The beginning of the end for Windows XP

On Friday last week I finally had the last straw with Windows. Under duress I had installed Service Pack 3 on my main PC to try and fix an issue I was having. It not only didn’t help the issue, but it meant my Remote Desktop stopped working. I spent quite some time trying to fathom what had gone wrong, but to no avail.

Later that day I awoke my laptop from standby and was informed that I had to reboot to install some critical updates. The dialog box gave me two options: “Reboot Now” or “Reboot Later”. Unfortunately, for reasons I don’t quite understand, the “Reboot Later” option was greyed out.

Now I don’t know about you, but at the point where a computer decides it knows best about whether to suddenly shut down all your open applications and reboot, it’s time to find a new operating system. I don’t think I’m alone in this, it seems pretty fashionable to bash Microsoft at the moment, what with the cockup of the Vista launch.

For some time I’ve been humming and harring about installing Ubuntu GNU/Linux. It’s been around for ages, I know, and has been pretty well received by everyone. My existing Linux boxes (relegated to the loft) have always run Debian — and I’ve been very happy with their distribution — but I thought I’d see what all the buzz was about and install a more contemporary system.

Although I had ensured my BackupPC backups of all my data were up to date, just to be paranoid I also took a VMWare snapshot of my XP machine before I hosed it completely. That took a few hours, as I was storing the data on my relatively slow file server. It was a surreal experience to power it down, and then as a test bring up a virtual equivalent on my laptop. I wouldn’t recommend running a virtual OS’s disks over Samba on a wireless network though — it took about 15 minutes to boot, and about the same to shut down, all I/O bound.

Safely backed up, I burnt the Ubuntu installer to CD and rebooted. First problem: my RAID setup.

When I built my home computer I was sure that the majority of the time spent compiling was actually waiting for I/O. To try and speed up my builds I splashed out on a couple of 10,000 RPM Raptor disks, and set them up in RAID 0 using the NVidia RAID BIOS. I’m not entirely convinced it was worth it, although I did get some pretty benchmark graphs.

The RAID turned out to be a right sticking point — it’s not supported by the Ubuntu installer. A bit of trawling around turned up this article, which was a great help, though a little out of date. I wish I had written down what I actually ended up doing to get everything working as I’m sure it would make this post a lot more useful, but it was about 3:30am that everything fell together and I wasn’t at my most lucid. The one thing I remember is that the installer let me mistakenly mark my /boot partition as being swap, which didn’t stop it formatting it as ext3 and installing everything fine, but did stop grub from installing with the very unhelpful error message Grub Error 15 - Partition Table Invalid. So, if you see that during grub installation, check your partitions are marked as the correct type.

Anyway, cutting a long story short, I now have a very shiny Ubuntu installation. I’m very pleased with it so far, all the whizz-bang windowing effects aren’t annoying me (yet), and the programs installed by default seem very good. Bear in mind that although I’ve been using and hacking about with Linux for over ten years, this is the first time I’ve actually used it in a windowed environment. My idea of a Linux box is still something you see at the end of a PuTTY terminal, so I’ve got a lot to learn.

For now, I’m keeping the laptop on Windows, but the long-term plan is to move that over to Linux too, once I’ve checked Ness can still VPN into her work with it.

Filed under: Blog
Posted at 23:00:00 BST on 1st June 2008.

About Matt Godbolt

Matt Godbolt is a C++ developer working in Chicago in the finance industry.