Installation Variants for Linux

There are various ways to install Linux. This blog post provides an initial overview of installation media, installers, and installation locations.


Installation Medium

All Linux distributions offer ISO images for download on the internet. These images were originally intended to be used to burn a DVD and boot the computer with it. When installing Linux on a virtual machine, you can skip this step and simply use the ISO image as a virtual DVD drive.


Because DVD drives have become a rarity on real computers, a USB flash drive has become the accepted installation medium. All ISO images with Linux installers are compatible with this method, so they can also be used on a USB flash drive as boot media.


But to write an ISO image to a USB flash drive, you need a special program. I recommend Etcher (see figure below) for this purpose, which you can download for Windows, macOS, and of course Linux from the following website:


Etcher, Used to Transfer ISO Image to USB Flash Drive


Alternatively, some distributions offer their own programs for writing to USB flash drives. Fedora, for example, uses Fedora Media Writer. Linux professionals can also use the dd command instead of Etcher.


Network Installation

In a network installation, the installation files are read not from a USB flash drive, but from the network. There are two variants, which differ in how the installation starts:

Starting the Installation Using a USB Flash Drive

In this scenario, the installation is started from a USB flash drive. The installer helps to establish the network connection and then loads all other data from the internet or from the local network. This installation method is particularly popular with Debian using a netinst image.

Starting the Installation Through the Network

This “real” network installation requires that your computer can load the boot data from the local network. Most common motherboards are capable of this if BIOS or EFI is set up correctly. This type of installation is useful when Linux is installed on many computers, such as in a school.


To do this, there must be a server on the local network that offers the Linux installer in the form of boot data. However, setting up the installation server is not trivial. Only selected distributions support this installation method, including Red Hat and SUSE. If you want to install Debian on multiple computers automatically, visit the following page:


If you want to install Linux on a computer located in a remote data center, then different rules apply. The normal case is that the hosting or cloud company will take care of the installation for you. You just need to select the desired distribution and set a few parameters (e.g., for LVM and RAID configuration). A few minutes later, you can log in via SSH with a randomly generated password and start administrating the server. (SSH stands for Secure Shell. In simple terms, SSH is a tool for remote administration in text mode.)


Alternatively, some providers also allow you to carry out the installation manually. In this case, the installer will be launched by the hosting or cloud provider so that you can operate it in a web browser or virtual network computing (VNC) client.


Installation Program

The installation medium—regardless of whether it is read via DVD, USB flash drive, or the network—contains a complete Linux system. If the start of this system succeeds, this is already a good sign that the computer is Linux-compatible.


In the past, the installation media contained only a minimalist text-mode installer that is launched immediately, in addition to a basic Linux system. Some distributions (e.g., Arch Linux or Ubuntu Server) are still based on a text mode installation.


Installation programs that run in graphics mode and can be operated using the mouse or a trackpad are more convenient. Such installation programs are the norm today.


Some distributions (such as Fedora and Ubuntu) have switched to placing a so-called “live system” on the installation medium—that is, a complete Linux system including desktop and basic configuration and application programs. The installer is just one program among many others.


This approach has two advantages: First, you can try out Linux much more thoroughly before installing it and check whether the graphics system and the connection to the local network work satisfactorily. Second, professionals can also perform repair work on an existing installation or recover data from a damaged computer in the live system.


Installation Location

Linux is typically installed on the internal SSD or hard disk of a notebook or desktop computer. A tempting alternative at first glance is to install Linux on an external USB drive. Unfortunately, with this installation variant, there are often problems booting the Linux system afterward. For this reason, this installation method is not recommended.


The installation is especially easy on a new computer without an operating system or if you do not have to take existing data into account. Then you can simply specify in the installation program that you want to use the entire SSD for Linux.


However, usually Windows is already installed and supposed to continue to be used. In that case, you have to make room for Linux on Windows before you start the Linux installer.


To try out different distributions or to test a new version of your distribution in parallel with the existing version, you can install multiple distributions side by side on your hard disk or SSD. For this purpose, each distribution needs at least its own system partition, so the most important requirement is that there is space on your hard disk for more partitions.


Editor’s note: This post has been adapted from a section of the book Linux: The Comprehensive Guide by Michael Kofler.



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