD or a bootable USB drive. You just run the setup program.
  • It allows you to run Linux at the same time as your existing operating system (i.e. Windows or Mac OS).
  • You can even run different versions of Linux at the same time, such as CentOS and Ubuntu.

There is only one disadvantage—it’s slower. As long as you have a reasonably modern computer, though, then the performance should still be acceptable, so the advantages far outweigh the slower speed.

There are a number of virtualization software packages, but in most cases, you should use VirtualBox (or possibly VMware Workstation Player if you’re running Windows). Here’s why:
  • VirtualBox: It’s free, it has a rich feature set, and it runs on both Windows and Mac OS.
  • VMware Workstation Player: Although it’s free and it’s easier to use than VirtualBox, it is only available on Windows and it doesn’t have some nice features, such as snapshots.
  • Hyper-V: It’s free and fully featured, but it only runs on higher-end versions of Windows, not on the Home edition.
  • Parallels Desktop: It’s not free and it is only available on Mac OS.

The easiest way to get Linux running in a virtual machine (VM) is to download a pre-built VM image. Then you won’t have to go through the Linux install process. has both VirtualBox and VMware images.
Final Thoughts
Note that these recommendations are based on ease of setup for learning, not for production use. For example, if you become a Linux administrator, then you will likely install Linux directly, use a commercial virtualization platform like VMware vSphere, or run on Amazon Web Services. But it would be counterproductive to get started learning Linux using one of those methods.

The best way to learn Linux is to practice on a real (or virtual) Linux system, so get started with one of the methods above and have fun!
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