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

By Jack M. Germain
Jul 17, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Microsoft has a very clever philosophy that it uses to keep consumers misinformed about the benefits of the Linux operating system. It's a simple message that effectively dissuades consumers from deviating from the Microsoft upgrade path to Windows 7.

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

The argument basically asserts that consumers making the Windows upgrade will continue to enjoy a familiar desktop experience. Why change to an offbeat OS that businesses shy away from?

Microsoft has used this approach numerous times in disparaging the use of Linux on netbook and desktop computers. The Redmond commentary even suggests that with Windows, all of your peripherals will work with your hardware out of the box.

I tested an advanced beta version of the Windows 7 OS scheduled for release in October. That release contains no killer Windows app to justify the cost and hassle of moving up the Microsoft chain. I found no reason to upgrade any of my computers to yet another Microsoft Windows bloated product. So I took a self-imposed challenge to see if I could survive my daily and personal computing routines in a non-Windows OS.

Strategies for Change

Sure, I could stay with Windows XP and use its security updates from Microsoft for a few more years. Buying into the Mac alternative was not an option -- I didn't need another computer. I was determined not to let that Microsoft mentality keep me from trying Linux.

So six months ago I took the plunge and wiped Windows off the hard drive of an ailing desktop PC. The Windows XP registry was terribly mangled and refused to boot to the desktop. Since that decision to put Ubuntu Linux on the misbehaving box, I have not looked back.

Sure, that decision was based on a personal comfort factor. The designated Linux conversion was exercised on an extra PC in my home office machine arsenal. I still had another desktop PC and a large-screen laptop running Windows XP, as well as a new laptop packed with Vista. If anything went wrong or stumped me, I wouldn't be without a computer.

Mostly by trial and error -- and a penchant for experimenting -- I devised strategies for migrating all of my office wares to Linux: printers, scanners, external drives, USB storage and my stockpile of audio and video gear all responded with cooperation.

Linux Trials

I discovered that what I planned for one computer worked for all my computers. My daily writing schedule did not miss a deadline. Software apps I thought I could not live without all had equivalent -- sometimes even better -- Linux replacements.

I concluded that the strategy I assembled for replacing Windows with Linux would work for single computer users as well. Certainly, a mass all-at-once migration to Linux in a typical workplace environment would be ill-conceived. However, my strategy would assist a carefully planned phase-in approach.

My experiment with Ubuntu was so successful that I added a netbook preinstalled with Ubuntu Remix version designed for small-screen netbooks. I discovered that the Linux OS under the guise of the Puppy Linux flavor could co-exist on the same computers already running Windows without even changing to a dual-boot configuration. (More on this approach later.)

A dual boot is handled by a boot-loading program such as Grub. When the computer is powered on, the user sees a screen asking whether Windows or Linux should be loaded. The hard drive is partitioned so that both operating systems coexist.

So now my workhorse desktop and my can't-work-without-it notebook almost always leave Windows dormant. My only real decision is to power up one of the Ubuntu Linux computers or one of the Puppy Linux-powered boxes.

Getting Familiar

I first started out learning about Linux by reading the informational postings on Linux-related Websites. Here is one good starting points.

The open source community maintains dozens of versions -- called "distros" or "distributions" -- of free Linux operating systems. All have some degree of free support provided by the members of that distro's unique online community. Numerous Linux-based forums provide an ongoing source of information and problem-solving help. Look here and here for tips on picking the best variety for you.

One of the most popular Linux distros, Ubuntu, is very user friendly. An excellent way to learn about Ubuntu Linux is to install two special adaptations that allow the non-Windows OS to run within the Windows environment without rebooting the computer. This allows you to play around with Ubuntu while the Windows desktop is still displayed and functional.

Digging In

Long before taking the plunge into Linux full-time, you can get acquainted with all the myriad applications available to that distribution.

One good approach is to first try Portable Ubuntu. This clever (and unaffiliated) version of Ubuntu lets you run the Ubuntu toolbar and all of the apps from a ribbon bar that sits on the Windows desktop. Portable Ubuntu has all of the functionality but does not take up the entire screen, as would a desktop display. So you can run the Linux equivalents of your favorite Microsoft Windows programs and read the existing data from your documents, spreadsheets and most databases.

A second way to gain familiarity with Linux involves using the Sun xVM VirtualBox. This creates a virtualized environment in which you can run the fully functional versions of any Linux distro, just as if you had installed it on the hard drive as a dedicated Linux computer. The VirtualBox window opens on the Microsoft Windows OS desktop, so you can run a your favorite Microsoft programs and compare them to equivalents in Windows, displaying the same data simultaneously.

Live CD Option

There's yet another strategy to experiencing a fully functional Linux session on the same computer that has the Microsoft Windows OS already installed. You can download a full version of many Linux distributions, burn the ISO file to create a bootable CD and boot up your computer into a full-screen session of Linux.

Since the OS runs from the CD, no boot-up changes have to be made to the hard drive, and no hard-drive files are touched. In essence, the hard drive does not exist, though you can access all of your data on the hard drive if you chose.

Only two minor inconveniences occur with the live CD option: One, the CD drive typically reads more slowly than the hard drive, so you do not get a true feel for the speed of the Linux distro that you'd get if it was installed on the hard drive. Two, you cannot save configuration settings and user preferences. So each time you boot from the Live CD, you have to set up your choices all over again.

Migrating to Linux, Part 2: Avoiding Separation Anxiety

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