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The best multiple-boot utility

Finding the best tool for multiple operating systems on one machine

(LinuxWorld) -- My sister asked me for the easiest way to install and boot multiple operating systems on the same machine. There are dozens of alternatives for the ambitious Linux guru, but the operative word here was "easiest." While she's perfectly capable of learning the gory details about boot records, BIOS limitations, or which operating systems refuse to boot unless they're convinced they are installed on the first partition of the first drive, she was in a hurry and wanted the quickest, easiest way to install Windows 98, Windows NT, and Linux and then boot between them.

This is an easy question, because I've installed and booted just about every combination of operating systems imaginable. My favorite solution has always been System Commander by V Communications. System Commander has always performed so well for me that I don't recall the last time I ever worried about which operating systems were finicky about how I partitioned the drives. System Commander usually managed those gory details for me automatically.

In the interest of saving her time and money, however, I browsed the Web to see if there was a decent open source alternative.

Candidate 1: The geeky GRUB

The first one I came across is one of the best known, called GRUB, the GRand Unified Boot-loader. The problem with GRUB is that it is about as geekified a boot loader as one can possibly imagine. If, like me, you're at least 77 percent geek and love to tweak every little customization option, that's a good thing. However, it wasn't what I was after in this case.

Candidate 2: The sexy XOSL

As I sifted through the rest of the better-known alternatives, I stumbled upon a GPL open source boot loader I'd never heard of before. It's called the Extended Operating System Loader, or XOSL. I was put off by the documentation at first, because the instructions made it seem like setting up XOSL would be a complicated, tedious procedure. Upon closer inspection, I could see that most of the warnings revolved around obsolete BIOS limitations (not a consideration here), and the stupid mistakes you can make that can render an OS unbootable.

By the way, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you add another OS to your system and in so doing made Windows NT/2000/XP unbootable, have a look at BootPart, a handy dandy utility for exactly this situation.

Anyway, I downloaded the XOSL zip file that includes the binary installation files and unzipped them into a directory on my Windows 98SE C: drive partition. I was running Linux at the time, so I used System Commander to boot to MS-DOS mode in order to run the XOSL install.exe file.

I answered a few installation questions, and bada-boom, bada-bing, I had replaced System Commander with a fancy new boot loader that worked great. XOSL makes it easy to hide drives and partitions, which is often necessary to make operating systems like Windows NT boot properly from anything but the first partition of the first drive. In addition, its use of graphics mode rather than character mode makes it one of the more attractive boot loaders out there.

The one thing that even my aging copy of System Commander (version 4.01) still does better than XOSL is that it allows me to boot multiple DOS-related operating systems and different Window 98 configurations from the same partition. If XOSL can do this, I haven't discovered how yet.

Candidate 3: The stalwart System Commander

As it turns out, my sister bought System Commander 7.0 anyway. I installed it to have a look at how far it has come along in three versions, and it has progressed quite a bit. It now includes Partition Commander 6, which means you can create, resize, move, and copy partitions without purchasing another product.

Partition Commander can resize Linux ext2 partitions, but I'm happy with my Linux partitions the way they are, so I tested its partition resizing against my Windows installation in order to kick the tires. When I ran the performance wizard, it recommended that I could get better performance if I shrink the Windows 98SE partition and create a separate partition for the Windows swap file. I let it proceed to do exactly that. Everything ended up in perfect condition, but the process took a lot longer than I expected. I could have rented and watched Aliens, the director's cut, while I waited.

The bottom line is that if you don't mind shrinking the cash partition in your wallet, I'd still recommend System Commander as the easiest way to boot multiple operating systems. However, if you don't need all of the extras in System Commander and still want an incredibly easy way to boot between Linux and other operating systems, look at XOSL.

Incorrections

Thanks to all of you who sent corrections and details about the PDP-11s and the various operating systems. There's only one teensy problem. Some corrections that readers submitted conflict with corrections other readers submitted. I'd sort out which were right and wrong for you, but if I could remember those details you wouldn't be sending me corrections in the first place. Although I cannot vouch for their accuracy, here are some of the top corrections readers offered, along with my comments:

It's not RSX-11/M, it's RSX-11M.
This may be true, but just about everywhere I find the name on the Web it includes the slash. I hope nobody was confused by the error and thought I was referring to some other operating system.

You must have been using RT-11, not RSX-11M.
Not likely. RT-11 is a single-user system. I distinctly recall that when we got bored, we engaged in all sorts of juvenile pranks, some of which involved getting into someone else's account while they were using it. A fellow named Randy did this to me all the time, but eventually taught me what I needed to know in order to do it unto others. Most of the other pranks involved call forwarding, hanging items from the ceiling with scotch tape (the specialty of a fellow named Eric), or removing the shoe from the foot of a height-challenged co-worker named Carol and putting it somewhere out of her reach. Like the top of her desk.

Anyway, some of our antics clearly required a multi-user system, albeit a very poorly secured one. I suppose we could have been using RT-11 along with TSX-11, the multi-user enhancements to RT-11. If you want to hire an archaeologist to do a dig on the site in order to find out, be my guest.

RSX-11M did not require executable files to be stored in contiguous blocks.

and

RSX-11M did require executable files to be stored in contiguous blocks.
Well, one of these has to be right.

At that same time, even Unix on the PDP-11 required executables to be stored in contiguous blocks.
Entirely possible. We weren't using Unix, so I can't say.

Microsoft's bio is right. Dave Cutler really was responsible for RSX-11M as well as VMS.
Cool. I guess this means I can make RSX-11M jokes about Windows NT after all.

How dare you poke fun at the PDP-11, which was the most brilliant technological marvel in its day?
It has been my life long dream to peeve fans of the PDP-11 by making outrageously inaccurate and unfair statements about it. I finally saw my chance and went for it, and not without a good deal of gusto.

More Stories By Nicholas Petreley

Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Asheville, NC.

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