Migrating to Linux in 5 Steps

1. A Fresh Copy of your Favorite Distro

There are many different ways to get a Linux distribution. My favorite place to view the list of available distros and their features is a site called Distrowatch. Here you will find the most popular Linux distros ranked by their hits per day. You can explore many different distros and compare them to find one that meets your needs. When you find one simply click on the download link in the description and on you go.

Another way you can grab a Linux distro is just to go to the distribution’s website. For example, if you have heard good things about Ubuntu you can go to their website, and click on the download button.

When downloading distros from the Internet they will often times be cateogrized by their Arch type. You will see things like, i386, x86, power pc, and x86-64. If you have a PC i386 or x86 will work. This is the arch type for standard Intel and AMD type processors. If you know your processor is 64bit you can take advantage of x86-64; however, i386 also works on 64bit processors, but not the other way around.

If you don’t have a fast connection or can’t figure out how to burn the CD there is another option. Ubuntu offers the ability to get a free CD sent in the mail.

2. Back up your Data

Before doing anything major, like changing operating systems, on a computer it is wise to create a backup of your data. After seeing many blunders in the past few weeks in regards to data storage I cannot stress the importance of backup enough. In fact, even if you are not planning on installing a new operating system I would recommend backing up your system right away if you haven’t already.

There are two ways to go about backing up data:

Backup your entire system using hard drive imaging. This involves taking a bit by bit copy of the hard drive and storing these bits in a file on another medium, such as another hard drive, tape backup, CD/DVD, or flash disk. The advantage of doing backups in this way is that you can restore your hard drive to the exact state it was in when you made the image. This means you wouldn’t have to reinstall Windows and all of your programs you simply restore your computer exactly how it was when you created the image. The downside to this method actually resides in its strength. It will restore exactly how it was. Any data added to the hard drive after the image will be written over. This method also requires you to save files that you may ore may not need as it clones the entire partition/drive.

Clonezilla (free), Norton Ghost, and Acronis Trueimage are popular choices for making hard drive images.

Backup your data by copying files. This is probably the most common method of backup, where the user stores a copy of his/her important files onto another medium. The downside to this method is that you will have to reinstall the operating system and any programs that were installed if there is ever system corruption.

I suggest making a hard drive image of your operating system drive and doing a regular “file copy” backup on your storage/data drives. This will allow you to restore your system in the least amount of time with no data or configuration loss.

Before installing a new operating system you can limit accidental data loss by unplugging drives that you don’t intend to install to. After suffering from an accidental format of the wrong hard drive a number of years ago I tend to limit my risk by unplugging all hard drives that I don’t plan on installing Linux to. This includes storage drives and any drive that might contain an installation of another operating system.

3. Is your hardware compatible?

In modern Linux distributions hardware compatibility is usually not an issue; however, it is easy to check hardware issues with a LiveCD. Ubuntu for example will automatically detect and install all of my hardware including hardware that would otherwise require additional downloads on a Windows machine, but sometimes there is that one device that doesn’t work. Booting into a LiveCD will give you an indication right away if you are going to have a hard time with your new Linux installation. Most Linux distros come with a LiveCD and many of their installation’s start from a LiveCD environment. This lets you test drive it before you decide to install. Take advantage of this and play around with all of your hardware in the live environment before you go ahead with the install.

Why isn’t my hardware supported? Most hardware is supported in Linux; however, sometimes a manufacturer doesn’t create drivers for the hardware as Linux has a smaller market share than Windows and Mac OSX. When this occurs the Linux community will attempt to reverse engineer existing drivers and make a Linux compatible set. Results from this vary from actually working better than the original Windows ones, to not working at all.

4. Identify your essential programs

The next step is to write down the applications that you use every day. This will help you determine what to install once you get Linux up and running.

Sometimes your favorite app will be natively available in Linux and sometimes it won’t be available at all. Don’t worry, many of the applications you use in Windows have a Linux equivalent that is equal or better that its Windows counterpart. You can find a bunch of them by just googleing for ‘linux equivalents to windows software’.

Be careful not to get stuck in thinking about software in the traditional Windows way. In Linux certain programs like, anti-spyware and anti-virus are not necessary. Other times you will think you need a specific Windows application only to realize later than in Linux you no longer need it or find a better way to get the same task done.

For apps that you cannot find a replacement there is always Wine or Virtualbox. Understandably there are apps that don’t make it to Linux that you simply can’t live without. Wine is a compatibility layer that can sometimes get Windows apps working in Linux. For Apps that don’t run under Wine you can always run in a virtual machine using free tools like VirtualBox.

For people that mostly do web development check out, Web Developing in Linux

5. Have a fresh hard drive/partition ready to go

When your backup is finished make sure you have an entire drive or partition ready for Linux before you install. It helps to keep Linux on it’s own drive. This makes installation easier for beginners and allows you to have the installation do the partitioning for you. Having it on a separate hard drive also keeps the MBR (master boot record) from causing dual boot issues (usually caused by Windows).