November 17, 2003

Win4Lin a win for transitioning to Linux

Author: Lee Schlesinger

A few weeks ago I bemoaned the state of Windows compatibility for Linux. I was disappointed with Wine and CrossOver Office. I noted that VMware was a better, if more expensive, solution. Readers quickly told me I was missing something -- Netraverse's Win4Lin, which lets you run Windows from within Linux. And, after playing with Win4Lin for some time now, I see how right they were.

You can use Win4Lin with Windows 95, 98, and ME, but not 2000, NT, or XP. You need a Windows boot diskette as well as a Windows CD. Be sure your boot diskette matches the version of the CD; the first time I tried, they didn't match, and the error message I got was obscure enough to send me to Netraverse's tech support department. Also be sure you're not trying to install it on a laptop that doesn't hot-swap its removable diskette and CD drives; that's what stopped me on my second try.

Once I had set up Lindows on another test machine, however, I had no more install troubles. I downloaded a win4lin-install script and followed the instructions, insert the Windows diskette and CD when prompted. When I was done, voilà, I had Windows running under Lindows.

Under Win4Lin, Windows starts up amazingly quickly, since it's on a virtual, not a physical machine. It also exhibits other, less welcome behaviors, like the famous Windows Blue Screen of Death, but no more frequently than Windows alone. I was also troubled with the Win4Lin window turning black every time I pushed it to the background then brought it again to the foreground. That's a problem with the default X Window installation, solved by adding the line Option "backingStore" "on" to the end of the Screen section of /etc/X11/XF86Config-4 and restarting Win4Lin.

I had good luck with application compatibility. I'm writing this article using my favorite HTML editor, NoteTab, in a Win4Lin window. Pirate application Kazaa Lite K++, which I thought might be a tough test, works like a charm.

I had one more serious problem, with network remote control utility GoToMyPC. The client failed to connect to the company's server. NeTraverse's responsive support staff (hi Amanda) gave me a number of options to try. I finally heard from the director of software engineering, who said I'd found a bug and gave me a workaround.

Win4Lin layers Windows over the Linux filesystem and networking facilities. A company white paper illustrates how the product uses Linux processes, kernel hooks, and drivers to run Windows from within Linux.

Win4Lin is the best Linux transition tool I've seen. Cost is not much of an object -- each desktop costs $90 and requires a valid Microsoft operating system license, which presumably anyone interested in Win4Lin already has. That's less than the cost of an upgrade to Windows XP, doesn't require users to upgrade their desktop hardware to support new operating system demands, and lets users painlessly transition from their old systems to similar applications under Linux. Win4Lin makes CrossOver Office unnecessary, since it runs all the same applications as that product and more. And it's less expensive and doesn't require the additional resources (particularly memory) of VMware.


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