While R and Python can be used with any operating system (OS), data pre-processing and bioinformatic analyses are most efficiently done in the Linux environment due to availability of software tools and offerings by high performance computing centers. Therefore, familiarity with the Linux environment is critical for research projects in our lab.


There are a myriad of other Linux variants (i.e. distributions). They fall into three main families:

  1. Red Hat, CentOS, Fedora
  2. Debian, Ubuntu, MX Linux, Mint, …
  3. Arch Linux, EndeavourOS, Manjaro, Garuda, …

Most computing servers run a variants of Linux known as CentOS Linux (versions 7 or 8), which is the community version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The latter is often used in risk-adverse enterprise environments. Starting in 2021, CentOS Linux is being replaced with CentOS Stream, which removes minor versioning. Research organizations such as CERN has adopted CentOS Stream.

Ubuntu and its derivative distributions likely have the best hardware driver support for laptops.

Arch Linux is a lightweight distributions that embraces a rolling-release model, under which packages cannot be upgraded individually. Rather, software packages are continuously released and the distribution mirrors only keep the latest releases. This simplifies package management and dependency. I personally prefer this distribution, but it may not be the best choice for beginners.

There is another Linux distribution that provides reproducible compilation of different versions of software tools: NixOS. Its package manager, Nix, can also be run on other Linux distributions.


MacOS is based on BSD Unix. While it has some similiarties to Linux, it has many important differences. For example, Linux coreutils provide basic command line tools such as find and grep that are very different from the tools provided by MacOS. Bash scripts written for Linux may not work on MacOS.

With Apple’s switch from x86 to arm64 CPUs in their latest Macbooks, users will experience installation or runtime issues with software tools that do not support arm64, including many R Bioconductor packages.

Given these limitations, MacOS is not an ideal substitute for Linux in bioinformatic research projects.

Set up

Beginner Linux users who are interested in scientific research should setup a Fedora virtual machine on their computers using Virtual Box. This would allow users to learn software tools and develop code on their Fedora virtual machine and transition as seamlessly as possible to server environments based on CentOS.

Power Linux users who would like to become more productive in Linux can consider setting up dual-boot computers or dedicated computers running Fedora, Arch Linux, or NixOS.

Development workflows

Local to remote development

  1. Write code on your local computer using
    • Visual Studio Code
    • R Studio
    • JupyterLab
    • vim
  2. Log on to remote comptuer using ssh.

  3. Use git to synchronize your code between the local and remote computers. Use rsync to synchronize data, especially binary files.

  4. Run code on the remote computer.

Remote development with browser

  1. Set up ssh tunnel between the remote computer and your local computer.

  2. Write code on the remote computer using a local web browser with
  3. Run code on the remote computer as you develop.

Remote development with command line

  1. Log on to remote computer using ssh.

  2. Start a tmux session.

  3. Use vim with the Nvim-R plugin for R, or vim-slime plugin for everything else.