At a time when some organizations are investigating the possibility of running Linux instead of Windows on some or all of their desktops, support departments face the possibility of having to support both operating systems. While there are many ways to do this, one that I think works well involves installing both operating systems on a single machine and dual booting.

There are several reasons why it’s a good idea. First, you’re going to need a Linux machine to run tests on before rolling out Linux company-wide. Second, once Linux has been rolled out, you’ll also need a machine that you can use for troubleshooting problems when they occur. Third, if your help desk has multiple techs, each will probably need its own Linux installation for troubleshooting purposes. To save money and space, you can use one machine to boot both OSs. Enter the dual-boot computer.

In this article, I’ll explain how to configure a dual-boot Windows XP and Red Hat Linux 7.3 system.

The VMware option
I know what some of you are saying. Why not just run VMware? While VMware allows you to easily switch between multiple operating systems and perform routine tasks, a dual-boot computer works better for testing and troubleshooting—especially when it comes to hardware. VMware also has issues with some Windows operating system features, which makes dual booting your only option.

What to do first?
This article assumes that you can wipe your machine clean and start fresh. If you can’t, and you already have Windows loaded, you will need to purchase a program such as Partition Magic to free up enough space on the hard drive to install Linux. My test machine is a 1-GHz Pentium III with 192 MB RAM and 4 GB of hard drive space.

Loosely, the order of things will be as follows:

  • ·        Install Windows XP Professional and give it 2.0 GB of space out of the 4 GB available.
  • ·        Install Red Hat Linux 7.3 into the other 2 GB.

Simple, eh?

Installing Windows XP Professional
To dual boot, you can install Windows XP exactly as you normally would, while making sure to leave room for the Linux partition. For more information on installing Windows XP, check out Brien Posey’s articles on basic installation and troubleshooting failed installations.

Installing Red Hat Linux 7.3
Once Windows XP is installed, you can install Red Hat Linux 7.3 by inserting CD One of three and letting it boot. Then, just follow the instructions on the screen. When it’s time to partition the disk, I chose the default option to Remove All Linux Partitions On This System since I had no Linux partitions (see Figure A).

Figure A
Choose an automatic partitioning option.

Choosing this option will give you a warning that all of your data is going to be removed from the Linux partition. Don’t worry about this warning, because on a fresh system there is no data to be removed. On the next screen, the Linux installer breaks down the layout of the hard drive for you to look at (see Figure B).

Figure B
Partition layout overview

At the top of the partition layout, you see that /dev/hda1 is of the type NTFS/HPFS. This is your Windows XP partition. Below that, there are four partitions for Linux. The first one is an ext3 partition labeled /boot. The ext3 type is the standard file system type for Red Hat Linux 7.3 and /boot is the name of the Linux boot partition. Next, there is another ext3 partition named /, which is the rest of the Linux file system. Finally, on an extended type partition, there is a swap partition, which every Linux system needs. After this step, you need to configure the Linux boot loader that is named GRUB.

GRUB will detect that there is already an OS installed in the master boot record and will give you on opportunity to configure it. This is a critical step. If you don’t configure it here, you will have to manually edit the configuration files later. For my installation, I named the hda1 partition Windows XP and then clicked Next to continued to complete the installation by installing what I needed to run my system (see Figure C).

Figure C
Boot Loader configuration

Once Linux is fully installed, the system will automatically reboot, and you will be greeted with the GRUB boot loader screen (see Figure D).

Figure D
GRUB boot loader showing both operating systems

Choosing Windows XP from the list will start up Windows XP, as it should; choosing Red Hat Linux will start that OS instead. If you don’t choose any OS selection, Red Hat Linux will start by default.

If you forgot the portion during setup where you needed to tell the system that you also have Windows XP, editing the file /etc/grub.conf and adding the information will do the trick for you. Since you first need to know where everything is (i.e., where the Windows XP partition resides, etc.), you can use the Linux fdisk command to view this. To use it, issue the command:
fdisk /dev/hda

Once inside fdisk, issue a p command to print the partition table.

The contents of my /etc/grub.conf to dual boot the system are shown in Listing A.

You’re good to go
When complete, you’ll have a fully functional, dual-booting system with Windows XP and Red Hat Linux 7.3 residing on the same system. Running both operating systems on one machine will allow you to properly test the actual hardware on which you will be running Linux at a big savings.

Musical operating systems?

How many different desktop and PDA operating systems does you help desk support? If your help desk supports multiple operating systems, are your techs already running dual-boot machines? If you support both Linux and Windows, what have you found to be the best option: dual boot or a product such as VMware for troubleshooting? Post a comment to this article and share your experiences.