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PCRECORDING.COM - - Multi-OS Partitioning.

This article courtesy of Snebjorn Andersen.


This short article is meant as an introduction to configuring your computer system for running multiple operating systems. I have tried to present some general ideas and tips for doing this and provide a few links to places where you can get more detailed information. If some parts of this text need clarification or more detail please don't hesitate to tell me about it.


Before I start to talk about actually repartitioning your drives and so on, I want to make sure that you understand a few things:

  • The process of moving, deleting and creating partitions on your disk drives is potentially harmful for your data, some of which may be very valuable to you. It's your own responsibility to have working backups of all important files in case something goes wrong.
  • Failed installations may leave your system in a state where it's not able to boot at all. It's your own responsibility to have installation or boot media available for re-installing.
  • I don't want to scare you away from setting up your computer to run multiple operating systems, but you have to be careful and think about what you do or you're going to run into some very serious and frustrating problems - and I don't want that to happen to you. This is your chance to learn the easy way from someone who learned the hard way!
With that understood we can proceed. If not, stop reading this article.

The ideal multi-OS system:

Whatever your choice and combination of operating systems, there's one thing you should always try to obtain: clear separation between system files and data files. The more clearly your files are divided into these two groups, the easier it will be to:

  • Make backups
  • Install, re-install and update operating systems
  • Share data between different operating systems

Disks are getting bigger and less expensive all the time. If you're at all able to afford them, separate physical disks for each OS/data set is an extremely good idea and will make your life a lot simpler in the long run. The current setup on my home machine is one disk containing the different OSs in their own partitions, well out of sight of each other and one disk containing two large FAT partitions for my data.

All modern OSs support FAT and all my data files are thus available from whichever OS I'm using at the moment. You may not get all the benefits of the more sophisticated modern file systems, but this is in my opinion a small price to pay for all the freedom you get from this setup.

One great way to make sure you don't accidentally harm your data when installing or reconfiguring your system is by simply not having your important data drives in the computer during the process. Inexpensive removable drive trays are available for IDE and SCSI disks and if you do more than a little recording, they can also be a very convenient way to store individual projects that you need to work on at a later time.

General partitioning theory:

Partitioning is basically just a way to make one physical disk appear as several individual disks. Each partition consists of a contiguous section of disk blocks and is assigned a separate drive letter in Windows. There may be space left on a disk that's not used by any partitions. That space just goes to waste and you generally don't want that. Most PC systems that come with Windows already installed will have just one large partition filling up the entire disk and containing the OS and any bundled applications. When partitioning was first invented four partitions on a disk was the limit. Of course, this soon proved to be insufficient, so a rather confusing but clever system of fitting more partitions in there was introduced: the original four partitions are now called "primary partitions".

If you want more than four partitions, you will have to dedicate one of your partitions to acting as an "Extended Partition" - - a sort of container for all the extra partitions you want to create. (No actual data is stored in an "extended partition."). It is subdivided into a number of so-called "logical partitions." I don't know what's so logical about it, but I hope that knowing about the different types of partitions will help you make sense of other sources of information about partitioning. Now let's look a bit at some of the different operating systems that you could be interested in running.


All the different releases/versions of Microsoft Windows share one "quality" - - they want the whole machine for themselves and will gladly overwrite the master boot record on your first disk during installation. In a multi-boot system, this is definitely not what you want to happen, so be careful when upgrading or reinstalling Windows. The partitioning utility in Windows (and DOS) is a rather unfriendly text mode program called FDISK.EXE. You can do terrible things to your system with this crude tool, so be careful with it! It has some rather brain-damaged ideas, one of them is its blank refusal to create more than one primary partition, another is the way it ignores partition types it does not know about, eg. Linux. Still, it's what we have been given to do the task of creating partitions in Windows, so we'll just have to live with it.

Before you can use any partitions you've created with FDISK.EXE they must be formatted. In NT you have the option of using the technically superior HPFS formatting, but if you want to access data on the partition from other OSs I recommend FAT instead. An important feature of FDISK.EXE is the /mbr option that will recreate the master boot record on your disk. In other words, enter the command "fdisk /mbr" at the DOS prompt to get Windows to boot the way it used to before you installed LILO (the Linux loader) or whatever it is that is causing trouble.


Linux uses the traditional fdisk tool to make changes to the partitioning tables of your disks. Like DOS fdisk, it's text based and not very user-friendly, so watch your step! Linux will only let you repartition drives if you are logged in as root or "super-user" (this corresponds to the administrator account in NT). This prevents the risk and fear of doing any serious harm to the system when you're logged in as a normal user without special powers. In Linux there's a direct connection between the partition types and the device names used for disks. Primary partitions and the extended partition are given the numbers 1 to 4, logical partitions are numbered from 5 and up. As an example, here's the disk info about my first IDE disk (named /dev/hda) as printed by fdisk:

Disk /dev/hda: 128 heads, 63 sectors, 620 cylinders
Units = cylinders of 8064 * 512 bytes

   Device Boot    Start       End    Blocks   Id  System
/dev/hda1   *         1       178    717664+   6  FAT16
/dev/hda2           179       620   1782144    5  Extended
/dev/hda5           179       587   1649056+  83  Linux
/dev/hda6           588       620    133024+  82  Linux swap

As you can see, my main Linux partition is /dev/hda5, one of two logical partitions inside the extended partition /dev/hda2. This demonstrates an important point: unlike most other OSs, Linux will boot from logical partitions. If you're short on primary partitions for multiple OSs, this feature is very handy. Some recent Linux distributions (notably RedHat) will merrily go on and kick out other OSs during the installation process.

Since you're reading this text about running several OSs on your computer, I assume that's not what you want. Make sure you choose the "Custom" installation option instead of the one labelled "Workstation" and generally watch your step. Several very detailed guides to setting up Linux with different other OSs are available on the Internet. Most of what you will need is freely available at the Linux Documentation Project home page at


Creating a partition for running BeOS alongside Windows is very simple and user-friendly. The good folks at Be, Inc. know very well that most people will want to hang onto their Windows systems for the time being, so they've bundled a special edition of PartitionMagic (see below) with the OS. This makes the whole partioning process very easy. The only thing that you really have to know if you're trying to plan your partitioning is that BeOS needs to boot from a primary partition. It has recently been announced that the next version of BeOS (version 5) will be free for personal use. At the time of writing it's still not available, so I don't have any actual experience with installing it, but I would expect it to be as smooth as the current version. For more see Be.


There's a number of utilities and tools that can make life easier for you if you plan to have several different OSs installed. Here's a short presentation of some of them.


This is a somewhat primitive, but very useful free DOS tool for splitting primary partitions that contain data. Of course, you will have to have three or less primary partitions when you do this or there won't be room for the added primary partition. There can be only four of those, remember? After splitting the partition, you can then go on and install Linux on it or whatever it is you're trying to do. It goes without saying that you shouldn't even think about attempting this potentially disastrous operation without having a working backup of everything of any importance on the disk. Make sure you read the documentation carefully before you start. More information is available at the FIPS home page at


A very interesting new software product for people who need to run multiple operating systems is VMware. It basically provides you with a virtual computer running a different OS inside your real computer. This way you can run Windows inside Linux or vice versa. While fantastically convenient for many applications (I use it daily at work) it is not a good solution if you need to run real-time sound processing applications. VMware does not perform well in digital audio applications and does not support MIDI yet but will be soon according to the manufacturer. In short, if you need to run music or recording software, you don't want to run it inside a VMware virtual machine, but it could still be very handy if you need several OS's running at the same time. A trial version is available at The full product is priced at $299.00, $99.00 for hobbyists and students.


If you often need to juggle disk partitions, PartitionMagic is an extremely handy tool for resizing and moving partitions without data loss. There's a demo version available at The full product sells for $89.95.

Well I hope this gets you started on the road to safe partitioning. Remember to back up your data first and proceed carefully. There is more to this world than Windows!