Emergency Linux Migration Guide by Paul Whitaker
This guide is meant to ease the process of transitioning from Windows to Linux, but it is meant to be an overview of the whole process rather than a detailed step-by-step (when you know where to look, which you soon will, the step-by-step stuff is all very well documented any way, so that’s not a problem).
Why you need to escape from Windows
Almost all major computer security problems, from high end milspec cyber weapons like StuxNet to Gameover/Zeus depend entirely on the absence of substantial security features in Microsoft products. Windows is a house built on the sand of the old DOS operating system which was perfectly fit for purpose back when a PC consisted of two floppy disks and a monitor.
Over the years dazzling glass towers have sprung up on top of this slippery foundation but there has never been a Year 0 revision of the logic by which Windows handles access to these files. This is the heart of an endemic problem, Windows handles networking with the same oblivious bliss with which it handles files. Of course you can run a firewall on a Windows system. You might as well padlock the zip on a tent.
If you are a member of the 1% get yourself a Mac, there is much to despise about the the way Apple treats it’s consumer herd and the pervasively patronizing belief they have that if they ever put more than one button on anything us idiots will all press the wrong one, but their products don’t run Windows so they are secure – if more in the sense that a prison is than in the super awesome Bond-villain underground fortress sense.
But you want the super awesome Bond villain underground fortress right? RIGHT! That’s where Linux comes to the rescue:
>>>IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER WHICH ONLY AN IDOT WOULD NEED BUT WHICH I’M GOING TO SUBJECT YOU TO ANYWAY CUZ, WELL, LET’S FACE IT…
Linux (along with MacOS if you can afford it) really is the panacea to almost all known ills (with the exception of a handful of academic projects which have never been sighted in the wild for example viruses do not exist for Linux). This doesn’t mean it’ll be totally perfect in every way for ever and you will still get the emails from Nigerian princes, browser hijacks and other cheap tricks which don’t depend on software running on your own machine.
Vulnerabilities like Heartbleed which compromised SSL encryption will also still be a problem because, again, the problem is on the server you connected to rather than your own machine. It’s also worth pointing out that Heartbleed is a fantastic example of a vulnerability which wasn’t designed by Microsoft, and although probably an accident itself may indicate the form security risks might take in the post Windows world.
Shellshock is a more relevant example, this was a security flaw in the Linux scripting system which had survived from 1989 all the way through to 2014, which demonstrates that while open-source status is an absolute necessity for any software to be considered secure (if you don’t take this as a given Google “Edward Snowden” now) the idea that having lots of eyes reviewing a piece of code means that any flaws in it will be discovered promptly is an awfully hopeful way to think about security issues.
While switching to Linux will make you completely exempt from the endless rounds of blanket attacks against Windows systems the improvement to your security from attacks directed against you individually will be merely exponential and not absolute.
And no one can save you from your own shitty passwords.
And of course the whole deal with Bond villain lairs is that Bond does break into them. But at least he needs to seduce and torture your henchpersons in order to do so. Bond films would be much shorter and duller if the villains all lived in padlocked tents.
Linux has a formidable reputation for being a text crunching monster whose mysteries only the most reclusively obsessive of geeks could hope to fathom.
This counterfact was true in the 90’s but it’s truth has evaporated by degrees through the course of the last decade. Post 2008 or so Linux distro’s have been easier to install, more user friendly and crucially far more aesthetically pleasing than their monetized alternatives.
Anyway that’s enough of me whinging about how utterly, unfathomably unacceptable it is that Microsoft has gone and done it a-fucking-gain (or more to the point, done absolutely nothing but wallow in gigantic lakes of your money while their street level hoods do it a-fucking-gain).
What you actually need to know: Distros? Can’t I just get the main Linux?
Linux isn’t a usable end product, it’s the core (or kernel in the correct geek-speak) which powers a dizzying array of end products (check out the top 100 on http://distrowatch.com/) optimized for virtually every computational task imaginable. These products are called Distros (which is rather obviously short for distribution) and consist of packages of software which include everything from the vital under-the-hood, nuts ‘n’ bolts stuff you’ll never need to think about to stuff like media players and word processors which will be more reflective of your likes and dislikes (all of which can be added to, removed or customized to your hearts content during your use of the system).
The most prominent feature of any distro is it’s “desktop environment” which is the Graphical User Interface of the operating system (all of the Distros I’m going to discuss come with one ready to go at install, distros aimed at more advanced users might leave the choice to the user.) Choosing the environment which appeals most to you will be your primary choice between the major distro’s.
How do I choose a distro?
Picking a distro is a consumer choice like any other (but with the added deliciousness that the thing which you are choosing is completely free, both in the free beer sense and in the free dom senseii.) You will go about this in much the same way as you pick a smart phone: Google them, look at clips of how they work on YouTube until you decide on one. For someone dipping their toes in the water for the first time though the only real contenders are the Debian family, specifically Linux Mint or Ubuntu.
Ubuntu opens up a subsequent set of choices “or flavours” from Lubuntu (a lightweight setup ideal for your salvageware rigs) to the flagship (plain Ubuntu) with it’s notoriously Marmitey Unity interface and controversial Zeitgeist system which seems a bit NSA-tastic to someiii
Linux Mint is the strongest contender for modern machines, it’s desktop environment “Cinnamon” is very easy to translate to from Windows (or Mac) but marginally faster and (subjectively) far more appealing. There is also the MATE desktop, but this is for those who never adjusted to the great GNOME schism of ’11, which as a newcomer to Linux is a sorry little scrap of history you’ll thankfully never have to bother yourself with.
The relevant websites are www.ubuntu.com and www.linuxmint.com.
One thing you actually will need to know is whether your computers CPU is 32 or 64 bit. Hopefully you chose your machine based on this sort of thing otherwise you need to dangle Windows off a balcony till it coughs up the details.
Microsoft’s own instructions for how to find this out are here: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/827218 if any of it actually works send the guys a goddamn cookie (the chocolate kind, not the ones they’re busy clogging up your browser with).
If all else fails the 32 Bit option will run on a 64 bit system, but you’ll loose the benefit of the extra bits, most notably limiting you to using 4GB’s of RAM (also a hint – if you have more than 4GB of RAM you must have a 64 bit chip).
Spend some time humming and hawing over Ubuntu and Mint. If you are leaning towards Ubuntu (which is awesome) make sure you get why opinion divides so sharply on the Unity interface and that you know what Zeitgeist doesiv, how to stop it doing it if that bothers you and what effect stopping it (or ripping it out, which is also an option) will have on your system.
Lubuntu is the go-to for netbooks or anything that’s really and truly running on clockwork, and Kubuntu and Xubuntu are all worth a look along with Puppy Linux, Open SUSE, Debian, Gentoo and Fedora for those of you who have some semblance of self confidence in your computer literacy.
Puppy Linux is worth a quick special mention because it is different from the others in a couple of neat ways. It isn’t setting out to beat OS X and Windows to a pulp with one hand tied behind it’s back like the other distros I’ve name-checked, instead it’s designed to give you a persistent operating system on a USB Drive. To get a complete idea of all the neat things it does go here: puppylinux.org. Puppy is considerably lighter on system resources than even Lubuntu and only requires a little over 200 megs to download. Having a Puppy USB in your pocket is probably a good idea as well as one of the other distros.
If you’re finding all my hedging infuriating at this point and want a “don’t do as I do, do as I tell you” answer, just grab the Cinnamon edition of Mint and get on with it….
BACK UP ALL YOUR PERSONAL, VALUABLE OR IRREPLACABLE FILES BEFORE YOU GO ANY FURTHER. I’M NOT FUCKING KIDDING, ACTUALLY DO IT. I’ve done this shit quite a few times now and never had any problem, but every time Windows has done bad things to me while partitioning hard disks getting my stuff back was really tricky. Learn from my mistakes rather than making your own.
The check list
- Backup your important files. (Read the warning above one more time if you were about to skip that.)
- Enough bandwidth/data allowance/time to download a very large file.
- You will need a USB stick (at least 4gb).
- You might need an Ethernet cable to trouble shoot problems with WiFi drivers.
- If you have another device capable of googling stuff it’s probably worth keeping it handy.
Getting it installed
There’s an excellent tool for Windows machines available at http://www.linuxliveusb.com/ which will painlessly set you up with a bootable USB stick carrying any of the major Linux distros. Once you have the USB stick set up you just need to reboot (make sure your BIOS is set to boot from USBv).
Once you get the system to boot from USB it will take you into a fully working Linux installation running right off the thumb stick (hence “live USB”). From here you’ll be able to check out the built in software, browse the web and do all the basic stuff you should with a computer, and if you’ve set up persistence in LiLi’s options you’ll be able to remember WiFi passwords, save documents and even install new software which frankly still knocks my socks off years after I first saw it – although I would caution that persistent live USB’s are not the most robust computer systems I’ve ever used so don’t rely on them for anything vital.
Once you’re in the live desktop you’ll see the icon to permanently install your distro somewhere prominent and you’ll be able to get most the way through the install while playing with your new toy. If you have a few USB sticks handy and some extra time to spare Live USB’s are a superbly hands on way to decide which distro you fancy putting on your machine.
The only thing I’d caution you about here is that Live systems are slightly faster than installed ones, which is rather counter intuitive, so if performance margins are tight bear this in mind. As far as your partition size for a Linux install goes 32 gigs should be more than enough (assuming a dual boot to Windows scenario where your gigs and gigs of films and music are kept on the Windows side of the partition) although 16GB might cramp your style a little after a few months.
You should definitely go with the EXT4 file system rather than FAT32 or NTFS. I won’t bore myself with researching the actual differences but it’s mainly something to do with the file permissions system (i.e. NTFS doesn’t have one) or something but may also affect some of the rather juicy encryption options available for decking out your new lair.
The only argument for NTFS is if you want the partition to be browsable while running Windows (you should be able to browse into your Windows My Documents folder from Linux no problem, reading Linux directories from Windows tends to be trickier – partly because Windows couldn’t fight it’s way into a wet paper bag and partly because Linux is hard as nails).
The WiFi’s broken, what do I do with that Ethernet cable?
Most likely the reason WiFi isn’t working on a fresh install, particularly on laptops is due to the manufacturer using a wireless chipset which requires a proprietary driver, with Broadcom devices resulting in most of the problems as Dell and Acer tend to use them.
If this problem does come Ubuntu and Mint both have the same solution, go to Menu, search and click on system settings > driver manager and click on whatever option that is not “Do not use this device”. Make sure you are online via Ethernet (check Firefox can find it’s own homepage for example) and hit the Apply Changes button and you should be able to see all your local wireless connections as soon as the progress bar has finished doing it’s thing.
OK it’s working what now?
To start with just bedazzle yourself with the possibilities of your new paradigm. For a bit of light foreplay clutter up your screen with a few windows. Now hit Ctrl Alt →. That’s pretty cool, no?
For a deeper, more satisfying state of nerdgasm check out your software centre/manager to browse the galaxies upon galaxies of free, open-source software ready to add itself to your system. These software repositories are one of the key usability advantages over Windows and have a massive built in security advantage that everything is cryptographically verified so you know that the software you are installing hasn’t been tinkered with prior to you receiving it.
Gamers will be heartened to know that Steam is available for Linux machines with several thousand games available, and the processor manufacturer AMD have also entered the fray with a graphics system called Mantle which aims to break the choke-hold which Microsoft’s DirectX has over the gaming industry.
Realistically gamers will want to hold onto the dual-boot option for the next few years, however the foreseeable future is very rosy indeed, for example the current development of the next Unreal Tournament game is being done as a Linux compatible open-source project, which would be a big deal for any corporate video game, let alone one whose underlying engine code will no doubt be found in a significant proportion of the next few years releases right across the games industryvi.
And now the pitfalls
Being an exponential improvement is not the same as being absolutely ideal. One characteristic common to all the distro’s which I’ve tried (and which I’m pretty sure is fundamental to the core logic of Linux itself) is that while they are ideal for both low and high level users the mid-level tinkerers will need to get used to backing their stuff up pretty frequently.
Copying and pasting stuff from the internet into a terminal window can be a great way to fix things, but it can also break everything completely. This boils down to Linux allowing you to wield power which your mortal mind can barely comprehend (be especially wary of incantations which utter the dread-name “sudo”vii).
The other common source of keyboard head-butting will be file permissions, which I won’t get into in depth – however any time you attempt to run a program or open a file and find that it either does nothing or the whole damn thing opens up in a text editor what you need to do is right click > properties and check that the currently logged in user is allowed to read/execute the file in question.
The other problem which you may encounter when switching to Linux is the availability of certain specific programs such as Photoshop, Reason, Call of Duty and so on. Most applications have powerful alternatives, although professional users might find something like GIMP doesn’t match up to Photoshop.
The other workarounds are Wine (which doesn’t stand for Wine is not an Emulator) which allows many windows programs to be installed and run in Linux, Virtual Machines (VirtualBox being the primary option) which allow you to run one OS inside another and use the virtual OS to run the program (unfortunately not a resource efficient option, this requires enough RAM, CPU and disk space to run both OS’ and the software all at once), and good old fashioned dual-boot.
Another thing that may take some getting used to is the pace of updates, you will find that there are a handful of minor updates every few days, depending on how much software you install, plus whole new editions of the distro at a rather breathtaking pace – Ubuntu runs a new release regularly every six months Ubuntu 14.10 is the October 2014 edition and Ubuntu 15.04 is the edition they’re getting primed for April.
Mint isn’t quite as much of a rat-race but even there the rate of progress is blinding compared to what’s going on with Apple and Microsoft. Whether having a steady stream of fresh updates is something you welcome or a annoyance will depend a lot on your personal taste.
The new security paradigm
Out of the box Ubuntu and Mint both have “pretty good” security, as long as you set a password for your user profile. The only problem left is that you do still need to unravel the Gordian Knot of coming up with a password which you can’t forget and your hackers can’t guess.
Firewalls work very differently in Linux from Windows, many users won’t need one at allviii, the point at which they typically become necessary is if and when you install server software (typically Samba or Apache). Linux firewalls work on two or three layers, the actual functionality is embedded in the kernel itself and works according to the rules defined in the systems iptables.
For users who don’t fancy editing their iptables as text files a GUI can be added. The GUI is only used when editing the rules for your firewall, the firewall itself is a passive background process, which is not activated and deactivated along with the GUI or any system tray applets you have to help administer it. For most people GUFW (Graphical Uncomplicated Firewall) will be a great choice.
Viruses, Worms, Trojans and other common malware are also part of the Windows/Norton/MacAfee protection racket. Virus scanners are available but they are only worth using to check data before using it on a Windows system.
For the step-by-step go here: https://wiki.ubuntu.com/BasicSecurity
If your going to read further on Linux security you’ll need to know that FUD stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt and is used to signify that the poster doesn’t believe that a potential problem is worth worrying about.
The arguments for getting into Linux are not solely about security, the open-source approach to software is a beautiful thing, there are few manifestations of true freedom on the scale of open-source left in the metered, pay-per-view world we are being lulled ever more deeply into.
This anarchic utopia may only exist in the limited domain of software (although it does occasionally escape into hardware designix or even real-world applicationsx) but you should still free your digital self, even if your mind, body and spirit must remain shackled by econocentric, territorialist bureaucracies. Linux presents a fantastic platform for exploring the open-source movement. This can be done as an end end itself, but it can also be the means to all sorts of ends.
Go here: http://distrowatch.com/ and pick a Linux distro (hint: unless you woke up this morning knowing roughly what sort of a thing Linux is then it should be Mint or Ubuntu). Then go here: http://www.linuxliveusb.com/ and put it on your computer.
i Wait a minute, one minute you’re criticising Apple for treating us like idiots and now your doing it yourself! Well yes dear, but I’m treating your stupidity as a bad habit which you can be bullied out of, Apple treat it as hopelessly congenital and seek to exploit it.
ii Mint and Ubuntu can both install support for closed source, proprietary (read NSA bribed) formats, notably MP3 and Flash, plus various video formats and such but they do prompt you before they do so.
iii by comparison to anything Google ever did it’s wonderfully innocuous but building adware directly in to your operating system is a dick move no matter how useful it is to the user and how much the control of it is in the user’s own hands. Personally I’m okayish with what Zeitgeist actually does but incensed that it does it on an opt-out basis not an opt-in one. Apparently power does corrupt by very directly proportional degrees.
v Most newish PC’s have a boot menu somewhere in the Esc or f12 hinterlands of your keyboard. If you need to get medieval you can generally fiddle with your BIOS settings by pressing F2 just as your computer boots up, sometimes it’s a different button but it will tell you which. BIOS options vary from machine to machine but there’s generally a page devoted to how you want your system to boot up and you probably want the First Boot Device to be USB any other available to be your hard disk, although this might be called HDD, IDE or SATA depending on your manufacturers lucidity.
vi http://store.steampowered.com/browse/linux/ , http://www.pcworld.com/article/2364760/amd-wants-to-improve-gaming-in-linux-and-steam-boxes-with-its-mantle-tools.html & https://wiki.unrealengine.com/Unreal_Tournament