June 1, 2004

A Windows user's guide to getting started with Linux

Author: Krissi Danielsson

As Linux gains momentum, many longtime Windows users are beginning to take notice. With Linux's legendary stability, security, and low cost, the draw is obvious. But if you're a Windows user, how do you know where to begin? This article summarizes the easiest ways for Windows users to get started in Linux or to make a full migration.

If you are thinking about making a switch but are worried about the hassle of installing a new operating system, you're not alone. It's a common myth that Linux is only for "geeks," but a good number of Windows users fear Linux because the prospect of even installing it is a little intimidating.

Once upon a time, you did have to have a fair amount of technical knowledge if you wanted to work with Linux. The user interface centered around a command prompt, and in order to make anything happen, you had to know a special language of commands. This idea sends shivers down the spines of many Windows users, who typically prefer a graphical layout with icons to click and menus to select.

Installation is considerably easier these days. "If you select a distribution that focuses on ease of use, installation is comparable with Windows," says analyst Stacey Quandt of Quandt Analytics. Xandros, Red Hat, Mandrakesoft and SUSE are particularly easy to install, she says.

In today's Linux you can get a Windows-like graphical user interface with the same level of usability as Windows. In most cases, with a quick glance at the screen, you can't tell whether a system is running Linux or Windows.

There are a number of options available for Windows users who want to try switching to Linux, ranging from running Linux off a bootable CD-ROM to using Linux with a virtualization program that runs Windows applications.

Taking a Linux test drive

"For a first-time user to Linux, I would recommend trying one of the LiveCD distributions, such as Knoppix, Mandrakemove, or SUSE Live-Eval," suggests David Fullard, a server support specialist in West Sussex, United Kingdom.

LiveCD distributions let you boot Linux directly from a CD-ROM, then store your configuration and personal information on a USB keychain hard drive or a designated area of your system's hard drive. They're a good way to test Linux without making sweeping changes to your system. They also give you a way to keep a portable Linux operating system you can pop into any computer and use immediately.

Running Windows and Linux together

If you don't want to handle a CD every time you want to run Linux, you can run both operating systems on the same machine. This approach lets you choose, upon starting your system, whether to use Windows or Linux. You can play with Linux when you choose to, and work in Windows when you need to access your normal programs. If after trying Linux you find you still want to use Windows, you can merely remove the Linux installation. If you find you prefer the stability of Linux, you can make a slow and painless migration of your critical functions until Linux is your primary operating system.

To begin working with this so-called dual booting, you need to partition your hard drive, and that can be an intimidating task if you're not experienced in system setup and configuration. Luckily, numerous leading vendors, including Mandrakesoft, SUSE, and Red Hat, offer distributions that let you pop in a CD-ROM and have it partition your hard drive automatically. The CD-ROM then installs Linux on the newly created partition and gives you the option to choose your operating system on startup.

Running Windows applications on Linux

What if you've tried Linux and decided you want to use it as your primary OS, but you still rely a lot on critical applications that don't run on Linux? Do you have to bite the bullet and run Windows for these applications -- at least until Linux becomes more commonplace and these applications are ported over?

Nope -- at least not usually. A whole genre of code, called virtualization software, exists to allow you to run your Windows applications from Linux. Virtualization software isn't seamless -- currently, it doesn't provide good support for the Direct3D technologies needed to run most Windows games, and support isn't there for DVD drives or writing to CD-R or CD-RW drives, but existing technology lets you run nearly anything else that runs from Windows.

The most popular virtualization methods are listed below. Win4Lin and VMware require a Windows license, but Wine and CrossOver Office do not.

  • Win4Lin: Offered by Austin, Texas-based NeTraverse, this $89 product gives users the opportunity to run Windows within a window on top of Linux. You can access the Windows applications that you rely on and then return to your Linux desktop when you're done. The product has an easy-to-use GUI and supports "hundreds of thousands of native applications," according to Netraverse CEO Jim Curtin. The product is very easy to use. "If you're confident enough to run Linux, our product is a snap," promises Curtin.
  • VMware: From the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company of the same name, which was recently acquired by Hopkinton, Mass.-based EMC Corp., VMware is the most commonly named product for running Windows virtually within Linux. With a starting price of $189, VMware provides users with a full virtual machine that allows multiple operating systems to run unmodified and concurrently on a single PC. In effect, it gives you a full Windows operating system sitting on top of Linux, as opposed to Win4Lin, which is more tightly integrated and which uses the Linux file system rather than creating a virtual one. VMWare provides a much higher level of emulation and is a superb tool for developers and others who require this level of sophistication, but most desktop users will experience faster performance and sufficient emulation through Win4Lin.
  • Wine: Wine is a free technology that aims to provide users with access to the Windows API in order to run DOS and Windows programs. Being a free and open source product, Wine has a lot of potential but is currently not "finished" to the point of being ready for release to the general population. It is a viable option for users who are comfortable with working on the code and tweaking their systems.
  • CrossOver Office: This $55 product from St. Paul, Minn.-based CodeWeavers Inc. is basically an optimized version of Wine. It lets you install Microsoft Office, Lotus Notes, and other Windows productivity applications under Linux without needing a license for the Windows operating system. However, support is limited to these key office applications. If the Windows applications you need aren't on the list, CrossOver Office isn't going to get you off of Windows.

If you do plan to fully migrate, consider trying applications that run on both platforms to get comfortable before your move. You can install and test these programs while you're still on Windows, then keep using them after you've migrated to Linux.

There are several multi-platform office productivity suites, including OpenOffice and the slightly more feature-rich StarOffice. Both allow you to save files in Microsoft-compatible formats. For Internet browsing and email, try switching to Netscape if you don't already use it, since it is available for Linux and will give you almost the same capability as you can get with Microsoft Internet Explorer and Outlook Express. For messaging, Gaim is a good choice and is compatible with most commonly used instant messaging networks, and XChat is an IRC messaging client that works on both Windows and Linux.

And if that doesn't work ...

One of the best things about Linux is that there's a huge quantity of Web resources and helpful online communities to get you started. If you run into problems with Linux, you usually can find answers online.

"The Linux Documentation Project has helped me a lot since I started using Linux," says Fullard. "IRC chat rooms are good too. A lot of my questions are answered in these, full with people to share their experiences with Linux." One popular network is DALnet (irc.dal.net), which has channels at #linux, #linuxhelp, #linuxtech, and #LinuxOS, and there are dozens more networks available.

Clearly, switching to Linux or running it alongside Windows isn't necessarily the difficult task it might sound like at first.

Krissi Danielsson is a freelance writer in Marina, Calif., and the author of two books and dozens of articles.


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