Saturday, October 31, 2009

Dual-Booting Linux And Windows: Easier Said than Done

”Dual-booting with Windows and desktop Linux is a snap to do.”

This statement is at best a half-truth as it really depends on the skill set of the person trying to install Linux along side Windows.

Despite this, I hear people stating this as a fact nearly everyday. Drives me bananas.

When it comes to running multiple operating systems on a computer, I think that most distro providers do little to deter their users from making what can be serious partitioning mistakes.

Figuring that it must be the end user's sole responsibility to "get it right," people are often seen in the various users forums complaining how Linux deleted their Windows install. Clearly there has to be a more consistent way of addressing this.

One near foolproof approach is to run with a dedicated Linux PC. Not a practical solution for everyone, but a solid option nonetheless.

The second approach might be to make a disk image of your Windows installation. This way if the dual-booting setup goes wrong and repairing the MBR doesn't help due to the partitioning being done improperly, the end user is not totally out of luck trying to recover their Windows files.

Even with backups, the end user often finds themselves in a position where they do not understand how to avoid partitioning and MBR issues in the first place.

In this article, I’ll addressing this and hopefully provide the typical end user with some duplicable solutions.

Thinking Ubuntu? Think Wubi
For individuals already thinking of taking Ubuntu for a spin, I've found myself pointing to Wubi – a Ubuntu installer for Windows users – with increasing frequency. The reasons are fairly obvious.

Like a Live CD, no changes are made to your partitioning scheme. This means no data loss. Second, you will find that you’re able to use your existing MBR provided by Windows, rather than overwriting anything.

And lastly, all of the Ubuntu files are installed into a folder on your Windows installation. This means not only are you able to remove Wubi from Add/Remove programs in Windows, installation is also done as a simple EXE file.

For existing Windows users looking to move beyond a LiveCD, Wubi provides a very solid option.


Acronis Disk Director Suite
Not normally being a huge fan of Windows software, I do have a different view of Acronis Disk Director Suite.

For those individuals that simply must dual-boot Windows and Linux, this is my recommended approach.

Even though it is not deemed as necessary since it is possible to dual-boot without it, inexperienced users will find this is vastly safer to use than rolling the dice and hoping you remember which partition is which when installing that second OS.

The features that I like the best about Acronis Disk Director include Partition Recovery and the Boot Manager.

As many Vista users have discovered, Windows Vista does not always play well with Ubuntu installed afterward.

Not the fault of the latter installation, rather Vista refusing to cooperate. Acronis Disk Director Suite's boot manager can help with this.


Going Virtual with a virtual machine
With very few exceptions for gaming and other intensive software, modern PCs actually do very well running Windows guest OS installs on Linux hosts.

I prefer using VirtualBox while others will possibly lean toward VMWare.

In either case, you have working USB options and are able to install practically any Windows software needed.

People that prefer Windows over Linux are free to do the same thing described above, but in reverse. Both instances negate the need to dual-boot their computers for most people.

Think about this: if you are merely looking to access Internet Explorer 8 or sync your iPhone via USB with iTunes, do you really believe that this requires a dual-boot system? Hardly.

For most people, using a virtualized solution is more than enough regardless of which OS is being called into question.

The key is whether or not legacy software is in use that would simply over-tax available resources. Short of this, I see no reason not to take this approach.


Throwing caution to the wind
Regardless of everything I have said above, there are going to be individuals who swear that dual-booting is perfectly easy.

It is my opinion that they are demonstrating great arrogance with this mindset, but let's explore this argument regardless.


Assuming the individual user looking to dual-boot their two operating systems found a tutorial that was in fact accurate, then there is the matter of ensuring that they fully realize which partition is which.

Why? Because many tutorials have users working with partitioning tools that give no clear indication as to which partition now contains the Windows installation.

It’s be up to the end user to remember the size of each partition to make sure mistakes are avoided.

Can most new users actually do this? Should they be expected to install two different operating systems side by side? This is fine and well for advanced users like us, but it’s a fast track to a mishap for most people.


Common sense revisited
I'm certainly not advocating dumbing down the Linux experience. No, instead I would like to make sure people fully understand what they are doing before jumping into dual-booting their computers blind. 

Comprehending all of the risks involved is key when trying to establish a dual-boot setup.

So while many advanced users will continue to scoff at this notion as utter nonsense, not everyone out there has had to deal with a lack of understanding in working with multiple operating systems on the same computer.

What I would love for everyone to take away from this article is first, remember that not everyone is fluent in using computers.

So to assume that providing a random link to dual-booting is all that is needed for someone to make it happen, is naive at best...irresponsible at worst.

I believe that along with a full disclosure of what it means to start messing with existing partitions, one might also mention that most people would do well to avoid dual-booting altogether.

This may seem a bit absolute to some, but I can promise you that adding an Ubuntu guest installation to a VM in Windows does a lot less harm that trying to manipulate random partitions blindly.

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