Operating System Backups
If your computer has two physical disk drives, you can use the second drive
for backing up the operating system and data
partitions. Disk-to-disk backups are fast, easy, and convenient.
quicker backup and recovery than tape or writeable optical discs.
You can use disk cloning
tools to copy one
entire disk to another, or partition
copy tools to copy
individual partitions across disks. Here’s a list
of free disk and partition cloning tools. I use HDClone Free
to easily copy an entire disk to a backup disk. Like many of the free
tools, it does the job well. Buy the commercial upgrade and you get a
faster copy plus additional features like data reconciliation, data rescue,
and system restoration.
While you can use tools to back up Linux operating
system partitions, I normally just use a few line commands. Here’s how.
Shutdown the Linux system you want to back up and start up a different
Linux instance. Then mount the partition that contains the Linux
want to back up, and mount the partition you will back it up to. Issue
a cp (copy) command to copy all the files from the source partition you want
to back up over to the destination partition:
cp -av /mnt_source/* /mnt_destination/
On the cp command,
flag is critically important. It recurses through the subdirectories,
so that all files are copied from the source. It also preserves file
attribute bits and does not follow symbolic links. (If you’re
into the finer points of the cp
command, coding cp -a is the
equivalent of coding cp -dpR).
The -v flag yields verbose
output. It makes me feel secure to see all the file names flying by on the
screen as the files are copied.
If you need to recover the Linux partition, first make sure the file system
in the partition you wish to recover is good. Then use the cp
command again to copy all the files back to the original partition.
boot and run from the new (backup) location. In this case you may have
to update GRUB to add the backup location as a bootable partition in
the OS selection list. And you might have to update the /etc/fstab file inside the Linux
partition to reflect any changed mount point.
Linux offers many other commands for backup and recovery. In addition to cp you can use dd, tar, gzip
or these backup utilities, and you can optionally archive and compress backups.
I’ve shown just one simple but effective technique I’ve found useful for fast disk-to-disk backups.
Backing up and recovering Windows presents a very different
challenge than Linux. Windows offers an exceptional variety of alternatives for fixing a system without resorting to recovery
from an external source. These include Safe Mode booting, restore
points (aka the System Protection feature), Registry export/import, the
System File Checker, Driver Rollback, booting into the Last Known Good
Configuration, the recovery console, the Windows CD “recovery install,”
and more. You can often fix Windows without restoring from an external
If you do need to recover Windows from an external
backup, your options are restricted by Microsoft’s technologies to
combat software piracy. Windows Product Activation (WPA)
and the Windows Registry
are designed to prevent moving Windows between computers
to protect Microsoft’s property rights (you only license Windows,
not own it). These technologies even prevent attempts to easily replace
the motherboard or the OS-resident disk drive if it fails.
Therefore, use imaging tools for disks and
partitions from vendors of backup/recovery products like Acronis. Line commands for copying files like those I illustrated for Linux are not a valid approach with
Above I described a traditional install of Linux to a
previously owned solely by Windows. Assuming you have enough disk
can follow the procedure to install as many additional Linux
distributions as you like.
Some small Linux distros, for example Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux, offer
another kind of disk install they call the frugal install. (These systems
refer to a traditional disk install as a full install.)
The frugal install simply places the Live CD boot image files on hard disk.
For Puppy Linux this simply means copying three or four files from the Live CD to
These files are placed in a single directory or folder within any
existing partition. This partition can be Windows NTFS or FAT32, or any
common Linux partition types, such as ext2, ext3, ext4, or reiserFS. So
you do not have to create a
new disk partition to perform a frugal install, although you may if you
The benefits to the frugal install are:
- The Linux distro can reside in any existing partition that
has sufficient space
- No need to shrink the Windows partition or create a new Linux
- Easy to upgrade — just replace the older version files with the
ones from a newer version
- Faster boot times than working off a Live CD
With Puppy Linux, these advantages are so compelling that frugal installs more popular than traditional full installs.
No article on installing multiple operating systems would be complete
without a few words about compatibility. Compatibility makes your data
usable across both Windows and Linux. It also addresses whether you can run the same applications under Windows and Linux.
Compatibility between operating systems has several dimensions —
File System Compatibility —
Almost any Linux distribution can read or write files on
Windows-formatted disk partitions (NTFS, VFAT, FAT32, etc). This
also means you can create, copy, move, rename, and delete Windows files
and folders as well.
Whether Windows-formatted disk are automatically accessible or must be
manually mounted before they can be used depends on the Linux
distribution. Puppy Linux, for example, requires that you specifically
mount any Windows partition you want to access, while Lubuntu
dynamically auto-mounts everything in sight.
Windows can not read or write files in common Linux file systems (ext2,
ext3, ext4, reiserFS, etc). But you can easily access Linux file
systems from Windows by downloading any of these free programs:
- Ext2 Installable File System for Windows (Ext2 IFS) — read/write access to ext2 and ext3 file systems
- DiskInternals Linux Reader — read-only access to ext2 and ext3 file systems
- Ext2 File System Driver (Ext2fsd) — a file system driver for read/write access to ext2 and ext3 file systems
- rfstool — read-only access to reiserFS file systems
- LTOOLS — both command line and GUI based read/write access to ext2, ext3, and reiserFS file systems
File Format Compatibility — Since most personal computers
run Windows, to most people file format compatibility means “Can I read
and write Microsoft Office files from Linux applications?”
The answer depends on two factors. First, which Linux office suite are
you using? OpenOffice strives for full read/write
compatibility with Microsoft Office files (Word, Excel, and Powerpoint
documents). GNOME Office has an “import” philosophy.
Its goal is to read Microsoft Office files accurately but it doesn’t support directly writing or updating them. Other office suites have their own approaches.
The other key factor is whether you are talking about traditional MS
Office file formats (.doc, .xls, and .ppt) or whether you refer to the
newer “x files” formats (.docx, .xlsx, and .pptx). The latter are
the Microsoft Open Office XML or OOXML
formats. The OOXML formats became Microsoft’s default file formats
starting with Microsoft Office 2007. You can still find many Windows
users driven to distraction by file format differences between the
newer OOXML file formats and Microsoft’s older file formats (even
though Microsoft offers a free download
so that most pre-2007 releases of MS Office can work with the new OOXML
file formats). Given that Windows’ Automatic Updates feature (aka
Windows Update or Microsoft Update) automatically applies updates to
all Microsoft software including Office, I wonder why this update was not automatically applied to
older Office releases?
My experience has been that OpenOffice offers excellent read/write
compatibilty with traditional MS Office files. I’ve exchanged and updated tons of
Word .doc and Powerpoint .ppt files between various versions of MS Office and OO
Office. I’ve found that OO Office is as compatible with traditional MS
Office files as are different versions of MS Office with each other. For example, OpenOffice 3.x is more
compatible in exchanging files with Microsoft Office 97 than are
Microsoft Office 2003 or 2007. This is probably because Microsoft only
regression-tests back one release. Office 97 is two releases back
from Office 2003, three back from Office 2007, and four back from
Office 2010. You can see the problem. With new Office releases every
three years, compatibility deteriorates unless software is
rigorously regression tested for all
prior releases. From my experience I’ve concluded that Microsoft isn’t
much concerned about compatibility beyond ensuring its latest release
is compatible with its immediately previous release.
When it comes to the OOXML file formats, we have an unfortunate situation.
OpenOffice offers partial compatibility but it still maturing in this requirement. There are even slight
differences in x file compatibility between different versions of OpenOffice, such as Go-oo. Part
of the problem here is that there are different versions of OOXML and that
it is itself evolving. (Get the messy background on this fiasco here.)
I hope the situation is eventually resolved and we get back to a world
of easy compatibility. Frankly, most users need this more than they
need whatever advantages OOXML offers. I’ve never heard a single user
say “I wish I had OOXML.” But I’ve heard many
complain about file format incompatibilities when using different
versions of Microsoft Office. Three years on since the introduction of
OOXML and I still hear user complaints when exchanging Office
files across different companies and organizations!
Applications Compatibility ––
By “applications compatibility” we mean: can Linux run your Windows
applications? Many people find that they have a particular Windows
program they’d like to be able to run under Linux directly. If the
vendor does not already offer a Linux version of the application, try
installing Wine under Linux. Then you can install and run most Windows apps directly under Linux. This list gives you the details on the over 16,000 Windows applications that have been proven to run under Linux using Wine.
If you have really old DOS applications you might install DOSBox on Linux. Designed to run games it also runs many other applications from the DOS and early Windows eras.
How about the inverse case for applications compatibility: can you run
Linux applications under Windows? The general answer is no, not unless
the vendor also supplies a Windows version of the application.
The Bottom Line
Running multiple operating systems on a single computer offers
compelling benefits. It allows you to gain the strengths of two or more
OS’s while only acquiring and maintaining a single computer. For
refurbished computers, multiple OS’s combine the strengths of the
original Windows system, its license, installed applications, and
the thousands of free applications and tools offered by open
source systems. Linux brings free state-of-the-art, secure, supported
software to aging Windows computers. It’s vital to computer
Platform virtualization is the premier method for running multiple
operating systems on current machines, along with Live CD/DVDs or Live
For older systems, Live CDs and multiple OS installs are popular.
Mainstream Linux distributions come with all the tools you need to
co-install multiple operating systems. This includes free tools for
partition management and OS boot selection.
Linux also offers good
Windows compatibility. This includes install co-existence and the
ability to read,
write, and manage Windows files. Office suite compatibility is
situation-dependent. But if it’s important to you there are ways to
achieve it. Linux also runs many Windows applications using facilities
This short article can’t cover all the angles on
running multiple operating systems, so please comment and
your own experiences. What have you learned?
Past articles in this series discussed how to refurbish mature
computers by revitalizing Windows. Two of them told how to secure and
performance tune Windows.
Starting next month I’ll look at how
Linux contributes to refurbishing. We’ll look at Lubuntu,
Puppy Linux, Vector, and other distros as vehicles for reviving mature
systems. I’ll also offer Linux tips and techniques especially suited to
limited-resource computers. Stay tuned and contribute your own
expertise in comments on
these upcoming articles.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who supports
databases and operating systems. His hobby is refurbishing computers as
a form of social work and environmental contribution. You can reach him
at contactfci at the domain
name of sbcglobal (period) net.
|Previous Articles in this Series:|
Reuse with Open Source
|How refurbishing defeats planned
“Recycled” Computers Are Not Recycled
|What really happens to many
to Revitalize Mature Computers
|Overview of how to revitalize
mature computers for reuse
|How to Secure Windows||How to secure Windows|
|How to Performance Tune Windows||How to performance tune Windows|
|How Microsoft Missed the Next Big Thing||Microsoft owns the personal computer but is struggling with the emergence of new, smaller platforms|