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

Microsoft has a very clever philosophy that it uses to keep consumersmisinformed about the benefits of the Linux operating system. It’s asimple message that effectively dissuades consumers from deviatingfrom the Microsoft upgrade path to Windows 7.

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

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

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

Strategies for Change

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

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

Sure, that decision was based on a personal comfort factor. Thedesignated Linux conversion was exercised on an extra PC in my homeoffice machine arsenal. I still had another desktop PC and alarge-screen laptop running Windows XP, as well as a new laptop packed withVista. 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 devisedstrategies for migrating all of my office wares to Linux: printers,scanners, external drives, USB storage and my stockpile of audio andvideo gear all responded with cooperation.

Linux Trials

I discovered that what I planned for one computer worked for all mycomputers. My daily writing schedule did not miss a deadline. Softwareapps 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 withLinux would work for single computer users as well. Certainly, a massall-at-once migration to Linux in a typical workplace environmentwould be ill-conceived. However, my strategy would assist a carefullyplanned phase-in approach.

My experiment with Ubuntu was so successful that I added a netbookpreinstalled with Ubuntu Remix version designed for small-screennetbooks. I discovered that the Linux OS under the guise ofthe Puppy Linux flavor could co-exist on the same computers alreadyrunning 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. Whenthe computer is powered on, the user sees a screen asking whetherWindows or Linux should be loaded. The hard drive is partitioned sothat both operating systems coexist.

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

Getting Familiar

I first started out learning about Linux by reading the informationalpostings 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 havesome degree of free support provided by the members of that distro’sunique online community. Numerous Linux-based forums provide anongoing 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, isvery user friendly. An excellent way to learn about Ubuntu Linux is toinstall two special adaptations that allow the non-Windows OS to runwithin the Windows environment without rebooting the computer. Thisallows you to play around with Ubuntu while the Windows desktop isstill displayed and functional.

Digging In

Long before taking the plunge into Linux full-time, you can getacquainted with all the myriad applications available to thatdistribution.

One good approach is to first try Portable Ubuntu. This clever(and unaffiliated) version of Ubuntu lets you run the Ubuntu toolbarand all of the apps from a ribbon bar that sits on the Windowsdesktop. Portable Ubuntu has all of the functionality but does nottake up the entire screen, as would a desktop display. So you can run theLinux equivalents of your favorite Microsoft Windows programs and readthe existing data from your documents, spreadsheets and mostdatabases.

A second way to gain familiarity with Linux involves using theSun xVM VirtualBox. This creates a virtualizedenvironment in which you can run the fully functional versions of anyLinux distro, just as if you had installed it on the hard drive as adedicated Linux computer. The VirtualBox window opens on the MicrosoftWindows OS desktop, so you can run a your favorite Microsoft programsand compare them to equivalents in Windows, displaying the same datasimultaneously.

Live CD Option

There’s yet another strategy to experiencing a fully functional Linux session onthe same computer that has the Microsoft Windows OS already installed.You can download a full version of many Linux distributions, burn theISO file to create a bootable CDand 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 tothe 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 onthe hard drive if you chose.

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

Migrating to Linux, Part 2: Avoiding Separation Anxiety


  • So far, good article. I’m waiting to see your take on virtualization. Having Linux and Windows on the SAME desktop without rebooting is as sweet as it gets, no matter your preference for one or the other. 😉

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