How should I partition my hard drive for Linux?

Most of the advice I’ve ever seen given, however, has been bad. Mainly because it’s always assumed that partitioning is a secondary concern that comes after choosing a distro. This mistake has serious knock-on consequences down the road.

So, here is how I think:

Before you can install any Linux distro, you must first make room for it on your hard drive. A full installation can be quite big, but you’re mostly going to expect 2GB to be enough for the basic system. In these days, it’s hard to buy a hard drive smaller than 40GB, so you should have no trouble finding room. However, what partitions should that space be split into?

Well, here’s the golden rule. This is the single most important piece of advice I can give you when it comes to your first ever Linux install, so if you take nothing else away from this page, take this:Leave as much of your hard drive unpartitioned as possible.

This is where everybody goes wrong. They think . o O (I have 100GB free hard drive space, therefore I need to create 100GB of partitions to put my 2GB Linux distro on.) No! Leave that space alone!

Partitioning your whole hard drive at once leads to huge problems later on. Your chances of getting exactly the right scheme first time are zero, no matter how many people give you advice. You’ll have distro problems, space problems, upgrade problems, all kinds of problems. To keep your PC as flexible as possible, base your partitioning scheme on what you NEED, not on what you HAVE.

With this philosophy in mind, here is how you should approach partitioning. You will need:

  • A swap partition. The same size as your PC’s RAM. The old rule of thumb of double is outdated. These days, swap is almost unused, but it’s good to have some. It should be the first partition you make, as this puts it in the center of the hard drive where read/write times are fastest.
  • A /boot partition. This is where your Linux kernel lives, and also where your boot loader files may live. Sharing /boot makes multiple-distro installs easy. /boot doesn’t need to be big. Make it 50MB, no more. Less if you like. Make it ext2 – you don’t need a journalling system for such a small partition, especially one that’s usually only read during bootup.
  • A /home partition. This is where the files of ordinary users will live. You want a shared /home for two reasons: It means an ordinary user can’t meddle with any part of the root filesystem’s partition; and it allows you to share your files across distros. /home only needs to be a GB or so, unless you have a convincing need to enlarge it. Use a journalling filesystem such as Ext3 or ReiserFS for this partition.
  • Lastly, a / partition. This is where all your packages will go to give you a fully working distro. Take a look at the system requirements, which will probably call for 2GB. Add another GB or two for easy expansion if you have the space. Format it with another journalling filesystem.

That should add up to a single-digit number of GB used up for your total Linux system. This leaves you with a number of GB free, which you can use later to expand your partitions, add new partitions, or add new Linux distros.

I hope now you see why I place such value on leaving disk space free. It turns hugely important problems into trivial inconsequentialities. It no longer matters if you need to change your partitioning scheme, there’s plenty of room to do so. It no longer matters if you choose the wrong distro, there’s plenty of room for a new one. You still have enormous flexibility even after you’ve done all your installing.

So, now that we’ve sorted out the really important problem, let’s move on to the trivial one: What distro to use?

Well, that all depends on what you really want a distro to do. Slackware, Gentoo, LFS, all are good choices if you want to really get in and learn how Linux works, but have steep learning curves. Fedora, Suse, Mandriva, these are all good choices if you want an up-and-running distro as soon as possible. Debian is a good all-rounder. They’re all free, why not download and install several? You’ve got plenty of disk space to use! Why not install Slackware, Debian, and Suse and have a play around with each one?

If you like the idea of having a go with several distros, you need to know:

  • The /boot and swap partitions should be universal, and the /home partition can be if you’re careful. You need to check the /etc/password file to make sure your user has the same numerical ID on each distro before /home will be shareable.
  • The file /etc/fstab is the one that tells your PC which partitions to mount, and where. The /boot and swap (and possibly /home) entries should be the same in each distro’s fstab. Only / will be different.
  • The Lilo bootloader configuration file lives in the /etc directory, which is not shared. The Grub bootloader’s files live in /boot, which IS shared. Install Grub for a multiboot system, as you can update it from all distros, instead of having one Lilo-controlling distro.
  • If you’re multi-booting with Windows, you may want to create a FAT partition to transfer files between it and Linux. Linux isn’t too good at NTFS and Windows is useless at anything Linux. FAT is the only common ground.
  • You can only have four primary partitions. This is very limiting. Instead, use as few primary partitions as possible and stick to logical partitions as much as possible.
  • The /etc directory is where most of the configuration files live. If you get one distro set up the way you like, and then want to switch, carefully and intelligently copying information across from/etc can save you a lot of setting up time. But under no circumstances should you simply copy the entire old /etc directory to the new one: This is a recipe for utter disaster. Do it manually, bit by bit, or not at all.
  • Finally, the command df -h will show you how full your partitions are getting. If one starts getting full, either enlarge it, or split it into multiple partitions. The safest way to make a partition bigger is to have a complete working backup of it, easy to do if you have free partitioning space. My recommended method is:
    1. Create a new partition (From now called $DEST) at the end of the free space, not the beginning. Make it the same size or slightly larger than the partition you want to enlarge (From now called $SOURCE). Format it with the same filesystem as $SOURCE.
    2. Unmount $SOURCE or boot in to a different distro if it’s the / partition
    3. Create /mnt directories, /mnt/source and /mnt/dest
    4. Mount $SOURCE on /mnt/source and $DEST on /mnt/dest
    5. cd /mnt/source
    6. To copy all files with permissions and ownership etc intact, use cp -Rav * /mnt/dest
    7. Go get yourself a coffee. . .
    8. When it’s done, unmount /mnt/source. If $SOURCE was not the / partition, mount $DEST at $SOURCE’s usual mount point and check it’s okay. Skip to step 12
    9. If $SOURCE was the / partition, go into /mnt/dest/etc/fstab. Edit it appropriately, with $DEST as the / partition.
    10. cd /boot/grub, and duplicate the $SOURCE entry in grub.conf, edit the name to “Duplicate” or some such, and edit the root partition entry to point to $DEST
    11. Reboot into the new $DEST, check everything copied across okay.
    12. If copying didn’t work properly, redo from start. If it did, you can now safely resize the old partition, or delete it and create a new & bigger one. If resizing succeeds, you’re done. If it doesn’t, or you went with “Delete and Create New”, repeat the above instructions to put the $DEST files into the new and larger $SOURCE partition. This done, you can delete the $DEST partition and enjoy your bigger and better $SOURCE partition.(This set of instructions based on the LinuxFromScratch hint Creating a functioning duplicate of a finished LFS system)

This concludes my advice on how to get started with Linux. I hope you found it helpful.

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