Using Ubuntu as your sole operating system in academia

I’ve been using Ubuntu Linux as my sole operating system for two years now, ever since before I became a professor. The switch was completely painless as I had already been using the same software on Windows and the Mac for years (such as OpenOffice, Firefox, VLC, Pidgin, Netbeans, Eclipse, JEdit, Inkscape, Gimp, etc.). I wrote about making the switch to Linux gradually over 6 years ago, and I dual-booted to Windows and Linux for a long time, but Windows was still my primary OS until 2 years ago.

There was some software I had to change when I made the switch, but I was planning to do so anyway. For data analysis instead of SPSS, I learned R, which is more powerful (see these notes for getting R and a GUI interface installed on Ubuntu). I had to find a different tool to make screencasts. Luckily they are all free in Linux. I used gtk-recordmydesktop, but there are also Istanbul, WebcamStudio, and others. For music instead of Winamp there was the winamp-clone xmms (and now Audacious). Of course there are itunes alternatives too. Wine can be used to run any Windows-specific software, including games. Second Life has a Linux version that works just fine, too, and Adobe AIR applications like Tweetdeck, Thwirl, and Seesmic Deskop work just fine. All web-based applications from Youtube to Google Apps to whatever work great in Firefox – you can install the latest Adobe Flash and Sun Java 6 plugins too.

The only reasons I’ve been still booting to Windows occasionally now are to make screencasts that show how to do things in Windows (which most students are using), and also to use the Wimba whiteboard/chat application that our university uses. Wimba is a Java applet-based application and should work on Linux fine, but it runs a “check my system” test first which complains and fails.

Also, our university stopped its proxy server that I was using to get off-campus access to journal articles in favor of a VPN instead that doesn’t work in Linux, but now I just use an ssh tunnel to campus instead which works just fine (see these instructions for ssh tunneling).

Posted in opensource, research, technology, ubuntu
9 comments on “Using Ubuntu as your sole operating system in academia
  1. bigbrovar says:

    Am sys admin of a university in my country and we run Ubuntu on all our lab computer and even the laptops we give out to our students. My school is a living testimony to the fact that u can run a school on free software and the sky will not fall .. we have free software alternatives to most educational tools on windows. and the once that we don't have either already have Linux ports (aka matlab, Mathematica) all can be installed through wine. Free sotfware has helped us to save cost and concentrate on just hardware. and it also gave us the freedom to have customized OS that fits our specific needs.

  2. vajorie says:

    That's nice… I've been using using Linux for a while now as a student, and I've had quite stressing encounters. From journals who accept nothing but MS Word, to professors who can't grasp the idea that I rather use LaTeX than Word (one says "it looks too complete"), to faculty who are addicted to closed-source statistical packages and give themselves the excuse that the open-source ones (eg R) is untested and unreliable.

    In the meantime, the university will do whatever their for-profit software partners ask them to, never even once thinking "gush, I have the resources I need, I could have my folk write the actual alternative software to gain autonomy, and then I can open-source it because I am an educational and not corporate entity."

    Yet, I see more and more students switching to one of the linux flavors and becoming speechless at what they had been enduring.

    I live in the social sciences republic.

  3. mhermans says:

    Similar trajectory here (switch was complete when I replaced SAS with R).

    Instead of the occasional dualboot to Windows, I have a VirtualBox-instance with Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office, SAS, SPSS, … if the need arises. Much more practical then two partitions & rebooting imho.

  4. retiman says:

    If you use virtualbox or qemu to run windows, you won't have to dual boot at all. This is what I did when I had to use that awful sonicfoundry mediasite tool to watch lectures online.

  5. oteast says:

    Well I am student over in the engineering corporate empire and twice, now and back in the mid-90's, I have fallen back to LINUX to get real work done. Besides commercial software packages like Mathematica and Matlab running better under LINUX there sure are some great open source alternatives that seem quite a bit better at many tasks. Maxima anyone? Also Octave and Scilab are really good Matlab clones and getting better by leaps and bounds…BTW writing the dissertation in open office as I don't trust the stability of that other word processor…had some bad experiences with it back in the day.

  6. JN says:

    If you're a former SPSS user, have you tried GNU PSPP?

    It's not as powerful as R (or SPSS even at present), but it's getting there.

  7. Brie Aleida says:

    I just graduated from the Computer Science department at my university and I've only used GNU/Linux and I've been fine. I had a little trouble when the university switched to Office 2007 and everybody sent me stuff as .docx but OpenOffice.Org recovered soon enough and Zamzar was there in the meantime. :-).

  8. Doug Holton says:

    Right, I forgot about the .docx stuff a couple years back.

    I downloaded an openoffice extension back then so that actually for a while I was about the only one in my department who could even read the .docx files a university administrator occasionally sent us.

  9. techxplorer says:

    I'm just about to return to study after a fairly long break and start a Masters course and I plan on using Ubuntu full time.

    I've been using Ubuntu since the Warty Warthog release and since 5.04 have been using it full time for my personal computing needs and the last few years for my work needs as well.

    I also plan on using services "in the cloud" as much as possible. I'm looking forward to what I hope will be an interesting experiment.

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