Triple Boot Laptop, Finally

I've finally gotten off my lazy derriere and put together a Triple boot laptop. Surprisingly, the hardest part of the whole thing was installing the new, larger hard drive. My primary laptop is a cheap $750 Toshiba unit with 20 GB disk that I picked up about 3 years ago on sale with some big coupon, plus it had a $50 rebate. It was one of those non-expandible FRUs (Field Replaceable Units) with drives that couldn't be upgraded. But I purchased it at the time thinking otherwise.

Being a geek entitles me to feel overly confident about any piece of consumer-rated computer hardware, even though I may have no clue what the heck I'm getting myself into. And as Murphy's Law would have it, you bet I spent a good 3 hours the other day poking around the clam shell before giving up and calling Toshiba's Service Center to get a quote on how much it'd cost to install a new 40GB drive I'd supply. I got a pretty prompt reply: $89 labour. Or for $129, they'd transfer data to the new disk and extend warranty on the whole laptop for another year.

Uh... price was way too high. 'Okay, time to really put some brain cells to use and figure this problem out,' was what I thought to myself after getting the price quotes. As luck would have it, I did find out how to open the case, plus I didn't break anything doing it. The secret was to attack the screws holding the top LED panel cover over the LCD hinges. There are 4 screws in total, two 6 mm long and two 3mm long with mini phillips head. With a flat, thin prying blade and the LCD panel bent back until it was almost fully open 180 degrees, I could pry and pop of the LED cover plate. It revealed 6 more screws that anchor the keypad and top half of the clam shell to the bottom. I removed the keyboard as well, and then turn the laptop over and remove the dozen or more long 18mm screws around the edges of the clam shell. 4 more large screws anchor down the LCD panel, which I remove as well. Then there are 3 more in the mid-section that hold the clam shell together. With enough screws taken out, I could open up enough panels to gain access to the floppy and hard disk drive bays. With almost everything taken out, I decided to clean the built-in mouse track-pad and buttons. In total, I think it was over 48 screws, or at least felt that way; just keeping track of all pieces and screws was pretty hard. I definitely don't recommend you do this with young children around.

I actually got pretty lucky re-assembling the unit. The first time, I only had 2 screws left uninstalled. We all know that having extra screws pretty much sucks; you never know if it's some critical structural or disk drive screw. But I looked at it from a positive point of view. I could have forgotten way more screws. I took the laptop apart again, and this time found where the screws were supposed to go and filled 100% of the empty screw holes.... well I think I filled them all...unless the kids took some of them..

With the hard drive in, installation of software is pretty straight forward. I had to install WinXP first. The WinXP software is a recovery only type of install. It formats whatever disk is in the main drive and then creates one monster partition and sticks WinXP on it. The Win32 install makes a lot of assumptions that it owns the laptop, and thus, doesn't have to care about installing other OSes or playing nice. It will overwrite and hose everything else on the laptop.

But that's not a problem. The Open Source community has come through with a SysRescueCD image that contains a mini Gentoo Linux distro and nifty partitioning utilities that come on a bootable CD. Size is about 110MB for the iso image. Two included utilities, QtPartEd and NTFSresize are very helpful and low cost for resizing FAT-32 or NTFS partitions.

To make a triple boot system, I needed to first shrink the disk slice used by Win32/NTFS, then configure the remaining space into three slices, one for Solaris and the other two for Linux. Solaris needs to install before Linux for several reasons, one of which is that I want the Linux Grub boot loader to boot all three OSes.

I used QtPartEd to make these three additional partitions, okay technically I have to do 4 operations. First operation is to create a primary Solaris partition adjacent to the NTFS slice. I don't need to further sub-divide this slice for Solaris swap and Solaris UFS because Solaris will do it for me during the install and stay within its slice boundaries. The rest of the disk, I make a big extended partition. And inside the extended partition, I make two slices, large Linux ext3fs and small swap slice. Just the additional two big slices were enough. QtPartEd doesn't have a way to create and format Solaris UFS partitions in its menu. And after a first glance I wasn't sure what to do. But I recalled that Solaris x86 partition IDs are the same as Linux swap, 0x82. This can present a problem when installing Solaris and it sees Linux swap. It will try to use them and mount them as Solaris primary partitions, possibly installing on them. To avoid this possible snafu, we create an extended partition and put all the Linux partitions inside. The Solaris installer won't look inside the extended partition. So Linux swap inside the extended partition is safely hidden from Solaris.

Installing software was pretty straight forward. All the distributions came on CD, so the standard mode of sitting around and inserting the next disk are in order. WinXP recovery has 3 disks for my Toshiba. Solaris and Linux each have 4 total for the full distribution with documentation and multiple Locales. Installation time was about an hour for each. And WinXP and Linux each have over 500 MB in updates and additional software to download and install, such as service paks, updates, additional browsers, email, office utils, etc. Solaris 10 has yet to ship and so doesn't have a big list of updates, it may suffer from drivers or lack of them. Hopefully driver problems won't impact folks out there. The graphics and network drivers are often the culprits and the key is to bypass the graphical install and move on and fix later. I'm impressed because Solx86 has come a long way on x86 drivers in the last 3 months. This Friday Sep 17, Sun's Alan Duboff our Solaris x86 Technical Ambassador, will host another install-fest internally. I'm eager now to try the Solaris OS update features on the latest builds.

Some interesting observations about the other installations: WinXP Home took about 5 hours to fully install. The first thing it did on boot was to notify me of extremely urgent OS updates that were super critical to the health of the computer. To some, this is a great feature, but to me, it was kinda scary. I felt quite vulnerable during the first boot as I madly scrambled to download the patches and then startup the Network control panel up to block all further incoming connections from outside. I had to fork over money too. It's $50 to download Norton AntiVirus 2005 and get it installed. But I guess I didn't want to wait to head out and buy some OEM bulk copy for the 2004 version for $10. Definitely boot a fresh install of WinXP from behind a firewall/NAT router. Make sure it's the only Win32 machine running on the private net. Don't connect it to even a LAN that might have viruses active because if you haven't had a chance to reboot with network on to set the firewall one in XP, then you could be infected by some RPC virus right off the bat. But I guess that's the cost of doing business with Win32. In retrospect, the download of XP SP2 took so long, maybe I should have headed out to buy the OEM virus protection.

With Linux, it would have taken quite a while, except I archived updates on a server at home with lots of disk. There were 400 MB in RPMs and this includes new multimedia packages. I use YUM, the YellowDog Linux Update Manager, to download these updates. It's quite brain-dead easy. But the tip here is to run YUM once configured to download and preserve RPMs after installation (rather than blowing them away) and then archive the RPMs and install other machines with updates to save on bandwidth and time. That's why it pays to keep all desktop systems in a home or small business updated to the same revision of OS. By default, the Windows Updater obscures where it puts temporary packages that it stores for updates. Each machine therefore has to run its own update. I guess it helps eat more bandwidth, which may or may not be a good thing. On the flip-side, Win32 is so insecure, would I really trust a home machine to store archived updates? Not if my Dad was a user. He has all the spyware and virus blockers and anti-spam filters, yet he still gets about 1 nasty spyware per month and it's saved and runs out of the IE cache. I haven't upgraded him yet to Firefox because I never have the install media when I'm over at my parents' house and they use dialup so downloads are out of the question. Again, it's a huge cost of doing business, even for home users, on Win32. If I weren't around to provide tech-support, he'd be toast and so would his online stock portfolio.

Well, I've got my Triple boot system. It was pretty straight forward to do. Just a few small procedures to follow and I now have a small buffet of OSes. With a 40 GB drive it's possible to create a shared user-data partition in extended space and install quite a few OSes in smaller, 4 GB slices which then all access that shared slice for home directories. I've debated configuring a laptop this way. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes more costs too much. Sometimes paranoia sets in about the integrity of that data partition if the wrong OS were to boot and mount it. One thing is for certain. In a year, I'll revisit the whole decision again and probably re-install something else.

Comments:

Does Solaris10 support ACPI? Or does your laptop just not suspend, etc when running Solaris?

Posted by Azeem Jiva on September 16, 2004 at 07:04 AM PDT #

ACPI support is currently turned off in BIOS. Both Linux and Solaris are having issues with my cheap Toshiba. But I hope it improves over time. It'd save my battery life when I'm not plugged in.

Posted by PotstiickerGuru on September 16, 2004 at 07:17 AM PDT #

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