There could be several reasons why you would like to try Linux (or some specific features of Linux):
- You are curious: what's the fuss all about?
- You want to learn a Linux-specific skill (for example shell scripting).
- You want to use a program or tool which doesn't run on Windows, but don't want to install Linux just to use this one program.
- You work with Linux at your work (or home, school, etc.) but when you are at home (or work, school, your girlfiends' computer, etc.) you only have Windows. Yet you would like to finish that shell-script you are working on. Or try something you just read in an article.
- You consider switching to Linux, but want to try it first.
- You want to quickly compare different distributions.
There are several ways to play with Linux without actually having to install it. We start with the two most commonly used, and then look at some alternatives.
A Live CD
These days there are several distributions which offer a Live CD version. To use a Live CD Linux version you just put the CD in the drive and restart your PC. When your computer is reboots Linux is started. If your hardware is supported (and you're lucky), you can browse the internet, play CD's and burn cd-roms without any configuration. When you are done, you remove the CD and restart. No changes were written to your harddrive.
Most Live-CD Linux versions can be downloaded for free. You only have to burn them to disc. Here is a list to choose from. I recommend Ubuntu (http://www.ubuntu.com/getubuntu/download. It can be used as both Live CD and to install) and Knoppix (http://www.knopper.net/knoppix/index-en.html).
Using A VM
With a Virtual Machine you install and run one OS from inside another. In this case you can run Linux from inside Windows. Linux will run inside 'a box', and you can use Linux and your regular Windows at the same time. There are several VM applications. The best, and most commonly used, is VMWare. VMWare Player (which can only be used to run a virtual OS, not to create one) can be downloaded for free: http://www.vmware.com/products/player/. You also need an image containing a ready-to-run Linux installation to run with the player. There are plenty to choose from: http://www.vmware.com/vmtn/appliances/directory/cat/45.
There are also free, open source Virtualization solutions. Sometimes a bit harder to use, but it shouldn't be a problem. Two well-known free VM solutions are Bochs (http://bochs.sourceforge.net/) and QEMU (http://fabrice.bellard.free.fr/qemu/).
Tip:: Here is a complete tutorial on running Ubuntu under XP with either VMWare or QEMU: http://homepage.sunrise.ch/mysunrise/ekeller00//EricKellerUbuntuPage.html
Ubuntu running under Windows XP using VMWare
A Shell Account
When you don't need or want a Graphical UI, but just want to use the shell to experiment and create and compile programs, you can consider getting a hosting account which provides shell-access (either telnet or SSH). You can then use a telnet or SSH client to connect to the server and work on the server using the command line.
Most hosting providers do not provide shell access, because most people don't need it, and it has security implications (especially telnet) for the hosting provider. Some companies and people also offer a shell account without hosting. Most of them are commercial and non-free. Use google to find them. Harder to find are free shell accounts, but they exist!
Most shell accounts have restrictions: you are not allowed to make outgoing connections, run IRC bouncer and the like, or use a lot of resources.
Tip: At the time of writing http://www.rootshell.be/ still offers free shell accounts (no hosting, no compiling).
Tip: Hewlett Packard has a Testdrive service. At http://www.testdrive.hp.com/ you can get a FREE shell account on one of their testdrive servers. You can choose between several state of the art hardware and software environments, not only Linux, but also VMS and Unix running on ProLiant, Integrity or PA-RISC hardware.
CygWin: a Linux environment under Windows
Cygwin is a Linux-like environment for Windows. It consists of two parts: A DLL (cygwin1.dll) which acts as a Linux API emulation layer providing substantial Linux API functionality and a collection of tools which provide Linux look and feel. Although you are not really using Linux, you are working in a Linux like environment on your PC. Perfect for Linux-programming, shell-scripting and learning how to use the Linux shell. It has all standard Linux tools and a lot of programming languages (C, C++, Perl, Ruby, Python, AWK, Prolog, etc. etc.).
Getting Windows ports of seperate tools
If you don't care about working with a Linux-like environment and using the Linux shell, but you just want to use (or learn how to use) some specific Linux tools, you can install Windows versions of these Linux tools.
You don't need Linux to learn how to use sed, grep, awk or to program in Perl and Tcl. Nor do you need Linux to work with Latex, nmap, make, lynx, vim, yacc, flex or wget.
Windows ports of a lot of standard Linux tools: http://gnuwin32.sourceforge.net/. See The Windows Command Prompt for instructions. Free Windows ports of Perl, Python and TCL: http://www.activestate.com/.
The History Tour
At http://simh.trailing-edge.com/ you can download SIMH. SIMH is an emulator which can simulate several types of historically interesting computers, most notably the PDP series from DEC, including the PDP-11. The PDP computers were the first that ran Unix, and we have both Unix and C to thank them for. There are also several historical OSses to be downloaded and run on the simulated hardware using SIMH: http://simh.trailing-edge.com/software.html.
The most interesting in this context is the 7th Edition Unix (released in 1979), a historical milestone in the history of Unix and computing. When you want to try Unix and travel back in time at the same time: download simh (http://simh.trailing-edge.com/sources/simhv37-3-exe.zip) and the 7th edition Unix disk image (http://simh.trailing-edge.com/kits/uv7swre.zip).
The instructions on getting the 7th edition Unix diskimage to run with simh can be found here: http://wandel.ca/homepage/unixdemo.html. This is Unix from the time when every nerd knew assembler. The internet didn't exist, female programmers were common (yes, really) and hackers were war-dailing using their Commodore 64's or whistling into their telephones to get free long distance calls.
A DEC PDP-11/70
Going to the Zoo
The Free Live OS Zoo (http://floz.v2.cs.unibo.it:8880/) offers ready-to-run images of QEMU virtual computers, pre-installed with a Free Operating System which can be used online using a Java applet. You can chose between several OSses, including different Linux distros, OpenSolaris, Minix and Plan 9.
The disadvantage of this system will soon become obvious: it is slow and files will only be saved for the time of your session. One advantage is that you can login into your own private virtual machine as root. You can do anything, try anything. No security restrictions and nothing can be broken. Here is your change to experiment with stuff which needs root permission without risking to have to reinstall.
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