Linux Tutorial: 2. Understanding Hard Drives and gparted

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Linux Tutorial: 2. Understanding Hard Drives and gparted
« on: February 13, 2015, 11:59:42 AM »
2. Preparing to Install Linux Mint
Understanding Hard Drives and gparted

The next few posts will be aimed at learning some critical ideas used by Linux, testing Linux Mint with your system without installing it, looking into various configurations, and finally installing it on your system safely.  This post will address hard drives and gparted.

Linux treats hard drives somewhat differently than Windows, and it is important to understand these differences to safely install Linux. The first major difference is that Windows tends to look at hard drives as physical drives, while Linux tends to look at partitions primarily.  What this means is that when you go to format a physical drive, Windows will only permit you to format the entire drive using one format method.  Linux on the other hand will permit you to format individual partitions differently despite being on the same drive. Windows currently uses two main format methods:  FAT and NTFS.  Linux primarily uses the EXT format, but will also natively recognize, and work well with either FAT or NTFS.  Both Windows and Linux also use a third method to deal with today's gigantic hard drives, rapidly approaching 8TB in size, which I will ignore for the purposes of this discussion.  The reason for the third method is FAT32 can not deal with a hard drive greater than 2TB in size with the default cluster size of 512B.  However, if you choose a larger cluster size of 4096B FAT can format far larger hard drive sizes, significantly larger than 8TB.  While Windows will only recognize and read its' default native formats, Linux is smarter, and will easily deal with both Windows default formats, as well as perhaps another 4-6 formatting methods, the primary one being EXT.

There are three EXT formatting methods in use, called ext2, ext3 and ext4. I will only be using the “latest and greatest” formatting method, ext4, in this discussion, and will from time-to-time use ext4 and ext interchangeably.  If I refer to ext, you can assume that I am referring to ext4.  It is not necessary for our purposes to go into the technical details of exactly how ext2, ext3 and ext4 differ, nor is it necessary to explore exactly how they in turn differ from FAT or NTFS.  What is important to understand is that if you need to create partitions that can be used interchangeably by both Windows and Linux, you can use either FAT or NTFS formatting, and both Windows and Linux will be able to read/write files to that partition. Only Linux, however, will be able to partition drives using any of the primary formatting methods, although Windows will be able to work with drives with multiply formatted partitions once the drive has been formatted.  Having said that, Linux's primary formatting utility gparted has been successfully replicated by third parties into Windows utilities, most of them readily available, and in free versions.  While I have used several of them in the past, my favorite, and most reliable choice to use is the original gparted running within a Linux environment.  Linux Mint installs gparted by default.

One one important advantage of EXT over both FAT and NTFS is that files do not become fragmented on an EXT formatted partition.  It is not necessary to ever defragment an EXT formatted partition, and Linux does not contain any defragmentation utilities.

I want to stress that gparted has been reliably safe to use in my experience.  However, a word of caution is in order.  Any time you use a utility like gparted to do anything other than create a freshly formatted hard drive, there is at least some danger of losing some or all of the data on that drive.  The smart thing to do is to backup all critical data on a drive before doing anything using gparted.  gparted is very powerful and flexible.  You can change the size of partitions, erase individual partitions, rename them, relocate them on the physical drive, etc.  gparted is used by Linux installers to create the partitions required by Linux, and format them using EXT. You can create those partitions on a fresh hard drive, on a hard drive with existing partitions, on external drives, USB generally, or even on USB Flash Drives.  Any of those configurations will work for installing Linux.  Again, if you are going to use gparted to create new partitions on a currently used hard drive, please remember to backup the data in existing partitions before installing Linux.  Please start thinking about where on your system you want to physically install Linux Mint.

Linux uses a slightly different nomenclature to designate, name if you will, partitions.  Physical drives are identified using the designation sdx, where x refers to the physical drive sequence. Thus, sda is your first physical drive, sdb the second, sdc the third, and so on.  Individual partitions are identified using sdx# where x refers to the physical drive sequence, and # the partition sequence on the physical drive.  Thus, sda1 is the first partition on the sda physical drive, sda2 the second, sdc4 the fourth partition on the physical third hard drive, etc.  In a typical laptop, netbook or single hard drive desktop, sda will be the the designation of that drive.  Floppies (if you have one), optical drives and USB drives would be designated sdb and later.  If you have a typical Windows 7 based system, sda would be the designation of your boot drive, sda1 the hidden system partition Windows 7 creates, and sda2 your operating Windows 7 partition.

I will cover how to use gparted in post 4, which will describe the actual installation of Linux Mint.  The next post, 3 in this tutorial, will cover testing Linux Mint with your hardware, running Linux Mint “live”, and becoming familiar with the Linux Mint desktop environment.
« Last Edit: February 13, 2015, 12:11:11 PM by PCBruiser »
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