Taking the good stuff when trading Windows for Linux

Here's how to take your documents, bookmarks, preferences and system settings along when you switch from Windows to Linux. Also, tips on how to choose replacement applications.

So you're switching from Windows to Linux? Great. Like other users and organizations who've taken the plunge, it's likely you're making the move to take advantage of Linux's stability and reliance on open standards. Now all you have to do is prepare carefully for your move.

In this case, careful prep means not just installing Linux on your system -- either on your existing computer or a whole new machine -- but also transferring your documents, bookmarks, preferences and system settings, and in some cases finding equivalent open-source applications for the Windows applications you were using before.

It's not too difficult to find info on how to actually install Linux, but what about the process of migration, of moving what you've been doing on Windows over to Linux and doing the same thing there? Here, we give you the lowdown on the essentials of making a full-blown Windows-to-Linux migration. We tell you what you need to be prepared to do, how to move things over, and what applications to consider as replacements for many common Windows apps.

We won't cover the Linux installation process itself here, which varies widely between distributions. If you don't already have some knowledge of the installation process, put this article aside and get familiar with that process first. Even though installing Linux is a lot easier now than it's ever been, it's hugely useful to be as familiar as you can with the setup process. That way you can best plan how to migrate your data and user settings and not be caught off guard.

Three roads to data migration

There are three basic approaches you can take in migrating your user settings and data from Windows to Linux:

  • Let Ubuntu Linux do it for you. Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distributions out there and, as of right now, the only major distribution that has migration tools built in as part of its setup process.
  • Use a third-party application.
  • Do it yourself.

The last option obviously requires the most expertise of the three, but it also gives you the most flexibility, since you're essentially writing (and punching) your own ticket.

Speaking of maximum flexibility, the work described here is a lot easier if you are migrating to an entirely new PC that has a Linux installation, rather than changing operating systems on an existing PC. With a new machine, you can leave everything exactly as it is on the old system more or less indefinitely. If you must run Linux on the same machine that currently runs your Windows, it's doubly imperative that you back up all your data before you migrate.

Which brings us to Topic A: backup.

But first, back up

Whatever approach you take, the very first thing you should do before attempting a migration is make a full backup of any data that you can't replace. If you choose to migrate documents into new formats, keep the unchanged originals -- if a particular document can't be converted correctly now, you'll always have the original to refer back to.

Make your backup in a format that is as platform-neutral as possible, and make it to a device that can be read by either platform. That way, if you later have to restore something on either Windows or Linux, you won't run into any unexpected hassles.

The simplest way to do this is to just copy the files as is to another disk that can be mounted in Linux. Most Linux distributions can now read the FAT32 or NTFS disk formats natively, so you could copy your files to an external hard drive formatted in Windows with either of those file systems, which will then allow you to read the data back easily in Linux. I recommend using NTFS as your target partition type if you're copying from NTFS to begin with, since FAT32 can't support individual files larger than 4GB.

One way to do this is to make a .tgz or .zip archive of the original data to be saved, which you can accomplish with most common archiving utilities. On Windows, 7-Zip has been my favorite choice for a while because it's both free and open source. If you choose to use it as well, use the .zip or .gzip/.tar file formats with the program, not its own proprietary .7z compression format. A Linux version of the program, p7zip, also exists, but since every Linux distribution out there has some way to extract .zip and .gzip archives, those formats are the way to go.

Incidentally, the more stuff you have to move from one platform to the next, the more you may want to reconsider how you store things to begin with. If you're taking the time to migrate to a whole new operating system, maybe now is a good to rethink how you structure your storage. Hard disks have become cheap enough that keeping data entirely segregated on a second drive is no longer an unprecedented concept, and it may save you a lot of work in the long run. (In my own case, I have my personal documents on a second hard drive, separate from the OS installation, and a third drive devoted entirely to my music library.)

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Serdar Yegulalp

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