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I was confronted with a situation where I needed a particular application which is either too old or too new (still alpha) or install from a potentially risky ppa.

Is there a way to install an application in a sort of sandbox where it wouldn't be allowed to modify my system?

I know I could have a virtual machine with another Ubuntu install but I would like to avoid this if possible.

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I think you can try with "Arkose"

Install via the software center

Also has a gui-tool "Arkose-gui"

Install via the software center

According to the description:

Arkose is currently made of:
 - arkose: Command line utility with C helper
 - arkose-gui: GUI for integration in the gnome desktop (Similar to the Run dialog)
 - arkose-nautilus: Nautilus integration
 - arkose-wrapper: Wrapper for regular apps to have them start in a container

It basically lets you start any installed binary in a configurable container. You can choose how much disk space you want to give it, if it should have network access and if it should be able to access your /home.

Here you have more information about the tool and the author and his blog Stéphane Graber.

Hope this will helpful.

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up vote 0 down vote accepted

One possible solution to use a chroot environment.

Uses of chroots
The following are some possible uses of chroots:

 1. Isolating insecure and unstable applications
 2. Running 32-bit applications on 64-bit systems
 3. Testing new packages before installing them on the production system
 4. Running older versions of applications on more modern versions of
 5. Building new packages, allowing careful control over the dependency
    packages which are installed

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