Installing dual boot

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A co-worker (rumored to work in the Fortran group and rumored to be named Michael) wrote up his experiences with trying to install multiple OS'es on his laptop.  I thought the write-up was very approachable (I like that word) and well written, so I got his permission to repost it. Michael did a much better job of formatting this in ascii than I did in HTML. For some reason Roller is deciding I don't really want bullets to show up in my lists, so I had to make everything a new paragraph. I got tired of fighting with it.

The rest of this is from Michael.

This is just a short note by way of encouragement for anyone who has considered making their notebook dual-bootable but either been daunted by the prospect or just hasn't got around to it. At the risk of making myself look like the village technological idiot, I spell out some details and try to make the writeup entertaining.

Over the weekend I converted my laptop from Windows XP to Windows XP / SuSE Linux dual-bootable. The experience was ultimately trouble-free enough that I would even consider making it triple bootable and adding Solaris.

The trouble with us engineers is that we sometimes feel as though we have to do everything the hard way, avoiding GUIs. My aim was to get this done in the shortest time possible, without benefit of tech support or a friend who's done it before, by taking the easy road / defaults everywhere it made sense. Our customers may be more like me than we sometimes want to admit! Obviously it's easier to follow a strict recipe from someone with the same setup, but that's not what I did.

My basic steps:

Read whitepapers on the task that Google and Windows XP served up to me. Bewilderingly many, many at the wrong level for my savvy (high) and experience (none at all at partitioning), and some offering conflicting advice.

Buy 40 Gb hard drive and backup all my data This required finding backup utility from my OEM disk. System help was adequate to help with this.

\*\* Misstep 1: Hard Drive was FAT32, ran out of space at 4 Gb. Reformatted hard drive to NTFS. Backup file was 23 Gb which I could have predicted.

Buy Norton PartionMagic (recommended by lots of people) read the booklet (short enough to read all the way through, but confusing because it included Macintosh instructions inline with everything else)

Repartition hard drive from 74 Gb to 50 Gb for Windows XP partition

Add new 20 Gb partition for Linux and smaller swap partition (using wizard, taking defaults)

\*\* Misstep 2: couldn't install the boot loader from the Norton disk (BootMagic); it wants FAT32 partition. Went back and created a small FAT32 partition out of the Linux partition, and installed boot loader.

Boot loader appears to offer me choice of booting Windows XP or Linux after I configure it; as instructed, ask to boot Linux with a Linux boot disk in the CDROM. (I had SuSE Linux on CD.)

Installed Linux taking all the defaults. Gee there's a lot of crud.

Linux works. Hooray!

\*\* Misstep 3: Forgot to write down what partitions look like for Linux. Norton talks about partition 1, partition 2, etc. Linux talks about /dev/hda2, /dev/hda5, etc. Luckily the size discrepancy between Windows partition (50 Gb) and Linux partition (20 Gb) lets me disambiguate easily later.

Is Windows XP still there? Try to reboot.

\*\* Misstep 4: Only Linux reboots. What did I do wrong?

Used Norton PartitionMagic disk as rescue CD disk. (Can't create rescue floppies because I don't have floppy drive. Docs haven't caught up!) Reconfigure boot loader to boot from "partition 1".

Windows XP still works. Hooray! But now I can't get to Linux no matter how hard I try. BootMagic hangs when I choose to boot Linux. Go back to whitepapers. Conclude that I probably have two different boot managers each expecting MBR to be set up their way. It's one thing to understand what's wrong, it's another thing to fix it without knowing any of the details of boot architecture. I thought Norton was supposed to take care of this automatically without my needing to understand.

\*\* Misstep 5: lots of thrashing as I can set laptop to always boot Windows or to always boot Linux. Neither is acceptable because they require boot CD to switch. Followed instructions to "copy Linux boot sector" and activate partitions in Linux and Repair Linux installation, all leading to dead ends as the repair doesn't "take".

Reinstalled Linux from scratch. But this time paid attention to "be sure not to overwrite MBR". Luckily found a place to deep dive into boot loader details, where it gave me a choice of where to install Linux boot loader, and I made a different choice this time, putting it on Linux partition. Of course I had just spent hours thinking I could move the Linux boot loader after installation, but maybe you just have to do it right to start with.

Things now "just work". Boot from hard disk, BootMagic gives me a choice of Windows XP or Linux, Linux gives me GRUB, which gives me choice of Linux or FailSafe, and everything works. Can even reach the Internet from both Windows XP and Linux.

The key lessons that I found were:

Know how to check BIOS it was important that system attempt to boot from CDROM before trying hard disk. Took me a while to remember how to halt the bootup sequence to inspect BIOS settings, (F10 key pressed during bootupt) and of course everything was already set the way I needed it so I could have just trusted to luck.

GUIs help. There's a reason people use them. Sure, be a power user once you know what's going on but start as the naive user and get the job done and get the experience for next time.

Size matters. There's a big difference in capacity between a 256 Mb memory stick, a 6 Gb portable hard disk, and a 40 Gb external drive (which is really a 37Gb drive)

don't be afraid to start over Reinstalling Linux instead of repairing the installation was my best technical call.

Be prepared to triangulate to figure out what's happening. Docs are split between too-precise operational instructions (Do this. Then do that. Be sure to avoid the other.) and imprecise declarative objectives which can't be obeyed (First, backup data. [Yes, but how.] Avoid overwriting MBR. [Yes, but how.] Boot into the newly created partion. [Yes, but how.] ) By reading the operational instructions, one can sometimes arrive at a mental model that is robust enough to check against the declarative description. A robust mental model may get you out of corners that would otherwise require tech support.

Out of Pocket Cost: Approximately $200.

If I could change anything:

the docs were infuriating sometimes. When one finally finds the "create partition" choice in a GUI, the context help does nothing better than confirm that's where you are. In general, the context help was useless for a native English speaker. The wizards were helpful (e.g. creating partitions for Linux) but sometimes more utilitarian than educational. Most helpful were punchy papers from the web that dispensed opinionated advice: "you really don't need to worry about shrinking the Windows partition, just do it".

the docs needed to pay more attention to terminology consistency. It is very confusing to read two pages of relevant instructions about "YOU" ("Yast Online Update") but have to figure out on my own that this probably refers to the choices one faces after

launching YaST (yet another System Tool on SuSE)

Choosing Software

Clicking on "Online Update" icon

Yeah, it's not rocket science and it's obvious after you've figured it out. But I wasted time looking through menus to launch "YOU" and not guessing that "Online Update" and YOU were the same thing.

some things almost work as described, but not quite. I was surprised how mature most of this stuff was. But the web (which keeps everything) and the docs haven't quite caught up to:

don't need to sweat the "1024 cylinder" limitation anymore

can't make rescue floppies anymore, need better protocols


I duel boot Gentoo & Windows currently on my laptop and my general rule on setting that up is to install Windows first, then install linux using grub as the boot loader. Once grub is setup properly, there is no need for another peice of software to deal with the bootloading fun. What I need to do soon is get a bigger harddrive for my laptop and redo all my installations and include Solaris on it so I can play with that more.

Out of curosity, has anyone tried to see if the new mactel's (sorry, intel based mac's) can run Solaris? I know its a long shot, but I thought I'd ask. :)

Posted by Jeffrey Olson on February 13, 2006 at 11:36 PM PST #

I haven't heard any news about running Solaris on mactels. I have heard people mention it would be cool. The original email about dual boot spawned a long thread which eventually turned into "can I run Solaris on mactel?". Nobody knew of any projects in that area.

Posted by Chris Quenelle on February 14, 2006 at 05:37 AM PST #

Sort of cool people want to run it on mactel's enough to get momentum behind it... Solaris, Windows, OSX = happy! :)

Whats funny to me is that I have only seen this on here, where is the forum at? I didn't think to many folks would have wanted Solaris on mac's!

Posted by Jeffrey Olson on February 14, 2006 at 06:34 AM PST #

It was a sun-internal discussion. Which explains the interest in Solaris.... ;-)

Posted by Chris Quenelle on February 14, 2006 at 07:11 AM PST #

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Chris Quenelle


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