Six Tips for Linux Happiness

So, you’re starting to be convinced of the benefits of linux? Keen to experience the increased speed and power and to try out some of the thousands of pieces of free software available? Like the thought of being secure from viruses and spyware? But still a little attached to your Windows operating system? Here’s a few tips for making the best of both worlds.

1. Use Ubuntu

There are loads of distributions available and it may be difficult to make a decision. Ubuntu has rapidly become the most popular and this must be due in part to its ease of installation and use for newcomers. So why not follow the crowd and try Ubuntu first? Go on, go and download the latest release.

2. Dual boot Windows/OSX and Linux

Dual booting means that when you power on your machine you get a choice of going into either of two or more operating systems. There are lots of articles around on how to set up a dual-boot machine with XP, or with Windows 7, or with OSX. My own experience is dual booting Windows XP Pro and various versions of Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSuse and whatever else took my fancy at the time. The obvious benefit is that you have all your familiar applications there, and you can take your time learning linux without jumping in at the deep end and having to learn everything at once. Remember:

  • If starting with a clean computer install Windows first (the same seems to go for OSX). Windows isn’t designed to play well with other operating systems. Ubuntu certainly is.
  • If you’ve already got Windows installed:
    • Backup everything. Time-consuming, yes. But there are dangers in the install process, especially the first time you do it, so don’t leave anything to chance. Remember to backup data that is stored by your applications in locations other than My Documents. Some applications have decent data export tools; for others you may need to search through folders within C:Documents and Settingsyour-user-profile, such as ‘Application Data’ and ‘Local Settings’.
    • Clean up your Windows install. Most important is to defragment your hard disk. Your files are scattered across the disk, especially if you’ve been using the operating system a while. Your Ubuntu installation may require moving a lot of that mess into one place to make room for your new OS. Get XP to do it first so that it can keep track of where everything is stored. It is probably also useful to use a utility like CCleaner to get rid of temporary files and oodles of accumulated crap.
    • Make sure you’ve got access to a proper install/restore disk for your pre-existing operating system.

An alternative to dual booting is virtualization. Installing a program like VBox-OSE on Ubuntu lets you install a full copy of Windows or OSX operating systems plus your favourite applications right inside Ubuntu. There’s clearly a benefit here of not having to reboot to use other programmes but there’s a penalty in the speed your applications run.

3. Separate Data and Software

If you are dual booting it makes sense to put all of your data on a separate partition that can be accessed and written to by both operating systems. But even if you’re not dual booting, keeping your data separate may make operating system upgrades easier and lets you experiment with confidence. Keeping your data separate is more secure and if anything goes wrong you can simply insert a linux live CD to get a temporary operating system and get straight to your data. Points to bear in mind:

  • You can use the linux utility gparted to create additional hard disk partitions. Its not included in a default Ubuntu install (although you can get it easily through the System->Administration->Synaptic Package Manager). It is included on an Ubuntu live CD though. I prefer to use it from a live CD – that means you’re not using any of the hard disk for running the OS so you can easily change any of the existing partitions.
  • If dual booting with Windows the logical thing is probably to format the partition as ntfs, since both Windows and linux can read and write from that filesystem. Choosing linux’s favourite ext3 filesystem format is fine too, but you’ll need to install Ext2IFS on Windows to be able to write to it from within Windows. (IFSdrives seems to be super-reliable and after a two minute set up you can just forget its there. Though because it writes from windows as if the ext3 partition is ext2 it doesn’t keep the journalling up to date – I don’t really know what this means but it doesn’t seem to matter!)
  • Once you’ve created your data partition you might want, in Ubuntu, to change the text file located at /etc/fstab. You can then reliably mount your data partition in the same location meaning that you can create links to place on your desktop or wherever is convenient. The following commands in Terminal do the trick:
    • sudo mkdir /media/choose-name-for-data-store-here – this creates the place you’ll go to for your data.
    • sudo blkid – this gets a list of partitions on physical drives, and you need to note down the UUID of the partition you want to automount. Labels like /dev/sda1 (meaning the first partition on the first SATA harddrive) correspond to labelling in the gparted graphical interface, so you could always use that to work out which partition you’re aiming for.
    • sudo cp /etc/fstab /etc/fstab.bak – this backs up your fstab file in case of errors.
    • gksu gedit /etc/fstab – this opens a text editor to edit your fstab file. Add something like the following at the bottom, then save and close.

# mount data store partition
UUID=b7296b71-b1bd-4e73-9b7f-077dd37902c5    /media/filestore    ext2    rw,user,auto    0    0

    • You’ll need to make a few changes to that example: change the long UUID number to whichever you found with the blkid command (don’t include quote marks); change /media/filestore to whatever you named your data store directory; and change ext2 to whichever filesystem you formatted your partition with (probably ntfs or ext3).
    • Back in the Terminal run “sudo mount -a”. If there are no errors you should now be able to navigate in the file manager to the directory you created in /media to see the data on your additional partition.
    • NB If for any reason you want to unmount your data partition in Ubuntu then you’ll need to do it as root, i.e. use the command “sudo umount /media/your-data-store-directory”.

4. Investigate problems (and note down the solutions!)

Its always possible that some particular configurations of hardware don’t work as easily as one would hope. Hardware manufacturers might share information with Microsoft that they don’t with linux developers. (Although the biggest manufacturers are getting much better in this regard.) But if you’ve got a problem with your installation it might be relatively simple to fix and somewhere has likely been there before. Get googling and be very specific about your searches. (Searching ‘choppy graphics’ is clearly not going to be very useful – know your hardware so you can search, say, ‘NVidia 8500 ubuntu 9.10 video mplayer bug’.) Remember that you can trust information on the official sites (say the Ubuntu bug tracking website or community wiki) much more than random blogs (like this one!).

Most importantly, when you get your fix, note down exactly what you’ve done so you can a) undo it if it causes other problems and b) redo it if, say, you decide to install a different or newer version of your operating system. An obvious point perhaps, but its a lesson its taken me longest to learn.

5. Use the Cloud

Using  cloud services – i.e. places available through the internet where you store some of your data – is a good way of separating data from software. It not only gives you a handy backup of your data but also makes it available from whatever computer you happen to be using – as long as you can keep track of all those passwords. Services I like include:

  • Dropbox. This quietly keeps your files synchronised across any computer that you’ve installed it on and you can get an installer for linux, Windows or OSX. There’s also a web interface where you can access all of your files and even roll back to earlier versions of them. A free account gets 2GB of storage space so you’re not going to be backing up your whole hard drive this way, but its useful for those worky files you always want with you. (This link gets us both a bit of extra free storage space if you sign up).
  • Xmarks add-on for Firefox. Keeps my bookmarks, keyword searches, passwords etc securely synchronised across computers. Lovely.
  • Also, as a researcher I use Zotero to keep track of my reading notes, bibliographic data and so on. The v.2 beta version now includes the possibility of synchronising your metadata, notes and your pdf copies of readings, websites and so on. At present this seems to provide unlimited storage space for free!
  • GMail contact data can be kept in sync with Thunderbird with the Google Contacts add-on. Even if you don’t use GMail I think its worth signing up for an account just to use its contacts as a central point to sync multiple copies of Thunderbird (or Evolution for that matter) and perhaps your mobile phone too.

Depending on what sort of data you want to look after and/or share there are plenty of other services out there: Flixr is an obvious one for photographers and is often linked into photo management software like F-Spot and Picasa.

6. Keep up to date (but be careful of upgrades!)

Software updates are now a vital part of computing. Ubuntu installs with its Update Manager configured to run as soon as you turn on your computer. The updates only rarely require a computer restart so you can generally accept the suggested updates and leave the system to it. One warning, however, is that Ubuntu releases a new version of the operating system every six months. These upgrades won’t happen automatically, although the Update Manager will let you know when they’re available. But upgrading is a bigger job than simply accepting software updates – especially if you’ve got an odd selection of hardware or have heavily customised your operating system. The potential instability of system upgrades has caused some controversy among linux fans. The best practical advice is probably not to upgrade as soon as its available (in April and October each year) but to wait a month or so. When you do upgrade make sure you’ve got a little bit of time to iron out any wrinkles and go back to those installation notes you made so meticulously.

These tips are hardly an exhaustive how-to. But the purpose is to suggest some  of the easy practical steps to feeling secure about your linux use. Keep things organised and your data secure and you can be free to experiment. Customize your desktop, set your visual effects to do something pointlessly cool, install a wide range of applications or even create another partition and install an entirely new operating system just because its looks take your fancy. The excitement of linux is in the experimentation – just take a few precautions before you hurl yourself in.