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Migrating to Linux, Part 2: Avoiding Separation Anxiety

By Jack M. Germain
Jul 24, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Part 1 of this two-part series discusses ways to transition into Linux without leaving Windows behind all at once.

Migrating to Linux, Part 2: Avoiding Separation Anxiety

Six months ago, I began a self-imposed experiment to see if I could survive leaving Windows XP behind. After all, despite its flaws and decade-old technology, the aging Microsoft OS had served me well. However, I decided to skip Windows 7 when it comes to town in October. Vista was never worthy of my consideration, and I have too much cash and data invested in my home office inventory of five X86-vintage computers to replace them with Macs.

I finessed my way into regularly using Ubuntu Linux and Puppy Linux on all of my computers. I have not yet banished the Windows OS, but that software mostly sits idly on the various hard drives. Live CD or dual boot configurations let me gently move from the old to the new. Portable Ubuntu and virtualization within Microsoft Windows let me get familiar with the applications that came to replace my Windows favorites.

The strategies I used to nudge myself into becoming a regular Linux user are ideal for home consumers and business users alike. I learned that transitioning into Linux by not quitting Windows cold turkey is a much better approach.

I soon became enamored with Ubuntu Linux as a friendly replacement for Windows Land. Then I found Puppy Linux to offer more flexibility. Regardless of which one I use, I can interchange data created or updated in applications from any Linux distribution or Microsoft Windows version.

One of the best migration tools to ease the transition is the Web itself. So many applications, such as Web-based email, Google Apps and cloud computing did not exist a scant few years ago. Now, the OS is less important to any computing game plan.

An Ubuntu Alternative

I stumbled upon Puppy Linux while checking out my various Linux options. It was a very good find. This distro is specifically built to run in system RAM (random access memory), so it executes commands and loads program and data in a flash. Even if you boot the computer from the CD drive as a typical live CD, once loaded into RAM, Puppy Linux no longer needs to access the CD. So unlike a true Live CD boot, you can remove the Puppy Linux boot CD and do other things with the drive, such as access other CDs/DVDs or burn data and music to an optical disk.

Puppy Linux has several boot options, all of which allow you to save configuration preferences. This compact speedster allows traditional installation to the hard drive as well. It will share OS partitions through a boot loader when the computer powers on. This is where the flexibility makes an ideal replacement for Microsoft Windows.

For instance, one of my laptops does not have the boot-from-USB-drive option. So I leave a Puppy Linux boot CD in the optical drive. After powering on the laptop, I can either go Linux or open the optical drive door to direct the computer to load Microsoft Windows XP, which is resident on the hard drive. A similar practice with my desktop system lets me dual boot into Windows XP or Puppy Linux without configuring a boot loader configuration. I use the same approach on my netbook, which has Ubuntu Linux installed on the hard drive. However, the netbook handles a USB drive boot, so I can load either Linux OS by simply inserting the USB drive or not.

The real beauty of this strategy is I have the ability to load the identical operating system configuration on all of my computers. Plus, my existing Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux installations remain unfazed.

Same Differences

After getting used to the differences in Windows and Linux, I was ready to get to work. Computing tasks in either operating system are not that different. For example, opening and closing files, using file managers and accessing the Internet to upload and download files follow the same procedures. Audio and video programs generally work the same as well. All that is different is the look and sometimes the feel.

I found early in my "living in Linux" experiment that the learning curve can be reduced considerably by starting with programs in Windows that are available in Linux. For instance, the Firefox Web browser looks and handles identically in either platform. OpenOffice for Windows and Linux is about 95 percent identical to Microsoft Office. Ditto for email clients.

The more comfortable I got using these cross-over applications, the more I could quickly adapt to other Linux tools. Programs that handle basic computing tasks much like their Microsoft Windows include: Geany Text Editor, XPad Sticky Notes, Gxine Multimedia Player, Adobe Reader and xSane Image Scanner. The Seamonkey Web browser is a close cousin to Firefox. The Opera web browser is identical in either OS as well.

Dozens more work-alike applications can be used with Linux distributions. For must-have Windows programs that do not have suitable Linux brethren, I installed Wine to run actual Microsoft programs in a simulated Microsoft environment within a window on the Linux desktop.

Selective Moving Day

Armed with programs to do all of my everyday computing tasks, I rolled up my sleeves and went to work in Linux. I felt no separation anxiety from Microsoft. If I really missed my used-to-be computing pal, all I had to do was reboot the computer to load the awaiting MS operating system.

My first real test came with a new writing assignment. I designated this job as only Linux-accessible. Everything I did from research to planning and actual writing took place in now-familiar Linux apps.

It did not matter whether I used Ubuntu or Puppy Linux. The applications in both were either the same or so similar that I barely lost step in my work routine. I maintained numerous other projects in a Microsoft environment.

However, I worked completely isolated from Windows XP for this project. If I needed information from any of my regular data files, I could easily access them from my bulk USB thumb drive, on-board hard drive or external hard drive. I could do the same to access information created in the Linux OSes while I worked in the Windows platform.

Making Data Interchangeable

My interoperability needs may be a bit broader than other single-computer users. Even when using the Windows OS, I always targeted a large capacity USB drive for my primary file storage. At the end of each computing session, I would use a back-up routine to synchronize the new data with the last versions on the hard drive.

This way, all of my work and personal documents, graphics and other files were replicated on each computer, and all new work sessions loaded the files from the USB drive.

I set OpenOffice to always recognize .DOC files and always save files in .DOC format instead of .ODT. I did the same for spreadsheet files, so everything read and wrote as .XLS (for Excel format) instead of OpenOffice's resident .ODF format.

File Compatibility

Making sure that each saved file has an extension such as .TXT or .JPEG is essential for easy cross-platform file access. Windows typically uses the dot-three character file extension. Without it, the OS fails to know which program created the file.

Linux, on the other hand, does not rely on a file extension in most cases. The application senses the type of file format from within the file saving/reading process. So always manually include the .TXT or .DOC when creating new file names.

These procedures ensure that no matter which platform I use -- Microsoft Windows, Ubuntu Linux or Puppy Linux -- all my data remained synchronized and readable regardless of which Windows program or Linux application I use.

Lay of the Land

The only other familiarity needed to really maintain work speed in Linux is knowing the nomenclature. Storage media are not labeled as simply as in Windows.

The Linux OS uses a completely different scheme. For instance, depending on the Linux distribution and version, the hard drive is labeled with various letter and number sets. For example, in my Ubuntu configuration, the hard drive partitions are called "hda1" and "hda2," not "C:" and "D:."

Another difference in Linux for Windows users is how drives are accessed. The Windows plug and play feature identifies a USB drive, for example, and automatically makes it readable. In Linux, the USB drive icon appears on the desktop and is not usable until the MOUNT command is issued. There is no tray icon to click like in Windows to safely remove the plugged-in drive. Instead, the Linux user has to issue the UNMOUNT command by right clicking and selecting a menu option.

Worth It

From my perspective, cozying up to Linux with a planned but gradual transition from the Windows desktop is very effective and efficient. I was able to learn as I went. I moved at my own pace. I didn't put work tasks at jeopardy by not having access to the old-familiar Windows XP or Windows Vista.

For the total cost of exactly nothing, I easily managed upgrading all five of my home office computers. All the migration to a better operating system involved was knowing what I already learned in Microsoft Windows about using various programs and working with different types of files.

Everything worked -- printers, scanners, WiFi, etc. I got the equivalent of five new computers without actually buying a thing. My collection of legacy and newer computers performed faster than they did prior to loading Linux.

Migrating to Linux, Part 1: Sharing a Room With Windows

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