Advice and encouragement, please, on jumping the rest of the way into Linux
November 22, 2010 2:36 PM   Subscribe

Advice and encouragement, please, on jumping the rest of the way into Linux. Several specific issues inside, but the gist is that I got fed up with Windows and started dual-booting Ubuntu 10.10 on several machines. Now I think I'm ready to make Ubuntu my permanent all-the-time OS. What are considerations and best practices I should consider? What am I not thinking of?

I already use open source software exclusively, and I've been using Ubuntu most of the time for a month, so I'm ahead of this question. I've figured out that my canon scanner is anti-linux, and my travel printer, so I may need to keep XP on my netbook. Aside from that, I don't think I've found any deal-breaking hardware or software issues.

I was running Ubuntu on a 16gig SD card in my netbook, but that apparently died. Should I re-install to another card or to the HD? How to think about the partition? On my desktop, which has a huge HD, I have a bad install of Windows 7. Should I just forget windows there and put Ubuntu on the whole drive? Finally, on my work desktop I just installed Ubuntu directly and let it have the whole drive, so that's good the way it is, right?

I'm moderately technically competent but the Ubuntu help pages, for example, aren't great on the big picture aspects of switching, so any other considerations are welcome.
posted by Mngo to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'd suggest virtualbox running a copy of your favorite version of windows, just incase you run into something you just can't do.

If everything up untill now has been working well with ubuntu, I'd heartily suggest deleting all of the other cruft and diving in whole hog on the desktop, as well as the netbook. Ubuntu One is nice, but so is dropbox. Also, following the dropbox install directions will get you fairly well acquainted with the more esoteric elements of installing software. Other than that, Aptitude has you covered.
posted by Freen at 2:42 PM on November 22, 2010

Best answer: I would install on the HD over the SD card. There are flash-orientated file systems for Linux (e.g., JFFS), but the default file system (ext3 or ext4) may kill cheap flash memory quickly.

In any case, as Freen noted, VirtualBox is Your Friend if you want to avoid dual booting. Much better than dual booting, in fact, if you have enough RAM.
posted by chengjih at 3:03 PM on November 22, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, Freen. If you mean the Dropbox cloud storage service, I've had it running without problems in Ubuntu (so far I'm just using Ubuntu One to sync my Tomboy Notes). I'll have to figure out what Aptitude is.

And Chengjih, I was afraid of that. It runs quiet and low power off the SD, but definitely killed it. Ram is a problem on the netbook, but I'll definitely consider a fresh full install on the desktop and a VirtualBox set-up.
posted by Mngo at 3:13 PM on November 22, 2010

Best answer: Aptitude is the command line based package manager to install and remove software. Many tutorial pages will give you commands to copy/paste, since that is easier than to describe "and now click there".

You don't have to use it, the graphical package manager called synaptic covers the same ground. Or you could even ignore them both in the beginning and use the Software Centre. It doesn't offer the fine-grained control of the other two, but is sufficient for basic install/remove tasks.

Have you found the Ubuntu tutorial for switching?
posted by Triton at 3:25 PM on November 22, 2010

Best answer: When you partition, create a separate partition for your home directory. That way, if you blow up your install somehow you can reinstall Ubuntu (or any other distro) without losing your data, email, etc.

I dual booted for a couple of years before I finally cut the cord. Now I've got my wife and 1 kid on Ubuntu full time too.
posted by COD at 3:27 PM on November 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Triton that is very clarifying. I have seen that tutorial but it is certainly best answer material.
Thanks COD, I had a feeling there was something I should be doing differently than the default install. So, enough space for the system is one partition, and home gets the rest?
posted by Mngo at 3:36 PM on November 22, 2010

Actually, you'll have 3 partitions, at a minimum - /, home, and swap. If HD space is not a premium leave plenty of room for / and home to grow. Resizing partitions later is a PITA. Swap is normally suggested to be double your RAM.
posted by COD at 4:00 PM on November 22, 2010

I'm on ubuntu full time; been able to do nearly everything. For the few exceptions, I paid for codeweavers' crossover stuff- it's worked well for the MSOffice stuff. OpenOffice generally does what I need, but every now and then I bump my head into a problem with formatting.

I have a virtualbox instance running windows for the occasions when I do .NET development, but generally I don't seem to need it very often.
posted by jenkinsEar at 4:04 PM on November 22, 2010

One thing to consider is backups and recovery. There will come a time that you wish to reinstall for whatever reason. As mentioned above, you might want to create a separate partition for /home directories. As far as space, be careful not to starve the OS partition or upgrades could be dicey. One fun thing I do with that setup is dualboot Ubuntu and Ubuntu+1 with a shared homedir. It's a lot easier to get bugs fixed before the final version is released, and having a reliable OS installed as well helps when things are truly b0rked.

There's also general backup tools, which are so myriad I won't bother covering them all. There's an interesting alternative, promoted by a Debian guy. Basically, you keep your home directory under revision control. Useful if you want to duplicate your settings on a new install or even just a new account on someone else's box. Just check out the latest revision into your homedir as a working copy and go.
posted by pwnguin at 4:04 PM on November 22, 2010

>I've figured out that my canon scanner is anti-linux, and my travel printer,

FYI: I worked around all of my linux hardware problems by buying business-class hardware. Bought a big HP all-in-one network printer, and not only was it compatible, it saves me hundreds on ink. Works well as a scanner too, either direct in GIMP, etc. or through the web interface. Got the thing on sale for $300, it's lasted about 5 years now, and it works great on my mostly-linux network.

Here's what I've learned since I started my switch in 2005:

1. Buy from a linux vendor if you can. I bought Dell's first linux laptop and it was a terrific idea. It's still working OK and it's easy to find support. Later I bought again from ZaReason and am glad I did.

2. The philosophies differ between linux hardware vendors. Zareason builds/sells machines that will run stock Ubuntu just fine. System76 and Dell bundle their own software along with their machines to cover any bald spots that result from a stock install. I lean toward the System76 method. Zareason still gives good support though.

Sometimes though, Zareason will ship machines that have non-functional SD slots, for example, but they don't advertise the SD slot in the first place so it's just a little oddity when it arrives.

3. It's a wonderful feeling to have a network of machines running Free software.

4. Don't be afraid to buy outside the FOSS zone for emerging-markets devices. I bought a Nokia n810 when I should have bought an iPod Touch. Period. I was being a FOSS zealot and my thirst for new stuff bit me hard. The n810 absolutely sucks compared to everything an iTouch can do, and I can still export my data (sync with Google Docs, etc.), which I didn't expect. IMO after 5 years of FOSS usage, and having started from the "I'm sick of Apple" standpoint, I'm no longer sick of Apple and can see where they fit.

I would sum it up like this: If you run a business or enjoy doing really cutting-edge stuff with software, consider keeping some proprietary, cutting-edge hardware/OS combination around.

5. Switch your writing away from OpenOffice and into plain text if possible. There is an incredible array of software that can make use of lightweight markup languages (e.g. ASCIIDoc) and make your work look really good.

6. Most of the books on Ubuntu have been disappointments. The big exception was "Ubuntu Kung Fu." Make sure if you buy a book you're buying one that's aimed at your market, whether you're a sysadmin or just a desktop user.

7. After five years of nearly 100% linux use, my excitement has been dulled quite a bit as my expectations have settled. I completely take linux for granted, and I notice things like missing apt-get when I use a Mac or Windows machine. Some days I hate using linux because it feels like none of the developers care about what I care about, and it will never "arrive" at where I want it to go. On other days we are inseparable.

8. Get to know the command line...try out MOC (command: mocp) for listening to MP3s, try htop for monitoring your CPU/memory/running apps.

9. If you ever give a presentation or do something with other people USING your linux box, rehearse it first. "Just works" is fine until you realize that using your machine for every possible type of activity it can be used for necessarily leaves certain configurations wonky. "Oops, I know why the projector's not working...let me switch away from the realtime kernel I'm using for music composition and then we'll be good...sorry folks."

Have fun!
posted by circular at 4:11 PM on November 22, 2010

If you're a "set it and forget it" kind of guy, the short support cycle of Ubuntu is disconcerting. Ubuntu seems built to support those who are comfortable with continually upgrading their operating systems. Looking for help online, there's a lot of fragmentation - ten versions in six years! Online, the documentation and wikis are always for another version.

Ubuntu 10.10 is supported until April 2012 - a grand total of 16 months.

I would recommend getting one of the Long Term Support (LTS) versions, but the last desktop release is only supported until April 2013 - a single year longer.

Meanwhile, Microsoft still is forced to support Windows XP, more than nine years after its release. Almost everything still has to work on XP. You will be able to install Firefox 4 on it easily, when Firefox didn't even exist in 2001 when XP was released.

I was irritated that the simplest way to upgrade my Ubuntu system to get Firefox 3 - was to replace the entire OS. It's wasn't something I could just check off in Synaptic and get. For me, Ubuntu feels less like an OS and more like a tightly woven block of applications.
posted by meowzilla at 6:02 PM on November 22, 2010

Meowzilla, that's why we have Red Hat Enterprise Linux (and the derived CentOS distribution, if you don't feel like paying for RH support and are willing to wait a little while for updates), which has an effective 7 year support lifecycle (and up to 10 with extended lifecycle support):

RHEL6 was just released, which has more modern desktop-user features, though probably not as cutting edge as Ubuntu or Fedora.
posted by chengjih at 7:58 PM on November 22, 2010

Best answer: If you're happy to have Ubuntu as your main OS and you only need the occasional Windows app to talk to rabidly anti-open-source hardware (e.g. iTunes for a non-jailbroken iThing) then going all-Linux and running VirtualBox is the right thing to do. If you also need access to a plain-vanilla, no-surprises, full-performance Windows environment for e.g. gaming, set up a dual boot as well. Don't try to use the same Windows installation inside a VM and on the raw hardware - people have done it, but honestly, that way lies madness.

Start with a decent-sized hard disk. 500GB is good. It's not that the operating systems and software per se are going to take up a huge amount of space; but you're going to be partitioning this drive, and partitions are kind of a pain to alter once established, so you want enough space to play with that you can be generous with your initial partition allocations and still have plenty left over for photos and music and movies and whatnot.

Install Windows first. Windows installers don't play nice with other systems, and it's much, much easier to add other systems to a hard disk with Windows on it than to add Windows to a hard disk with other systems on it. Don't let Windows consume all the disk space - give it about 20GB (XP) or 30GB (Vista/7).

Install Linux next. Unless you have a good reason not to, pick a distro with Debian package management under the hood. I personally prefer Debian itself, but Ubuntu is fine - Ubuntu is basically Debian with added spackle*.

If you install Debian Testing (currently codenamed Squeeze), and then change every occurrence of the word "squeeze" to "testing" inside all files under /etc/apt, you end up with a reasonably up-to-date, reasonably reliable OS that's "slushy" - it gets almost-frozen in the months before a new release of Stable but usually evolves over time rather than moving forward in big jerks, and breaks less often than Unstable or Experimental. If you do have an occasional need for some package version more recent than the current version in Testing and don't want to compile it yourself, pulling things from Unstable or Experimental is fairly straightforward and generally involves a less deep descent into dependency hell than trying the same thing with successive Ubuntu releases. Debian also installs way less software than Ubuntu by default, which can be disconcerting for experienced Ubuntu users but is actually really nice one you realize the same stuff is all still there in the repositories (very little Ubuntu software is Ubuntu-only; most of it is inherited from Debian Unstable).

If you're going for Ubuntu, I'd second the recommendation for a LTS release, or the release immediately preceding a LTS release, unless the most recent of these fails to support your hardware. Chancing random major breakage isn't something I'm keen to do more often than every couple of years. That said, I have several customers who have self-updated the Hardy installs I did for them to Lucid, with only a few minor issues requiring phone support from me.

In desktop environments I prefer GNOME to KDE, but I like XFCE much better than either. It has a few quirks I find myself needing to work around regularly (the easiest path to getting new launcher buttons onto panels involves a side trip through the Application Finder accessory, for example) but it has the beautiful quality of being really, really hard to misconfigure accidentally. It's also less memory-hungry, more responsive and copes better with occasional screen resolution changes than either of the Big Two.

Don't let the Linux installer do "guided" partitioning - do it yourself. If the Windows you installed was Windows 7, don't be surprised to find that it's made a 200MB "system" partition as well as the main 30GB OS partition you asked it for; it does that.

The first partition you add should be about 4GB, for swap. Reason for making this first is that blocks nearer the start of a hard disk are physically located near the outer edge of the platters, where the HD manufacturers can pack in more blocks per physical track, and this improves access speed. Putting the swap partition first also minimizes seek time, because most of your Linux installation is going to end up near the start of the Linux root partition. This is all a bit academic, since your PC probably has enough RAM that swapping won't happen very often, but there's no good reason to design in a need for multiple seeks over a heap of empty space whenever swapping does occur.

Next partition should be about 20GB, formatted with ext3, for the root (/) partition. If you're offered the option, turn on the "relatime" mount option for this partition (if you're not offered it, you'll probably get it by default). I prefer ext3 to ext4 for root partitions because it's slightly more corruption-resistant, the kinds of files you'd typically find on root partitions don't benefit much from ext4's superior large-file handling ability, and filesystem check times for 20GB ext3 root partitions are not so slow as to cause pain.

Next, make a nice big partition for /home. This one should be formatted as ext4, because (a) it's going to be big enough to make ext3 filesystem checks quite crawlsome and (b) it's going to contain big files, like Windows partition backups and VM disk images apart from your media collection. If you're not going to dual-boot, this can fill the rest of the drive.

Finally, make an NTFS partition for /home/windows (or /media/windows if you'd like a hard-disk icon for this to show up on every Linux desktop by default). This is where you'll put stuff you want to get at from both OS environments. How big you make this will depend on whether you want access to e.g. a media collection from both systems, and whether security and privacy across user accounts are concerns for you: Linux will happily create and use NTFS files and folders, but it ignores NTFS file and folder access restrictions when reading. NTFS files and folders created from Linux get Full Control for Everyone permissions inside Windows.

There are various tools for using Linux filesystems from inside Windows but these all run similarly roughshod over Linux's security features even when they're not exhibiting various kinds of general flakiness. The access control models assumed by the two systems are simply incompatible by design, and there's no really good way to meld them; but using NTFS from Linux will probably get you closer sooner than going the other way.

Reboot after installation and make sure that Windows is available as a choice on the boot menu and that both Windows and Linux boot as expected. Once in Linux, add the appropriate VirtualBox repository so that you can install and update the PUEL version of VirtualBox via the standard package managers (Synaptic, aptitude, apt-get etc). The PUEL version has useful features (notably USB device support) that are currently missing from the open-source version.

When you're building Windows virtual machines, you can avoid hours of pointless thumb-twiddling by making sure you use expanding storage (not fixed-size storage) for your Windows virtual drives, and by choosing the Format NTFS (Quick) option during Windows setup. In my experience, the performance gains from fixed-size images, for typical Windows virtual desktop installs on image files hosted in ext4, are not worth the trouble. Never bother to defrag your virtual Windows disk from inside Windows - you'll gain no performance, just use up extra image file space. If you really think you need to defrag, do it the stone age Linux-like way: boot the Windows VM from a virtual BartPE CD, use XCOPY or Robocopy to mirror the virtual C: drive to a new virtual drive, verify that you can boot the VM after connecting only the new drive to it, then discard the original image file.

When setting up the "shared files" facilities for virtual Windows machines, don't bother doing anything fancy. Just create a single shared folder named "root", make it map to / on Linux, and map Z: drive to \\vboxsvr\root inside the VM (this will only work after you've installed the VirtualBox Guest Additions into Windows).

VirtualBox runs all your VMs as processes owned by the Linux user account you used to create them, and will therefore gain only that account's degree of filesystem access. Your Windows VM will not be able to do anything nastier to your Linux filesystem than any other user-level Linux app, and having the layout of Z: in Windows match exactly the layout of / in Linux is straightforward and convenient.

If you want your Windows VM to appear on your LAN alongside all your physical machines (perhaps because you want to be able to share files from it to other boxes on your LAN), set up VM networking in Bridged mode. If you'd rather have your LAN appear to be out there on the Internet from the Windows VM's point of view, stick with the default (NAT) network setting.

Don't pay money for a Windows antivirus. Panda Cloud Antivirus is free, lightweight and competent. There is nowhere near enough Linux-compatible malware in circulation to justify installing a native Linux anti-malware suite (you can scan your Z: drive with Panda if doing so makes you happy).

Printing from a Windows VM to a printer hosted on your Linux installation is most easily done by configuring a network printer via IPP; this will work for both bridged and NAT network configurations. Use the Linux printer config tool to make sure the printer is shared and accepting jobs (in Ubuntu, it will be so by default) and then use the Windows "add printer" wizard to connect to You've got a choice in printer drivers on the Windows side - you can either use a generic PostScript driver (manufacturer: Generic; model: Microsoft ImageSetter something something) or install the specific driver for the printer model you actually have if you can find a compelling reason to do that.

If you want to play with VirtualBox's Seamless mode, which lets you have the Windows task bar sitting just above your Linux one and work with Windows windows on your desktop much like Linux windows, I believe you will still need to install something like this workaround into the Windows guest to guarantee that there's always at least one Windows window open (even a tiny, non-responsive 1x1 window in the top left corner is enough). Without that, you will probably see bizarre Windows task bar misbehaviour.

Before you do anything major or seriously experimental to a working Windows VM, use the VirtualBox Snapshots facility to take a snapshot of it. Reverting to a working snapshot beats the hell out of reinstalling from scratch.


On preview:

If all you want to do is a one-time, Windows-style Firefox installation, doing it the Windows way (by downloading an installed from the Mozilla site, and running it on your machine) works just as well in Ubuntu or Debian as it does in Windows.

I was irritated that the simplest way to upgrade my Ubuntu system to get Firefox 3 - was to replace the entire OS

That's certainly the most easily found way to get a new Firefox integrated into the OS's package manager. In fact the easiest way to do it is with Ubuntuzilla.

Ubuntu users who want an up-to-date Firefox that automatically stays up to date, and also want to feel the frisson that Windows people get from downloading and executing whothehellknowswhat, can simply download this Ubuntuzilla installation script, change its permissions to make it executable (or copy it to a FAT-formatted USB stick, from which anything is executable by default) and double-click it.

*For the most part, the Canonical folks have deployed their spackle with economy, skill and artistry. This makes a nice contrast with Windows, where spackle is apparently a primary construction material.
posted by flabdablet at 8:26 PM on November 22, 2010 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: Here's a partial update FWIW. I've re-installed on my work machine with partitions as suggested by flabdablet (and others), and it's working great. I ran into a problem with the install at first, but I think it was because I had also added some differently-sized RAM; I found a forum post with a similar problem, and removed the RAM, installed, and then added the RAM back.

I also re-installed on my netbook (an ASUS 1005HA), which is dual-booting with XP. I just left the original windows partition (it's using half the HD) and added swap, / , and home partitions, again as suggest. It seems fine, though the OS selection that comes up on boot still shows the OLD options as well as the new ones--I need to figure out how to take those out (something about Grub?).

I still need to do something with my main desktop, but I'm trying to turn up my old XP disks for it. My plan is to just install Ubuntu but then build a virtual machine for XP, at which point I'm assuming I'll need the windows installation disks. And at which point I assume I'll learn to understand the rest of flabdablet's no doubt sterling suggestions.

Thanks again, all.
posted by Mngo at 11:30 AM on December 3, 2010

I ran into a problem ... I found a forum post with a similar problem

...thereby proving that you already have the essential skills required to admin a Linux box successfully.

Welcome to the merry throng!
posted by flabdablet at 3:12 PM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Another partial update to say that I successfully re-installed Meerkat on my big desktop, got Virtual Machine running on it with no problem, and did a fresh install there from my original WinXP disks. Flabdablet sent me in the right direction, though I'll have to admit making use of this Lifehacker post on VM. I'm sure there are things I should be doing that I'm not, but I'm pretty happy here. I'm like the world's slowest-moving geek, but geek I do.
posted by Mngo at 11:33 AM on January 3, 2011

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