“Linux rocks!” “No, it’s lame–stick with Windows!” Visit any Web site or online forum where impassioned computer users debate the relative merits of operating systems, and you’ll find endless disagreement. The only way to determine which operating system fits your needs is to run both on the same PC, configured for dual-booting. You also need to be able to access your data files from either OS, which is the trickiest part of the process.
Creating a dual-boot setup on a Windows machine is as easy as selecting that option when you install Ubuntu. As you switch between the two operating systems in your day-to-day work, you’ll be able to assess for yourself the killer features, incompatibilities, and showstopping flaws that make one a better choice than the other.
On a dual-boot system, Linux and Windows reside on separate disk partitions, each of which is formatted differently. Even though the file systems are incompatible, most recent versions of Linux can at least read files on Windows XP’s NTFS partitions, though this may not be enabled by default. Few Linux distributions can write files to an NTFS partition right out of the box, and the reliability of this function hasn’t yet been proven, so trust it at your data’s peril. In addition, the software required to write files from Linux to NTFS drives is difficult to download and install.
Windows, conversely, lacks the native ability to read and write files on any of the several Linux file systems. The nifty and free Ext2 Installable File System for Windows permits Windows XP to read and write in the Ext2 and Ext3 file systems many Linux distributions use (it doesn’t work with the ReiserFS file system, however). While this is handy, especially if you spend most of your time using Linux and you keep your files there, I recommend another option: creating a separate partition for your data that uses the older FAT32 file system, which both Linux and Windows XP can read from and write to. In fact, FAT32 has been included with every version of Windows since 95’s Service Release 2.
FAT32 lacks the user-access security features of Linux’s Ext2/3 and Windows’ NTFS, but creating a separate FAT32 partition for your data allows you to install or upgrade your operating systems without having to back up or restore your data files. It also lets you read and write that data with minimal add-on downloading and configuration. If you need some assistance in resizing your existing partitions to create a new FAT32 partition, look no further than the free Partition Logic utility.
Mount That Drive
After you create your FAT32 data partition, you’ll be able to write to it in Windows XP immediately. When you boot into Ubuntu Linux (I use Ubuntu 6.06), the partition appears in the Computer window (Places, Computer), but any attempts you make to open it will fail. That’s because Ubuntu hasn’t yet mounted the drive (see FIGURE 1Figure 1: Ubuntu sees your data, but it can’t mount the partition for reading and writing until you take additional steps.). To instruct it to do so, click the Show more details link in the error message window, and jot down the partition’s name–usually it’s ‘/dev/hdxy‘, where x is the hard disk (the first one installed on your system is ‘a’, the second is ‘b’, and so on) and y is the partition number. For example, if your FAT32 partition is the second one created on a PC containing a single hard disk, it would be ‘/dev/hda2’. SCSI and SATA drives appear in the format ‘/dev/sdxy‘.
Next, click Applications, Accessories, Terminal to open a command-line window, and enter the command gksudo gedit /etc/pmount.allow to open the file pmount.allow for editing. Type the partition name on the last line, click the Save icon, and close the editor. Now return to the Computer window, right-click the FAT32 partition, and choose Mount Volume. Close all open Computer windows, and then reopen one; your partition will now be accessible. You can use the same method to mount NTFS partitions, but in read-only mode. For more detail on these steps, as well as other strategies for reading and writing to Windows partitions in Ubuntu Linux, see the Ubuntu community documentation.
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