4 Easy Ways to Practice Your Linux Skills


A few times now, a student taking Learning Tree’s Linux server administration course has told me that their Linux experience is rather limited. Specifically, that they took the introductory user course about a year ago and they “haven’t done much since.”

Me: “Uh-oh. So, how much have you used the command line since that course?”

Student: “Well, none at all, really.”

Me: “Ah. Well, let’s see how the first exercise goes.”

As you might imagine, it doesn’t go well. The good news is that most people in this situation have realized that they need another pass through the introductory course. And, this time it needs to be followed by hands-on practice.

How can you get the needed hands-on time on the command line?

1. Live Images

This is the best choice for most people. It’s easy to set up. It’s free as long as you have a spare USB stick, and just a few dollars if you have to buy one. And, maybe most importantly, it lends itself to short sessions as you can start and end quickly each time.

First, download an ISO image. I suggest using the Linux Mint distribution. Mint is super-friendly, and so it has become the most popular Linux desktop distribution. For user skills, you just need a command line. The Bash shell is the same everywhere. There’s no benefit to a distribution exactly like your servers at work.

Modern motherboards can boot from USB devices. So, transfer the ISO image onto the USB stick. See this Ubuntu page for directions on making a bootable USB device on Windows.

Now, boot your Windows PC from that. Don’t worry, it won’t touch the hard drive unless you go out of your way to do so.

Be Careful

If you are using 802.1x (that is, Network Access Control) or another form of Rogue System Detection, rebooting your work desktop from USB media might set off alarms.

If so, unplug the Ethernet cable during your Linux command-line practice.

Ready to go? Good! Have fun learning!

But Aren’t There Alternatives?

Sure, I concentrated on live bootable media here because it’s the easiest to set up and use. Here are some alternatives to consider:

2. VMware

Maybe you have VMware on your Windows desktop. Either VMware Workstation, which has been widely used in corporate and government settings, or the free VMware Player. If you don’t have VMware installed, then the rather involved first step is to download and install VMware Player.

Now you can define a new VM (or Virtual Machine) and install Linux into it. Follow the rules of thumb: keep at least half of the CPU cores and RAM for the host operating system.

The good news here is that Linux doesn’t need much. 1 CPU and 1 GB of RAM should be plenty, 2 GB if you have plenty of RAM. And, just 5 GB of disk space should be enough.

I again recommend Mint. A commercial distribution like Red Hat Enterprise Linux insists on having plenty of resources. This is to make sure no one blames the expensive supported distribution for poor performance caused by miserly deployment.

3. Low-End Hardware

Maybe you have an unused computer. Just don’t frustrate yourself by trying to use something that belongs at the antique shop!

The Raspberry Pi is just slightly larger than an Altoids tin. $50-60 buys everything needed for a standalone system except a display, and you can use a TV.

4. To The Cloud

Amazon’s EC2 (or Elastic Compute Cloud) lets you run a Linux system for pennies (or less!) per hour. However, you will have to set up an AWS account, learn how to deploy instances, and install and set up PuTTY on your Windows

That a lot of setup work and distractions. It’s easy to largely overlook the Linux practice that was the entire point!

Plan Ahead!

I hope you’re reading this before taking Learning Tree’s introductory Linux user course! If so, you can take advantage of the “Sandbox” feature. That provides a system just like what you use in the course, running out in the cloud. You can access it through Chrome, and it is very much like sitting right at the graphical console. You can use the Sandbox for up to 90 days after the end of your course.

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