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November 6, 2009
Twice a year, when it comes time to upgrade to the newest Ubuntu release, I’m reminded of how nice it is to have my /home directories on separate partitions from the system directories–except when they’re not, because I chose the default Ubuntu partitioning scheme instead of configuring it manually. Indeed, life would be much simpler if the Ubuntu installer gave /home a dedicated partition automatically. Here’s why.
One of the nicest features of modern Linux is its strict separation of user data from system files, which makes it easy to upgrade the operating system to a newer version without losing personal files and settings. By keeping /home on a dedicated partition, upgrading is trivially simple–users need only to run the Ubuntu installer, configure partitions manually so that / is wiped out while /home is not, and then boot into the new system without having to reconfigure any personal settings. Even the desktop wallpaper is left untouched.
Granted, even without a separate /home partition, it’s still possible to back up the directory to removable media, reinstall the system, then put the files from /home back into place. But that’s a tedious process that requires access to a sizeable external hard disk and generally means fighting with file permissions in order to get things working. Definitely not for non-geeks, or for geeks who have better things to do.
In most cases–the exceptions being systems with very small hard disks–there’s no reason not to set up the /home directory on a dedicated partition when first installing Ubuntu. It makes things much easier if a user decides to upgrade to a newer version of the operating system at a later date, and doesn’t entail any negative consequences besides slightly reducing the amount of disk space available for personal files–which matters less and less in a world where storage is becoming cheaper by the day.
Unfortunately, separate /home is an option that only geeks are likely to choose, since it requires manual partitioning, which will frighten most normal people away (with good reason, since there’s a real possibility of destroying data on a multi-boot system if the user doesn’t know what she’s doing).
As Alan Pope wrote on Ubuntu brainstorm almost two years ago, the lives of many users would be simpler if the ubiquity installer placed /home on a separate partition by default–or at least offered that choice as an autoconfigured option, rather than one available only through manual setup.
Recent releases have seen excellent improvements to ubiquity’s default behavior–the Ubuntu 9.10 installer even allows one-click setup of an encrypted /home directory–and easy configuration of a separate partition for personal files would be another great step on the usability front. Let’s home the Ubuntu developers see the light soon.
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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