Portable Ubuntu, Windows Live Together in Perfect Harmony

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 provides both of these computing options, no setuphassles or programming skills required. You do not even have to rebootthe computer or set up a dual boot environment — and no, you do notneed to install any virtual machine software to make it work.

Argentinean programmer Claudio Cesar Sanchez Tejeda released PortableUbuntu in mid-April. He built upon the concept of an existing projectknown as “Cooperative Linux.” The tweaking headded created a version of the Hardy Heron Ubuntu 8.04 Linux distrothat loads from the Windows desktop. Both Windows programs and Linuxapps can run seamlessly on the same Windows desktop.

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

Better Than Live CD

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

Not so with Portable Ubuntu. The Linux environment loads withinWindows and runs as an isolated process. All configuration changes aresaved to a file in an encrypted folder on the computer’s hard drive orUSB drive. No speed issues exist because hard drives and USB drivesprovide faster read access.

With a live CD session, all features of Ubuntu are the same exceptprogram updates, and configuration changes are not permanent. So youhave to reset them each time you start another live session. Ofcourse, some of the peppiness of Linux is lost to the slower processof reading from the CD.

Looks Like Windows, Walks Like Ubuntu

The only difference in the appearance of Portable Ubuntu from thededicated Ubuntu OS is that the desktop in the Windows environmentdoes not change. Instead of seeing the tell-tale orange Ubuntubackground, the Microsoft Windows background remains visible. Only aseries of Ubuntu windows open as Ubuntu apps are accessed from astandard Ubuntu menu bar that docks on the Microsoft Windows desktop.

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

For example, I run several display enhancement programs on my WindowsXP system to add Vista-like functionality. Some of these add-onfeatures in XP show as additional symbols at the top of the title baron opened windows. They are still present in a Portable Ubuntu windoweven 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 differentoperating systems conveniently without having to reboot from oneOS into another on the same computer. Plus, I often run two systemsside by side. So I maintain a separate Windows laptop and Windowsdesktop. I also run Ubuntu on a dedicated desktop box and have anetbook that runs the Ubuntu Remix distro.

I also am not very fond of running a virtual machine environment toaccomplish the same side-by-side OS delivery. Portable Ubuntu bridgesboth of these options to give me Linux access on demand withoutleaving my running Windows programs and data.

Various Linux-on-a-USB drive concoctions usually present some of thesame inconveniences as dual booting. Portable Ubuntu solves thatdilemma for me as well.

Easy Installation

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

Clicking on the “Run Portable Ubuntu” file (create a desktop icon foreasy access) starts the Ubuntu session. All running programs inWindows remain unaffected.

A green arrow appears in the system tray on the Windows desktop whenthe process starts. Clicking it will open a terminal window to allowyou to monitor the startup process. Click the arrow again to close theterminal window without hampering the OS startup within MicrosoftWindows.

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

Light on Resources

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

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

I was particularly impressed with Portable Ubuntu’s ability to runwithout interfering with system performance. I run Dexpot virtualwindows on my Microsoft boxes. This gives me the ability to runseparate desktops so many open programs do not result in desktopclutter.

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 thisregard, running Portable Ubuntu is much like my experiences with usingPuppy Linux, which boots from a USB drive and runs in available systemRAM.

Portable Ubuntu has a leg up over Puppy Linux — it runs withoutrequiring a reboot.

Twisted Roots

Portable Ubuntu and the CoLinux projects are two separatedistributions. Portable Ubuntu is not associated with the Ubuntu Linuxdistro headed by Canonical, according to Tejeda. In fact, the Ubuntucommunity was not aware of Portable Ubuntu until its release.

“Portable Ubuntu was developed independently without directinvolvement from the Ubuntu project. I only became aware of PortableUbuntu recently and don’t know much about it beyond what is publishedon 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 onthe Xming windowing system.

“I use the Colinux kernel inside Portable Ubuntu. The Colinux kernelis a Linux kernel that could run on Windows, so I included this kernelin Ubuntu and modified some files so that Ubuntu can be executed withColinux and can use Xming, (an X server for Windows),” Tejeda toldLinuxInsider.

Secure Environment

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

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

The same structure that isolates a virtual machine prevents Windowsfrom getting into the Portal Ubuntu envelope. Portable Ubuntu communicateswith Xming, which has multiwindow functionality. This functionalityenables Portable Ubuntu applications to integrate on the Windowsdesktop via the window system of the Microsoft OS.

“You can’t access your Portable Ubuntu file system from Windows whenit is running. The only way is configuring Samba in Portable Ubuntu,but Samba has security settings so you can limit the access toPortable Ubuntu,” said Tejeda.

Accessing Data

Portable Ubuntu comes with AbiWord as its default word processor andFireFox as the Web browser. OpenOffice, by contrast, is the default word processor/office suite withCanonical’s Ubuntu distro. Of course, OpenOffice and any otherDebian-based Ubuntu app can be installed using the same Add/Removeservice utilized by Ubuntu.

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

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

Configure the storage device using either its drive letter in Windowsor its device name in Linux. For instance, the CD Rom drive can belisted 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=DevicesCdrom0

    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, itwill also run within Windows 7. Tejeda plans to updatePortable Ubuntu on the same six-month development cycle used by theCanonical community.

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

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


  • Hi,

    The idea is really terrific and on my windows-xp portable ubuntu runs without too many apparent problems. However, I can only access C drive (default mount). I have other partitions on my 160 GB disk, both FAT32 and NTFS and I just can’t get them. PU is loaded on C: drive.

    WinXP is loaded on D:.

    Firstly I can’t get the correct way to do it or maybe there is no way?

    even the command sudo ls – l shows nothing.

    Otherwise for trial it seems to be a good way to have a look.

  • Like all systems based on coLinux, it doesn’t work on 64 bit windows host OSes. You should make this more obvious for those who want to try it out – there is no point wasting 400 meg of download and 30 minutes of trying to install it when a simple "only works on 32 bits" on the webpage saves everyone the frustration.

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