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Portable Ubuntu, Windows Live Together in Perfect Harmony

By Jack M. Germain
May 8, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Want to try out Ubuntu Linux without giving up your Windows desktop? How about running Ubuntu from a USB drive on any Windows PC while still operating within Windows?

Portable Ubuntu, Windows Live Together in Perfect Harmony

Portable Ubuntu provides both of these computing options, no setup hassles or programming skills required. You do not even have to reboot the computer or set up a dual boot environment -- and no, you do not need to install any virtual machine software to make it work.

Argentinean programmer Claudio Cesar Sanchez Tejeda released Portable Ubuntu in mid-April. He built upon the concept of an existing project known as "Cooperative Linux." The tweaking he added created a version of the Hardy Heron Ubuntu 8.04 Linux distro that loads from the Windows desktop. Both Windows programs and Linux apps can run seamlessly on the same Windows desktop.

Portable Ubuntu is a fun and convenient way to learn about one of the most popular Linux desktop distributions with no risk to the Windows computer. It can be an ideal transition path from the Windows platform to the Linux world.

Better Than Live CD

Portable Ubuntu offers some convenient improvements over running Ubuntu from a live CD session. To load Ubuntu as the complete operating environment in a computer, users must reboot the computer from the CD drive. Once loaded, users can either install Ubuntu to the hard drive or run the Linux OS (operating system) from the CD.

Not so with Portable Ubuntu. The Linux environment loads within Windows and runs as an isolated process. All configuration changes are saved to a file in an encrypted folder on the computer's hard drive or USB drive. No speed issues exist because hard drives and USB drives provide faster read access.

With a live CD session, all features of Ubuntu are the same except program updates, and configuration changes are not permanent. So you have to reset them each time you start another live session. Of course, some of the peppiness of Linux is lost to the slower process of reading from the CD.

Looks Like Windows, Walks Like Ubuntu

The only difference in the appearance of Portable Ubuntu from the dedicated Ubuntu OS is that the desktop in the Windows environment does not change. Instead of seeing the tell-tale orange Ubuntu background, the Microsoft Windows background remains visible. Only a series of Ubuntu windows open as Ubuntu apps are accessed from a standard Ubuntu menu bar that docks on the Microsoft Windows desktop.

The Ubuntu menu bar can be moved anywhere on the Windows desktop. Even the title bars on the opened Ubuntu windows have the look and functionality of a standard Microsoft window.

For example, I run several display enhancement programs on my Windows XP system to add Vista-like functionality. Some of these add-on features in XP show as additional symbols at the top of the title bar on opened windows. They are still present in a Portable Ubuntu window even though they no longer serve any purpose in Linux.

No VM Process

I am not a fan of dual boot configurations. I want access to different operating systems conveniently without having to reboot from one OS into another on the same computer. Plus, I often run two systems side by side. So I maintain a separate Windows laptop and Windows desktop. I also run Ubuntu on a dedicated desktop box and have a netbook that runs the Ubuntu Remix distro.

I also am not very fond of running a virtual machine environment to accomplish the same side-by-side OS delivery. Portable Ubuntu bridges both of these options to give me Linux access on demand without leaving my running Windows programs and data.

Various Linux-on-a-USB drive concoctions usually present some of the same inconveniences as dual booting. Portable Ubuntu solves that dilemma for me as well.

Easy Installation

Setting up Portable Ubuntu is quick and painless. The process requires downloading and decompressing the zipped file and then running a batch file to install the Portable Ubuntu directory on either the hard drive or other external media. You can download it here. Select the download page and choose a mirror site from the list of links.

Clicking on the "Run Portable Ubuntu" file (create a desktop icon for easy access) starts the Ubuntu session. All running programs in Windows remain unaffected.

A green arrow appears in the system tray on the Windows desktop when the process starts. Clicking it will open a terminal window to allow you to monitor the startup process. Click the arrow again to close the terminal window without hampering the OS startup within Microsoft Windows.

A splash screen appears for a short interval and then is replaced by the Ubuntu menu bar. Click on the Ubuntu menu items to load Linux apps.

Light on Resources

Unlike running a shared VM environment, Portable Windows causes very little drain on system resources because it does not split available system resources between the installed OS and a virtual machine OS.

My Windows programs still ran without hesitation. The Ubuntu apps were as speedy as on my dedicated Linux desktop and netbook computers.

I was particularly impressed with Portable Ubuntu's ability to run without interfering with system performance. I run Dexpot virtual windows on my Microsoft boxes. This gives me the ability to run separate desktops so many open programs do not result in desktop clutter.

Even with a Web browser, a word processor, multiple security programs, file managers and graphics editors open on multiple desktops, Portable Ubuntu had no discernible impact on resources. In this regard, running Portable Ubuntu is much like my experiences with using Puppy Linux, which boots from a USB drive and runs in available system RAM.

Portable Ubuntu has a leg up over Puppy Linux -- it runs without requiring a reboot.

Twisted Roots

Portable Ubuntu and the CoLinux projects are two separate distributions. Portable Ubuntu is not associated with the Ubuntu Linux distro headed by Canonical, according to Tejeda. In fact, the Ubuntu community was not aware of Portable Ubuntu until its release.

"Portable Ubuntu was developed independently without direct involvement from the Ubuntu project. I only became aware of Portable Ubuntu recently and don't know much about it beyond what is published on its Web site," Matt Zimmerman, CTO for Canonical, told LinuxInsider.

At its core, Portable Ubuntu is different from the Canonical version. The developer of Portable Ubuntu designed his Linux strain to run on the Xming windowing system.

"I use the Colinux kernel inside Portable Ubuntu. The Colinux kernel is a Linux kernel that could run on Windows, so I included this kernel in Ubuntu and modified some files so that Ubuntu can be executed with Colinux and can use Xming, (an X server for Windows)," Tejeda told LinuxInsider.

Secure Environment

Running Portable Ubuntu inside the Windows OS is a similar concept to using a VM shell to create a sandboxed environment. The CoLinux kernel is faster than virtualization techniques because it interacts more closely with Windows, Tejeda explained.

Although Portable Ubuntu can access files on the Windows platform, the process is not easily reciprocal. Windows cannot access Portable Ubuntu directly. The only way is through a Secure Shell (SSH) protocol, he said.

The same structure that isolates a virtual machine prevents Windows from getting into the Portal Ubuntu envelope. Portable Ubuntu communicates with Xming, which has multiwindow functionality. This functionality enables Portable Ubuntu applications to integrate on the Windows desktop via the window system of the Microsoft OS.

"You can't access your Portable Ubuntu file system from Windows when it is running. The only way is configuring Samba in Portable Ubuntu, but Samba has security settings so you can limit the access to Portable Ubuntu," said Tejeda.

Accessing Data

Portable Ubuntu comes with AbiWord as its default word processor and FireFox as the Web browser. OpenOffice, by contrast, is the default word processor/office suite with Canonical's Ubuntu distro. Of course, OpenOffice and any other Debian-based Ubuntu app can be installed using the same Add/Remove service utilized by Ubuntu.

Windows data files can be loaded from the hard drive and saved back to that same source. However, a smidgen of configuring is needed to provide access to a USB drive or the resident CD/DVD drive on the Windows computer.

Here is the explanation that Tejeda provided to accomplish this: You need to know the device system number or the letter of the optical and/or USB drive. Using any text editor, locate and open the portable_ubuntu.conf file found in the Ubuntu folder.

Configure the storage device using either its drive letter in Windows or its device name in Linux. For instance, the CD Rom drive can be listed as E: or cdrom0.

  1. With the letter drive:

    Letter drive: E:

    Line to add in the portable_ubuntu.conf: cofs4=E:

    Command to use in Portable Ubuntu to access the CD drive: # mount -t cofs cofs4 /dir_to_mount

    # cd /dir_to_mount

  2. With the system device number:

    Device number: cdrom0

    Line to add in the portable_ubuntu.conf: cobd4=\Devices\Cdrom0

    Command to use in Portable Ubuntu to access the CD drive: # mount -t iso9660 /dev/cobd4 /cdrom

    # cd /cdrom

Final Thoughts

Portable Ubuntu runs within Windows XP and Windows Vista. In theory, it will also run within Windows 7. Tejeda plans to update Portable Ubuntu on the same six-month development cycle used by the Canonical community.

Ubuntu package updates are handled the same way they're handled with Canonical's Ubuntu -- through the Update Manager in the System/Administration menu. One hint: Change the software source to the main server. I found that the default Argentina server could not always read the libraries in the Ubuntu repository.

Whether you are an experienced Linux user or just curious about Ubuntu, Portable Ubuntu is a cool way to grow out of the newbie ranks.

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