Run Linux from USB

Linux is definitely the favorite OS for bioinformatics, but if you ask most university or research institute IT departments they will likely be MS Windows-centric. Even 53% of visitors to this blog run Windows. Many IT departments that I've interacted with lock down their PCs so no software can be installed, leaving employees and students unable to run software to get their work done.

One option is to run virtualisation software such as VirtualBox or VMware to run Linux inside Windows, but that comes with reduced performance. Another, better option is to run Linux from a USB flash drive. Just as virtually all Linux distros can be booted off CD/DVD, they can also be booted off USB. The benefits are that you can run a "pure" Linux OS without modifying the existing host Windows OS. You'll also be able to take it and all the installed software wherever you go, and run it off any machine. Some Linux distros are specifically designed for running off USB (or SD) flash drives, by having a small footprint. Here are some good options (not exhaustive):
  • Porteus - This is my fave right now. Its very customisable. Has a small footprint (<300MB) and once loaded into RAM is very very fast. Unfortunately the package manager does not have a wide range (installing R from source is a real pain..)
  • Puppy Linux One of the most popular OSs for rejuvenating an old laptop or PC.
  • Crunchbang Had a cult following and is known for being fast, functional and beautiful at the same time. With Debian package manager, its a good choice. Under new management.
  • Tails - More for network and data security rather than bioinformatics use, by default it uses Tor network for anonymity and encryption of data on the flash drive. Again built on Debian, so will have the benefits of the apt-get package installer.
  • Other good choices include Arch, Ubuntu, Lite, among others.
Here is the general installation guide (may differ for each distro):
  • Download the iso from the distro homepage or via BitTorrent
  • Burn the disk image iso to a blank CD/DVD
  • Restart the PC so it will boot from the CD/DVD
  • Format the USB stick to ext4 if possible (FAT is also OK)
  • Go through the process of installing the OS selecting the USB drive as the destination. 
  • Enable USB boot on the PC by going into the BIOS menu by pressing F1/F11/F12 when you boot up and move USB drive to the top of the boot order.
  • Remove the CD/DVD and restart the computer. It will hopefully boot the OS from the USB.
So now there's really no excuse to give Linux a try :)

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