Managing your system

This chapter will give a brief overview of how to install software on Unix-like systems. Different systems operate in different ways and this can lead to confusion. This chapter aims to help you get an understanding of the basic principles as well as an overview of the most common systems giving you a solid foundation to build upon.

The file system

The file system on Unix-like systems is built up like a tree starting from, the so called, root. You can view the content of your root system by typing in ls /.

On a linux box this may look like the below.

$ ls /
bin  dev   etc  home  lib  lib64  lost+found  media  mnt  opt  proc  root
run  sbin  srv  sys   tmp  usr    var

The files that you have been working with so far have been located in your home directory, e.g. /home/olssont/.

However, the programs that you have been running are also files. Programs fundamental to the operating system is located in /bin. Other programs installed by the systems package manager tend to be located in /usr/bin.

To find out the location of a program you can use the which command. For example, let us find out the location of the ls program.

$ which ls

We can run the ls program using this absolute path, for example to view the content of the root directory again.

$ /bin/ls /
bin  dev   etc  home  lib  lib64  lost+found  media  mnt  opt  proc  root
run  sbin  srv  sys   tmp  usr    var

The PATH environment variable

If running ls is equivalent to running /bin/ls it is worth asking how the shell knows how to translate ls to /bin/ls. Or more correctly how does the shell know to look for the ls program in the /bin directory?

The answer lies in the environment variable PATH. This environment variable tells the shell the locations where to go looking for programs. We can inspect the content of the PATH environment variable using the echo command.

$ echo $PATH


Remember that in bash scripting we need to prefix variable names with a dollar sign ($) to access the value the variable is holding.

The PATH variable basically contains a list of colon (:) separated directories. When you try to run a program the shell looks in these directories, in order, and uses the first match it can find. If the program of interest is not located in any of these directories you will see a command not found error issued from your shell.

$ this-program-does-not-exist
bash: this-program-does-not-exist: command not found

The root user

Now let’s have a look at the permissions of the /usr/bin directory. In the below we use the -l flag to list the result in “long” format, i.e. to view the permissions etc, and the -d flag to state that we want to list the directory itself rather than its content.

$ ls -ld /usr/bin/
drwxr-xr-x  1056 root  wheel  35904 22 Mar 11:15 /usr/bin/

In the above the directory is owned by the root user and belongs to the wheel group. The permissions on the directory states that only root, the owner, is allowed to write to the directory.

The root user is a special user that is all powerful, sometimes referred to as a superuser or “su” for short. These special “powers” of the superuser are often needed to perform systems administration tasks, like installing software and creating/deleting users.

On some systems you become the superuser, to perform systems administration tasks, by using the switch user (su) command. This defaults to switching to the superuser.

$ su

Note that this prompts you for the root password. However, depending on who provisioned your machine you may or may not have access to the root password. Note also that when you are logged in as the superuser the prompt tends to change to a hash symbol (#). This is to warn you that things that you do can have dire consequences.

A more modern approach to running commands with root privileges is to prefix the command of interest with sudo. This allows you to run a command as another user, the root user by default.

The details of who can run commands using sudo are stored in the /etc/sudoers file.

$ ls -l /etc/sudoers
-r--r-----  1 root  wheel  1275 10 Sep  2014 /etc/sudoers

Note that you need root privileges to be able to read this file. We can therefore illustrate the use of the sudo command by trying to read the file using the less pager.

$ sudo less /etc/sudoers

The only problem with the command above is that you won’t be able to run it unless you are on the sudoer’s list in the first place.

A consequence of the fact that only the root user can write files to the /bin and /usr/bin directories is that you need to have root privileges to install software (write files) to these default locations.

Using package managers

All modern Linux distribution come with a so called package manager, which should be your first port of call when trying to install software. Package managers make it easier to install software for two main reasons they resolve dependencies and they (usually) provide pre-compiled versions of software that are known to play nicely with the other software available through the package manager.

There are countless numbers of Linux distributions. However, most main stream distributions are derived from either Debian or RedHat. Debian based Linux distributions include amongst others Debian itself, Ubuntu, and Linux Mint. RedHat based distributions include RedHat, CentOS and Fedora.

Although Mac OSX comes with the AppStore this is not the place to look for scientific software. Instead two other options based on the idea of the Linux package managers have evolved the first one is Mac Ports and the second one is Homebrew. I would recommend using the latter as it has thriving scientific user community.

Installing software on Debian based systems

Debian-based systems come with a huge range of pre-package software available for installation using the Advance Package Tool (APT). To search for a piece of software package you would typically start off by updating the list of packages available for download using the apt-get update command.

$ sudo apt-get update

One can then search for the specific software of interest, for example the multiple sequence alignment tools T-Coffee, using the apt-cache search command.

$ sudo apt-cache search t-coffee
t-coffee - Multiple Sequence Alignment
t-coffee-examples - annotated examples for the use of T-Coffee

To install the software package one uses the apt-get install command.

$ sudo apt-get install t-coffee

To uninstall a package one can use the apt-get remove command.

$ sudo apt-get remove t-coffee

The command above leaves package configuration files intact in case you would want to re-use them in the future. To completely remove a package from the system one would use the apt-get purge command.

$ sudo apt-get purge t-coffee

Installing software on RedHat based systems

RedHat and its free clone CentOS come, with fewer software packages than Debian. The T-Coffee software, is for example not available. However, on the other hand RedHat is a super solid Linux distribution created by Red Hat Inc, the first billion dollar open source company.

RedHat based systems use the YUM package manager. To search for software one can use the yum search command. For example one could use the command below to search for the Git version control package.

$ yum search git

To install a package using YUM one uses the yum install command.

$ sudo yum install git

To uninstall a package one can use the yum remove command.

$ sudo yum remove git

RedHat based system also provide groups of software. One group that you will want to install is the “Development Tools” group. This includes the Gnu C Compiler (gcc) and the “make” tools that are often required to install other software from source code.

$ sudo yum groupinstall "Development Tools"

There are far fewer packages available for Redhat based distributions compared to Debian based distributions. To make available more software packages for the former it is worth adding the Extra Packages for Enterprise Linux (EPEL) repository. This can be achieved by running the command below.

$ sudo yum install epel-release


YUM has also got an “update” command. However, unlike APT where apt-get update updates the list of available software packages YUM’s yum update will update all the installed software packages to the latest version.

Installing software on Mac OSX

This section will illustrate how to install software using the Homebrew package manager.

First of all we need to install Homebrew itself. This can be achieved using the command below, taken from the Homebrew home page.

$ /usr/bin/ruby -e "$(curl \

Homebrew refers to packages as “formulae”. That is because each package/formulae is a ruby script describing how to install/brew a particular piece of software.

Homebrew, just like APT, contains a local list of formulae that can be syncronised with the online sources using the brew update command.

$ brew update

To search for a formulae one can use the brew search command. Let us for example search for the Git version control package.

$ brew search git

To install a formulae using Homebrew one uses the brew install command.

$ brew install git

To uninstall a formulae one uses the brew uninstall command.

$ brew uninstall git

One of the things that you will want to do is to add another “tap” to Homebrew. Namely, the science tap. In Homebrew a “tap” is an additional resource of formulae.

$ brew tap homebrew/science

We can now search for scientific software such as T-Coffee.

$ brew search t-coffee

And install it.

$ brew install t-coffee

Compiling software from source

Many scientific software packages are only available as source code. This may mean that you need to compile the software yourself in order to run it.

There are lots of different ways of compiling software from source. In all likelihood you will need to read and follow instructions provided with the software sources. The instructions are typically included in README or INSTALL text files.

The most common scenario is that you need to run three commands in the top level directory of the downloaded software.

The first command is to run a script named configure provided with the software.

$ ./configure

The configure script makes sure that all the dependencies are present on your system. For example if the software was written in C one of the tasks of the configure script would be to check that it could find a C compiler on your system.

Another task that is commonly performed by the configure script is to create a Makefile. We already encountered the Makefile in Automation is your friend. It is essentially a file describing how to build the software.

Building the software, using the instructions in the Makefile, is also the next step of the process. This is typically achieved by running the make command.

$ make

The make command typically creates a number of executable files, often in a subdirectory named build.

The final step is to install the software. This is achieved by copying the built executable files into a relevant directory present in your PATH. Since these directories are typically owned by root the final step typically requires superuser privileges.

$ sudo make install

Installing Python packages

Python is a high-level scripting language that is relatively easy to read and get to grips with. We have already made use of Python in the previous chapters.

It is possible to create re-usable software packages in Python. In fact there are many such Python packages aimed at the scientific community. Examples include numpy and scipy for numerical computing, sympy for symbolic mathematics, matplotlib for figure generation, pandas for data structures and analysis and scikit-learn for machine learning. There is also a package aimed directly at the biological community, namely biopython.

Most packages are hosted on PyPI and can be installed using pip. The pip command comes prepackaged with Python since versions 2.7.9 and 3.4. If you have an older version of Python you may need to install pip manually, see the pip installation notes for more details.

Another really useful package is virtualenv. I suggest installing it straight away.

$ sudo pip install virtualenv

Virtualenv is a tool that allows you to create virtual Python environments.

Let’s use virtualenv to create a virtual environment.

$ virtualenv env

Note that env is a directory containing all the required pieces for a working Python system. To make use of our virtual environment we need to activate it by sourcing the env/bin/activate script.

$ source ./env/bin/activate

This script basically mangles your PATH environment variable to ensure that virtualenv’s Python is found first. We can find out which version of Python and pip is will be used by using the which command.

(env)$ which python
(env)$ which pip


The ./env/bin/activate script also changed the look of our prompt prefixing it with the name of the virtual environment.

Now let us install numpy into our virtual environment.

(env)$ pip install numpy

To list installed packages you can use the pip list command.

(env)$ pip list
numpy (1.9.2)
pip (6.0.8)
setuptools (12.0.5)

When working on a Python project it can be useful to record the exact versions of the installed packages to make it easy to reproduce the setup at a later date. This is achieved using the pip freeze command.

(env)$ pip freeze

Let us save this information into a file named requirements.txt.

(env)$ pip freeze > requirements.txt

To show why this is useful let us deactivate the virtual environment.

(env)$ deactivate
$ which python


The deactivate command is created when you run the ./env/bin/activate script.

Now let us create a new clean virtual environment, activate it and list its packages.

$ virtualenv env2
$ source ./env2/bin/activate
(env2)$ pip list
pip (6.0.8)
setuptools (12.0.5)

Now we can replicate the exact same setup found in our initial virtual environment, by running pip install -r requirements.text.

(env2)$ pip install -r requirements.txt
(env)$ pip list
numpy (1.9.2)
pip (6.0.8)
setuptools (12.0.5)

This feature allows you make your data analysis more reproducible!

Installing R packages

R is a scripting language with a strong focus on statistics and data visualisation.

There are many packages available for R. These are hosted on CRAN (The Comprehensive R Archive Network).

To install an R package, for example ggplot2, we need to start an R session.

$ R

R version 3.2.2 (2015-08-14) -- "Fire Safety"
Copyright (C) 2015 The R Foundation for Statistical Computing
Platform: x86_64-apple-darwin14.5.0 (64-bit)

R is free software and comes with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY.
You are welcome to redistribute it under certain conditions.
Type 'license()' or 'licence()' for distribution details.

  Natural language support but running in an English locale

R is a collaborative project with many contributors.
Type 'contributors()' for more information and
'citation()' on how to cite R or R packages in publications.

Type 'demo()' for some demos, 'help()' for on-line help, or
'help.start()' for an HTML browser interface to help.
Type 'q()' to quit R.


Then one can use the built-in install.packages function. For exampel to install the ggplot2 package one would use the command below.

> install.packages("ggplot2")

This will prompt you for the selection of a mirror to download the package from. Pick one close to you.

That’s it, the ggplot2 package is now available for you to use. However, you need to load it using the library function to use it.

> library(ggplot2)

Installing Perl modules

Perl is a scripting language popular in the bioinformatics community. You may therefore have to work with it.

There are a vast number of Perl modules available. These are hosted on CPAN (Comprehensive Perl Archive Network).

Traditionally, CPAN hosted packages are installed using the cpan command. However, this can be quite cumbersome as it asks the user a lot of questions with regards to how things should be configured. This resulted in people developing a simpler tool to install Perl modules: cpanm (CPAN Minus). You may be able to install cpanm using your distributions package manager, if not you can install it using cpan.

$ cpan App::cpanminus

When you run the command above you will notice that cpan prompts you for a lot of information, accepting the defaults is fine. When it prompts you to select an approach:

What approach do you want?  (Choose 'local::lib', 'sudo' or 'manual')

choose sudo. This will install cpanm into a location that is immediately available in your PATH.

Now that you have installed cpanm you can use it to install Perl modules more easily. For example to install the Bio::Tools::GFF module you can simply use the command below.

$ cpanm Bio::Tools::GFF

Installing Latex packages

TeX is a collection of programs and packages that allow you to typeset documents. LaTeX is a number of macros built on top of TeX. In Collaborating on projects we used Latex for producing a PDF version of the document.

Confusingly there are many different distributions of TeX, for example the dominant distribution of TeX on Windows’ is MiKTeX. On Unix based systems the most commonly used TeX distribution is TeX Live. And on Mac OSX it is MacTeX.

In terms of package management Tex Live has got three different concepts: packages, collections and schemes. A collection is a set of packages and a scheme is a group of collections and packages. Scheme’s can only be selected during the initial install of TeX Live, whereas packages can be installed at any point.

One option is to use the scheme-full, which includes everything meaning that you are unlikely to need to install anything else. However, this can take a long time and take up quite a lot of space on your system.

Another option is to start with a smaller scheme, for example scheme-basic, scheme-minimal and scheme-small. Other packages and collections can then be installed as required.

Once you have install TeX Live you can manage it using the TeX Live Package Manager (tlmgr).

To search for a package you can use the tlmgr search command.

$ tlmgr search fontsrecommended
collection-fontsrecommended - Recommended fonts

To install a package/collection.

$ sudo tlmgr install collection-fontsrecommended

Automated provisioning

As this chapter highlights managing software installations can be onerous and tedious. What makes matters worse is that after you have installed a piece of software it can be very easy to forget how one did it. So when you get a new computer you may find yourself spending quite sometime configuring it so that all your analysis pipelines work as expected.

Spending time configuring your system may be acceptable if you are the only person depending on it. However, if other people depend on the machine it is not. For example, you may end up responsible for a scientific web-service. In these instances you should look into automating the configuration of your system.

Describing how to do this is beyond the scope of this book. However, if you are interested I highly recommend using Ansible. To get an idea of how Ansible works I suggest having a look at some of the blog posts on my website, for example How to create automated and reproducible work flows for installing scientific software.

Key concepts

  • The file system is structured like a tree staring from the root /
  • Programs are commonly located in /bin, /usr/bin, /usr/local/bin
  • The PATH environment variable defines where your shell looks for programs
  • You need superuser privileges to write to many of default program locations
  • The sudo command allows you to run another command with superuser privileges if you are in the sudoers list
  • Package managers allow you to easily search for and install software packages
  • Some software such as Python, R and Perl have their own built-in package managers
  • It can be easy to forget how you how you configured your machine, do make notes
  • Once you start finding it tedious making notes you should start thinking about automating the configuration of your system using a tool such as Ansible