Saturday, August 28, 2010

Transitioning Away from Windows Toward Ubuntu: The Next Step

In September 2008, I reached a point of relative stasis in the development of my computer setup.  I was using two computers, each with its own monitor, but with a common mouse and keyboard via KVM switch.  Both computers were dual-boot setups, so that I could have gone into Windows or Ubuntu on either one; but I tended to just use one or the other.  Specifically, on one computer, I installed Ubuntu and then used VMware Workstation to run Windows XP in virtual machines (VMs).  On the other computer, I was almost always running Windows XP, rarely going into Ubuntu.

I had assumed, there at the end of summer 2008, that I would be revisiting this layout in summer 2009.  Generally, that didn't happen.  Instead, two years passed.  At this point in 2010, however, I found that there had been some developments, such that this system could evolve.

One development was that, sometime in the intervening two years, I set up a third desktop computer.  It was mostly a collection of hand-me-down parts, but it ran Windows XP well enough.  If I really needed to do something in XP, I probably could do it there.  Moreover, I had acquired a laptop, for a bargain price of around $350 -- plus another $250 or so that I didn't entirely expect to spend, when I went to the store, for an extended warranty, laptop sleeve, screen protector, wireless mouse, etc.  Such a deal!  Anyway, neither the laptop nor the bucket-shop computer were anything to write home about, but they would serve in a pinch.

Another development was that I had run into several systems problems on the primary Windows XP machine.  It still ran stably, but I was getting occasional flaky problems.  Probably there would have been a list of them, if I had taken a minute to list the ways in which the machine was not performing up to snuff.

Probably the most worrisome such problem was that I had reached a dead-end in my efforts to install Windows updates on that primary machine.  It just wouldn't install them.  I had revisited the problem repeatedly.  At this point, it would probably have been more effective to just reinstall WinXP from scratch on that machine.

That update situation had been persisting for a while.  It hadn't bothered me much.  Recently, though, something else had happened.  I had somehow started using McAfee antivirus software, and I had just discovered that McAfee had been piling up gigabytes of stuff in .bup files.  I was concerned that this feat would have been possible only by mixing in data files; therefore, I had begun an effort to compare against an old backup and figure out what, if anything, might have gone missing over the past several months or longer.  So that was the end of McAfee, for me, but it was also a wake-up call to take computer security more seriously.  That meant keeping updates installed, but perhaps it also meant it was time to continue my migration away from Windows.

For such reasons, I thought it might be time to consider running both of my primary computers under the same kind of Ubuntu - VMware - WinXP VM setup.  If I needed XP, I could still drop back into the dual-boot, or just use that hand-me-down computer.  If I needed Vista or Windows 7, I could use the laptop, which was presently running the one but which apparently qualified for a free upgrade to the other.

In addition to those developments on the Windows side, things had also been happening on the Ubuntu side of the equation.  First, the good things.  Ubuntu was looking good and running well.  I had learned a bit more about Wine.  Generally, I was continuing to become more familiar and comfortable with the world beyond Windows.  I still had occasional issues with VMware, but generally nothing lethal.  As an additional consideration, Oracle had created the impression that it might be positioning VirtualBox to compete effectively with VMware.  Even without that, it was still nice that I could leave a WinXP VM running in Ubuntu for a week without needing to reboot it, while that would just never work on the native WinXP machine.

At the same time, after these several years of experimenting with Ubuntu, I had to agree with someone who had said that Linux distributions still tended to be terribly unpolished in comparison with Windows.  Somewhat contrary to my expectations, I was not finding many instances in which Ubuntu programs were delivering superior functionality and reliability.  For instance, I had bought a copy of Beyond Compare, a file synchronization program.  (I subsequently realized that I probably could have gotten by with a freeware alternative, but whatever.)  There were Windows and Linux versions of Beyond Compare.  The Linux version did not seem to be very actively developed, and it was having problems that I wasn't having in the Windows version.  The same was true elsewhere.  I was still using IrfanView, which did not yet have a Linux version; I was still using CoolEdit 2000, because it had features that Audacity did not provide.  Generally, I was finding that Ubuntu was great as an operating system; I was finding it useful as an underlying layer, to handle tasks that WinXP couldn't handle (e.g., delete files that WinXP couldn't delete); I found that WinXP running in a VM on Ubuntu was more stable (although slower) than a native WinXP installation.  But at the point of application, for my purposes, Ubuntu wasn't a serious competitor against Windows XP.  And I was increasingly unwilling to invest the time to learn how to do everything in two or more different ways.

My conclusion, at this point, was that the best of both worlds called for running Windows XP within virtual machines (in VMware or otherwise) on an Ubuntu operating system base, on an Ubuntu/XP dual-boot computer.  I had already worked through many of the issues in this sort of setup, and could therefore hope to be efficient and preserve multiple troubleshooting options without too much of a time investment.  If Windows 7, Ubuntu, or some other operating system (OS) began to display capabilities that I badly needed, I would hopefully be able to incorporate those OSs into my setup, one computer at a time, without too much disruption overall.