2008-11-20  The Great JezUK Computing Lab Infrastructure Rejiggle of 2008 - A Magic Piece of Software

So I've got a computer constantly reminding me of its age, a fear of breaking stuff that already works, no real desire to buy lots of new kit, and (if I'm being honest) a big case of the lazies. I know I'm going to have to rejig my various machines, ideally bringing all their functions together onto one box running a reasonable recent Linux, but I don't want to break anything that already works in the process.

Using Linux for your home server really isn't something you need to think too hard about. It doesn't cost anything, for a start, and it works with pretty much any hardware you throw it at. More importantly, everything you can control through a shiny GUI you can also control through the command line. This means your server doesn't need to have a keyboard, mouse, and monitor connected to it. You can just login in as and when you need to, do whatever it is, and clear out again. Anyone who tells you that you can remotely administer a Windows box with the same ease had never had to troll down four flights of stairs, sign for a key, and proceed with a minder through two sets of security doors to gain access to a server, solely to spend thirty seconds dinking round with a mouse.

As a further block to my actually doing anything, Etrigan, the box that I would use as the all-in-one server was running Windows. Installing Linux alongside an existing Windows installation tends to involve repartitioning the disk. When I read words like repartitioning what I hear is potentially destructive low-level disk voodoo. Now while I know lots of people have done this kind of thing without a problem (indeed I've done it myself in the past), these days I take a rather more conservative view. It's not data loss I'm worried about here, it's (as I'm sure you've gathered by now) utility loss. So I didn't do anything.

I briefly considered virtualisation. Running a Linux server inside a virtual machine running on the Windows box is entirely possible, and even rather useful. However, I'm not sure it really makes for a sensible long term solution. Not for an amateur sysadmin, who'd really rather not touch anything ever again once it's all up and going.

And then one day, while I was reading about something entirely unrelated I saw a reference to a something else that reminded me of yet another a thing, and suddenly all the dominoes were in a row and the magical inertia busting piece of software I needed revealed itself to me. That software is Wubi.

Wubi is ...

an officially supported Ubuntu installer for Windows users that can bring you to the Linux world with a single click. Wubi allows you to install and uninstall Ubuntu as any other Windows application, in a simple and safe way.
Linux installed onto a Windows filesystem, with only the boot record updated. OK, modifying the MBR still smacks of potentially destructive low-level disk voodoo, but it's significant lower risk than repartitioning. If a repartition goes wonky you've probably had it, but an MBR should be repairable.

So I downloaded Wubi and had a go. There's not a great deal to tell after that, because it did exactly what it said it would. It installed Linux onto my machine, adding a new boot option. If I boot into Windows, the machine is just as it was before. If I boot into Linux, I get a shiny new Linux box to prod and poke and configure.

And that's really bloody marvellous. I can take as long as I like to configure the Linux personality, because the Windows personality is always there to fall back on. If I get a bit carried away with apt-get and screw up the Linux install, I can flip back to Windows to uninstall and just start again.

I did, in fact, have to do that. The current Ubuntu release didn't play nicely with my machine and its AMD Athlon 64 processor. It would run for a little while perfectly normally, then completely freeze. I'm assuming some kernel strangeness. I had another go, this time using the previous release, and it's been absolutely fine.

A few hours fiddling later, I was viewing everything from entirely the other side. Before, I considered myself pragmatic and careful. Now, I saw myself as having been conservative to the point of paralysis, and wondering what on Earth it was I'd been worried about. With Etrigan now handling the email and serving up Subversion repositories, I took a bit of breath, gave Animal's power switch a firm push, and everything carried on working. Only much more quietly.

Executive summary: Wubi - remarkable piece of kit.

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Jez Higgins