Friday, June 4, 2010

Why every Windows user needs a Linux CD...

Even if you're a died-in-the-wool Windows supporter, you NEED to keep a copy of Linux around on a bootable CD. Here's why.

The other day, we experienced a power outage... brief, but it took down a couple of machines that I had yet to protect with a UPS (I know, I know... my bad, but I've only protected the machines with RAID drives in the past as they spend a lot of time checking the drives after a power failure).

In any event, a new Windows 7 desktop refused to boot after the power failure: the first Microsoft Windows splash screen displayed and then nothing except an ominous tock, tock, tock as it sat there doing nothing. I've heard that sound before on a machine that couldn't read the Master Boot Record (MBR - the very first part of the disk that the BIOS uses to start loading the operating system into memory). Fortunately, I had a recent backup of the system, but there was some work on the system that I had just completed, so I figured I'd use my Ubuntu Live CD to check out and save the few updated files (the idea of using Linux to save data on damaged Windows machines is not new: see here, and here for examples. Some of these articles are a little old and there's now even better support for Windows NTFS file systems)

Starting up Linux on your Windows machine is easy: insert your favorite Linux CD (I used Kubuntu 9.04) into the machine and restart the computer. You'll get an option to run Linux without installing it. The fun part is getting Linux to recognize your hard drive. Usually, it will be something like "mount -t NTFS /dev/sdb /media/windrive", but check out the references above for more details... that's not the point of this posting.

The amazing part is that -- once I loaded Linux and issued the mount command, there was a bit of a pause, Kubuntu recognized that the Master Boot Record was corrupted and then...

it automatically fixed the error!

Totally unexpected -- you could have knocked me over with a feather.  I shut down Linux, rebooted the machine and Windows promptly started up just fine and a week later continues to operate with no errors. Saved me my latest updates and a bunch of time not having to do a clean re-install of everything on that machine. Terrific!

Now why can't Microsoft do that?