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I have access to (but not root on) a compute server which is running a Linux distribution that is a few years old. I'd much prefer to use a current Debian-like flavor.

Thus, I'm wondering if it is possible to install Ubuntu (or stock Debian) in one of my directories, and use the Ubuntu programs and libraries in preference to what comes with the server.

I would need to access arbitrary parts of the server's filesystem, not just the parts under the Ubuntu install.

I log in by SSH, so there's no desktop environment needed. But, I would like to be able to use X programs.

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Without root access, I doubt it. You can chroot on a broken Linux installation (for example a non-working grub) to try to repair it, but you won't have access to anything "physical" without a mount --bind to host's /proc, /dev and /sys directories. And these kinds of mount require root access.

A virtual machine should be your option if you are not root.

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OK, but what if I don't wish to chroot? Can I install the stuff and then adjust my $PATH and other environment variables to prefer it to the system stuff? – Reid Sep 14 '12 at 20:11

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