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I'm an undergrad in the astrophysics department and I have access to the Red Hat Linux computers, but only from an undergrad account

I tried installing matplotlib once, but it was a massive pain (and I had to do it with substantial assistance)

I know that I can't install anything that absolutely has to change files that are below my user directory.

But what portion of programs can I then not be able to install?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

In a nutshell and assuming sufficient disk quota, none.

Most (note the qualifier) software nowadays uses the automake tools to help set themselves up at compile time; if whatever software you're trying to install does this, you can just tell it configure --prefix=~ and it will install all its software, configuration files and libraries under your home directory where you have write access.

Note that this will rapidly create a thorough mess and it's generally recommended you ask the actual sysadmin to install the software you need after you explain to them why you need it -- matplotlib certainly sounds like something astrophysics students could use.

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It depends, what you understand by installing. If you change the prefix at configure time, you will be able to "install" most of the software you can find. Note two things, though:

  1. Installing in that case will result in having all the files in a directory structure under the predefined prefix, as opposed to the main filesystem. This means, you will need to run that programs differently. You might need to do things like modifying the PATH and LD_LIBRARY_PATH environment variables, otherwise the programs can fail to locate all their needed software components and libraries.

  2. You will not be able to use programs that require superuser (root) privileges. This can mean not only administrative programs, but also many other that make use of some more sophisticated system elements/mechanisms, such as resource locking or advanced web interface usage.

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