Decision Support: Four issues to consider when planning a multiboot Windows system

Consider hardware compatibility, system requirements, boot sequence, and file system compatibility when configuring a multiboot machine.

A multiboot system turns a single laptop (or desktop) into a versatile tool, and if you support multiple operating systems, it's a must. Though Windows 2000's and Windows XP's advance setup features have made configuring a multiboot machine significantly simpler in recent years, you can still run into problems if you don't consider these issues:
  • Hardware compatibility
  • System requirements
  • Boot sequence
  • File system compatibility

In this article, I'll explain the critical role these issues play in a Windows installation and what you should do to keep them from causing problems.

Check the HCL and system requirements
It pays to check out Microsoft’s Hardware Compatibility List (HCL), which is included on the Windows 2000 CD and on Microsoft's Web site, because if there is an issue with compatibility, your installation can fail at the end after you already invested a significant amount of time and effort.

To avoid compatibility issues, open the machine, find the motherboard model number, and check the manufacturer’s Web site for any updates or known problems. While inside the PC, also look for older devices (e.g., sound cards and ISA devices) and then check their manufacturers' Web sites for updates. On a no-name OEM desktop, boot up the machine, record the BIOS manufacturer and version, and then check the manufacturer's Web site for updates.

You'll also need to consider the minimum system requirements for each operating system, including hard drive space. Windows 95 can require up to 300 MB depending on the installation options. A full Windows 98 installation typically requires 225 MB on a FAT drive but may range from 165 MB to 355 MB, depending on your computer configuration and installation options. On a FAT32 drive, Windows 98 requires 175 MB, but again this value may range from 140 MB to 255 MB, depending on the computer's configuration and your installation options. Windows NT Workstation requires at least 110 MB of free disk space and Windows 2000 Pro requires a 2.0 GB hard drive with at least 1.0 GB of free space. Windows XP needs a whopping 1.5 GB of free space.

For a complete listing of the minimum and recommended system requirements for each Windows OS, check out Microsoft Knowledge Base article Q304297.

Check the boot sequence
Next check the BIOS settings for the boot sequence. Typically, the floppy drive is first then the hard drive. But depending on which Windows version you want to install, it may be more convenient—and indeed necessary—to add the machine's CD-ROM to the boot order. You can change it back after you've finished all the installations.

If the machine won’t boot from a CD-ROM drive and you plan to install Windows 2000 or XP, you have three options: Install each OS from a network connection, execute the Winnt.exe program from the i386 directory on the Windows 2000 or XP CD, or create setup disks for each OS. If you plan to create setup disks, you'll need to run Makeboot.exe from the Windows 2000 CD to create the setup disks for that OS, but you'll have to download the setup disks for Windows XP from Microsoft's Web site. Check out Microsoft Knowledge Base Article Q310994 for more information and download links.

File system compatibility
Finally, you'll need to consider file system compatibilities. The different Windows file systems are FAT, FAT32 (newer version that supports larger hard drives) and NTFS. FAT is the oldest and is compatible with all flavors of Windows, although the security functionality available within Windows NT, 2000, or XP will not be available. That’s only possible with NTFS. However, NTFS is only compatible with Windows NT, 2000 and XP. Windows 3x or 9x cannot read NTFS partitions. Click here for a more in-depth explanation of the FAT, HPFS, and NTFS file systems.

Stay tuned
All in all, there are many more advantages to a multiboot system and, with the arrival of the “smarter” Windows 2000, XP and .NET, they’ve become easier to configure and maintain. In my next article, I'll walk you through actually creating a multiboot system with Windows 98, 2000, and XP.

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