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A Vista vs. Linux Matchup - Part 2: Dual-booting Vista and Linux
by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (Jan. 26, 2007)

Foreword: This is Part 2 of a series that pits Microsoft's latest wares -- Vista -- against Linux's fair-haired boy -- Ubuntu. When we last saw our fearless curmudgeon, he was busy preparing a level playing field for Vista and Linux to play -- and work -- together on.

Note: If you missed Part 1, read it here.

A Vista vs. Linux Matchup

Part 2: Dual-Booting Vista and Linux

by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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Last time around, I described the HP Pavilion Media Center TV m7360n that I'm using for my Vista vs. Linux shootout. Getting the PC was the easy part. Getting Linux and Vista to live together on the same machine turned out to be a bit harder.

On XP and earlier Windows PCs, making Windows and Linux live together was almost automatic. Any of the major distributions made it easy. With Vista, things have changed. Microsoft has deep-sixed its old boot.ini bootloader in favor of a new bootloader.

The new bootloader, BCD (Boot Configuration Data), is designed to be firmware-independent. It also comes with a new boot option editing tool, BCDEdit.exe, which isn't so much user-friendly as user-hostile. I'm not, by the way, talking here as someone whose chief concern is dual-booting Linux. BCDEdit is a pain to work with no matter how you're modifying Vista's boot behavior. Unfortunately, though, you're going to have to work with Vista bootloader, because Vista doesn't deal well with being installed on a system that already has an operating system on it that you mean to keep.

In my case, I had already decided to blow away my system's existing Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, Update Rollup 2 operating system. I could have "upgraded" this system to Vista, but I really do want to give Vista its best chance to shine, and upgrading an existing Windows system appears to be an almost sure way to find trouble.

Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, you don't mind running into incompatibility problems, and you know exactly what you're doing, do not "upgrade" to Vista. Do a clean install, instead.

In the case of a dual-boot system, you're almost certainly going to need to do a clean install, anyway. You see, if you "upgrade" a system, you have to do it from within Windows XP or 2000. And, if you do that, you can't repartition or reformat any of the hard drive. The only way you can work on your drive fundamentals at the start of a Vista install is if you boot from the Vista DVD. So, unless you already have a big enough partition on your drive for another operating system, you're better off with a clean install.

With all that in mind, I did a clean install of Vista Ultimate on my system. I divided my system's 300GB SATA hard drive into two equal partitions. On the Vista side, I had the option of using BitLocker Drive Encryption, but I decided not to use it.

BitLocker actually makes a good deal of sense. In particular, if I was planning to lug around a Vista-only laptop, I'd like knowing that if anyone swiped it, they wouldn't be able to easily get at my data.

For me, though, that has two problems. The first is that it requires a TPM (Trusted Platform Module) 1.1 chip or a USB drive. While the HP doesn't have a TPM chip, it does have six USB 2.0 ports. But, if I use a USB drive to keep my BitLocker encryption key on, isn't it always going to be on my machine anyway? Now, this doesn't really matter with this hefty tower system, but if I were using a notebook, anyone who grabbed my laptop bag would also be likely to get my USB BitLocker key at the same time.

The real problem for dual-booting with BitLocker is that it blocks Linux from accessing any data in that partition. Security guru Bruce Schneier thinks "You could look at BitLocker as anti-Linux because it frustrates dual boot," but I don't think it does. Even with BitLocker installed, Vista still needs an unencrypted partition to boot from, so dual-booting should still work. It's just that getting at data on the BitLocker-protected NTFS partition will be close to impossible for Linux users.

One final thought on BitLocker before I go. Microsoft has only made it available on its Enterprise and Ultimate editions. Enterprise is only available to volume buyers, and Ultimate's the most expensive Vista of them all. I find it more than a little annoying that small business users will have to upgrade to Ultimate to get what I think of as one of Vista's best points for business users.

As for Linux and disk encryption, this functionality has been baked into Linux using the CryptoAPI since version 2.6.0 first appeared several years ago. For detailed instructions on how to use CryptoAPI, see, A Structured Approach to Hard Disk Encryption. If you don't want to get your hands dirty with this do-it-yourself approach, you can use a GUI-enabled open-source program, TrueCrypt to get the job done.

Now, I started to install Vista. One of Vista's better points is that it will alert you when it runs into hardware that it hasn't a clue on how to handle. On the down side, it will also, like all operating systems, run hardware that it thinks it knows how to run, but it doesn't really have a clue.

With the m7360n, I quickly found that neither Vista nor Ubuntu nor MEPIS could run all of the system's hardware. I found one component that Vista couldn't deal with at all, and several that required some work with MEPIS before I could get them operational.

I'm going to save those stories for the next installment where I talk about hardware compatibility, so I can continue talking about making Vista and Linux dual-bootable. Before I do this, though, let me make one thing clear. People are always talking about how Linux has problems with devices. And, that's true. Vista, however, at this point in its development anyway, also has a goodly number of hardware problems.

For the most part, both the Vista and MEPIS installations went without any problems. Both operating systems come on DVDs and once you boot the system up and start installing them, your "hardest" job will be setting the proper time.

In the case of Vista, though. I did have one of those "What the heck?" moments. If you look at the Windows setup screen you'll see that it lists both Home and Business as choices, but there's really no difference between them. Or, if there is, you sure can't tell it from this display. I do have to wonder for a moment, too, about anyone who's not sure if they're at home or in the office, but I'll let that pass.

One of those "What the heck?" moments.
(Click to enlarge)

Once both systems are on the machine, though, you're going to quickly find that you can only boot the system into Linux, thanks to the unfriendly Vista BCD.

There are several ways to get around this. For Ubuntu-based systems like MEPIS and Kubuntu, which use the GRUB bootloader, here's how you set it up.

First, you want to switch to root, aka super-user mode. MEPIS enables me to do this with the su command. Most of the Ubuntu family requires you to use the sudo command. For our purposes, changing the bootloader settings in Ubuntu with its sudo settings will work in exactly the same way.

Then, in most of Linuxes, you open up the file /boot/grub/menu.lst with your favorite text editor, not word-processor. In my case, that's vi in a terminal window.

Configuring GRUB to dual-boot Linux and Vista
(Click to enlarge)

Then, you enter the following lines at the bottom of the file...

    title Vista
    rootnoverify (hd0,1)
    chainloader +1

...and then you save and close it.

In my case, Vista is on my first -- and only -- hard drive's second partition, so the root setting is "hd0,1". If it were on my second drive's first partition, it would be "hd1,0".

Now, when you boot your system up, the first thing you'll see is the MEPIS boot screen. If you want to go to Linux, you just leave it alone and off you go. If you want to boot Vista, simply select it, and that will put you into Vista's BCD menu and you'll be on your way to Vista.

If you want to get fancier, say run Vista, XP, Red Hat, Mac OS X, Ubuntu, Solaris, and -- oh, what the heck -- OS/2, on a system, you should get a high-end boot manager editor. At this time, the best I know of, which can also handle Vista's BCD, is EasyBCD 1.52, from NeoSmart Technologies. This is a Windows-only, freeware program.

My Vista desktop
(Click to enlarge)

My MEPIS desktop
(Click to enlarge)

At the end of this, as you can see, I had both Vista Ultimate and SimplyMEPIS 6.01 installed and running successfully on my PC. Well, mostly successfully. For what went right -- and wrong -- with the system's hardware with both operating systems, stay tuned for the next exciting chapter.

Oh, and yes, that is an Internet Explorer icon on the MEPIS window.

Continue to Part 3 here:

Part 3: Hardware Wars

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