The constant focus on using Linux on the web on devices like the Arduino, Beagle, and Raspberry Pi and many more, you might think it’s time to try Linux for you too. This series will help you successfully migrate to Linux. If you missed the previous articles in the series, you can find them here:
Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – Disks, Files, and File Systems
Part 3 – Graphical environment
Part 4 – Command Line
Part 5 – Using sudo
Installing the software
To install new software on your computer, the typical approach was to obtain the software product from the vendor and then run the installer. In the past, a software product was installed on physical media using devices such as CD-ROMs or DVDs. Now we often download software from the Internet.
With Linux, the software is installed more like on your smartphone. Just like your phone’s app store, Linux has a central repository for open source software and software. Almost any program you might want to install will be on the list of available packages that you can install.
There is no separate installer for each program. Instead, you use the package management tools that come with your Linux distribution. (Remember a Linux distribution is the Linux you install, like Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, etc.). Each distribution has its own centralized place on the Internet (called a repository) where it stores thousands of ready-to-install applications.
You may notice that there are a few exceptions to how the software is installed on Linux. Sometimes, you will still have to contact the vendor to get your software as the program does not exist in your distribution’s central repository. This usually happens when the software is not open source and / or free.
Also keep in mind that if you want to install a program that is not in the repositories of your distribution, things are not so easy, even if you install free open source software. This post does not fall into these more complex scenarios and it is best to follow the online instructions.
With all the Linux packaging systems and tools out there, it can be confusing to know what’s going on. This article should help clarify a few things.
Several packaging systems for managing, installing, and removing software compete for use in Linux distributions. The people behind each distribution choose the package management system to use. Red Hat, Fedora, CentOS, Scientific Linux, SUSE, and others use the Red Hat Package Manager (RPM). Debian, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and others use the Debian Package System, or DPKG for short. Other package systems exist, while RPM and DPKG are the most common.
Regardless of which package manager you use, they usually come with a set of tools that overlap (Figure 1). At the lowest level, a command line tool is used that allows you to do anything and everything related to the installed software. You can specify installed programs, uninstall programs, install package files, and more.
This low-level tool is not always easy to use, so there is usually a command line tool that will find the package in the central repositories of the distribution and download and install it along with any dependencies using a single command. Finally, there is usually a graphical application that allows you to select what you want with your mouse and press the “install” button.
For Red Hat based distributions including Fedora, CentOS, Scientific Linux, etc., the low level tool is rpm. The high-level tool is called dnf (or yum on older systems). And the graphical installer is called PackageKit (Figure 2) and may appear as Add / Remove Software in the System Administration section.
For Debian distributions including Debian, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Elementary OS, etc., the low-level command line tool is dpkg. The high-level tool is called apt. The graphical tool for managing installed software on Ubuntu is Ubuntu Software (Figure 3). For Debian and Linux Mint, the graphical tool is called Synaptic, which can also be installed on Ubuntu.
You can also install a text-based graphical tool for Debian-related ones called aptitude. It is more powerful than Synaptic and works even if you have command line access. You can try it if you want to access all the bells and whistles, although with more options it is harder to use than Synaptic. Other distributions may have their own unique tools.
Online instructions for installing software on Linux usually describe commands for entering the command line. Instructions are generally easier to understand and can be followed without error by copying and pasting the command into the command prompt window. This contradicts the following instructions like “open this menu, select this program, enter this search template, click this tab, select this program and click this button”, which are often lost in translation.
Sometimes the Linux installation you are using does not have a graphical environment, so it is good to know how to install software packages from the command line. Tables 1 and 2 list several common operations and associated commands for RPM and DPKG based systems.
Note that Open SUSE, which uses RPMs like Redhat and Fedora, does not have dnf or yum. Instead, they use the zypper program for a high-level command line tool. Other distributions may have other tools such as pacman on Arch Linux or emerge on Gentoo. There are many package tools out there, so you may need to find one that works with your distribution.
These tips should give you clarity on how to install programs on your new Linux installation and better understand how the various package methods in your Linux installation relate to each other.
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