Windows-To-Linux Migration Tools

Check out two products make it surprisingly easy for PC users to kick the Windows habit and put on the Penguin.

April 21, 2006

11 Min Read
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Many of us have toyed with the idea of dumping Windows and switching to Linux. After all, it's hard to knock the prospect of trading a lifetime of paying the "Windows tax" on every new PC for a reliable, mature, low-cost or even free desktop operating system -- especially at 3 a.m., the day before a big deadline, with a Blue Screen Of Death glowing on your monitor screen.

While the idea of switching to Linux sounds great, the reality is that most of us aren't going anywhere. Let's face it: If you have always used Windows, for better or for worse, the prospect of giving it up can be downright scary. For one thing, you've probably worked hard to get your PC just the way you like it: There are hundreds of ways to customize Windows, and you may not even remember some of them until they're no longer there.

You probably also feel warm and fuzzy about your favorite software -- or at least your boss feels warm and fuzzy about them, so they had better work when you need them. Perhaps most important, you're not about to toss out all of your documents, spreadsheets, email, and other content just for the sake of being an Open Source rebel.

But what if you could move to Linux and take your Windows settings, all of your documents, and even your saved email along for the ride? What if you could even continue to run Microsoft Office, as well as other popular Windows programs such as Quicken and all of the Adobe/Macromedia Studio applications, on your new Linux distro without so much as a hiccup?

In fact, it's possible now to accomplish all of these tasks, using two related applications: Versora's Progression Desktop, which retrieves a Windows user's custom settings and documents to a Linux system;and CodeWeavers' CrossOver Office, a software emulator that runs Windows applications on Linux systems. Both products are designed to give PC users already thinking about moving to Linux a little push -- or, in some cases, even a big push -- in the right direction. By ensuring that so many things look and behave just as they always did, they make the biggest change of all -- the fact that a completely different operating system is running under the hood -- a lot easier to handle.Neither Progression Desktop nor CrossOver Office is perfect: Both come up short, in one way or another, when it comes to duplicating a user's Windows experience on a Linux system. Nevertheless, both applications are polished enough to serve as useful, effective desktop migration tools.Just as important, both products could help Linux finally to capture a significant, if still small, share of the mainstream consumer market. Besides working pretty much as advertised, they provide useful examples of precisely that sort of software the market needs: And as examples of what Linux developers can do to build software that makes new users feel comfortable and confident, these two products represent a huge step forward; as they mature and work out their remaining gaps, they could breathe new life into efforts to push desktop Linux into the mainstream consumer and business markets.

Progression Desktop 1.2.3
Progression Desktop 1.2.3 simplifies the process of migrating user-configured Windows settings to Linux, including desktop wallpaper and color schemes; keyboard and mouse settings; custom sound properties; and network shares. Perhaps more important, it provides an easy way to move a user's documents, including their existing folders and directory structure, either in its entirety or as a user-selected set of folders, file types, or individual files. Finally, the product will migrate a user's email client and Web browser, word processing software, and instant messaging configuration settings.

According to Versora, Progression Desktop officially supports all of the most popular Linux distros, including those favored in the corporate (SUSE Professional, Red Hat Desktop), small business (SimplyMEPIS, Xandros Desktop OS) and home/consumer markets (Linspire). Versora also provides instructions on its Web site for making the application compatible with unsupported distros. The company also recently added support for the wildly popular Ubuntu Linux distro.

Progression Desktop can migrate user-defined settings for four categories of desktop software: messaging clients, Web browsers, word processing software, and instant messaging software. Versora supports the leading Windows software in each category (Microsoft in three cases, AOL in the fourth), as well as the leading alternatives (e.g. Writer, in the word processing category). Besides full scale, Windows-to-Linux desktop migrations, Progression Desktop can also transfer settings and data between two Windows PCs (including Windows XP, 2000, NT, and 98), or between individual applications (such as a move from Microsoft Word to Writer).For the purposes of this review, we preformed a general-purpose migration from Windows XP to the Linspire 5.0 desktop Linux distro, including Windows settings and a number of documents. As it turns out, this was a fairly simple process that most Windows users will have no problem completing. Progression Desktop uses a wizard interface to walk users through the process of selecting system settings, applications, and file/folder selections to include in the migration; if users want to exclude certain applications or document types, they simply uncheck the appropriate boxes on each screen. The process is clear and easy to understand, although a "select/de-select all" button for each set of migration choices would be a nice addition..

To move a user's settings, Progression Desktop creates a single, XML-based file; once the user specifies a place to store the file, the application proceeds to collect configuration data, documents, and anything else marked for migration. Typically, a user will then burn the migration file to CD or DVD for download and installation on the target Linux system.Also, given the fact that Progression Desktop stores everything slated for migration in a single folder, most users will want to think carefully about what to include and which applications and data files are best left behind, at least initially.

Finally, keep in mind that under the current version of Progression Desktop, migration output files may not exceed 2GB in size. Users who exceed the limit will have to de-select some of their migration choices, although it is possible to migrate any leftover settings or files by creating a second pnp-formatted file. In addition, Versora says the next Progression Desktop update, to be released during the second quarter, will eliminate the 2GB limit.

On the Linux side, the process of completing the migration is generally clear and easy: A user selects their pnp file, and Progression Desktop takes over, applying settings, and moving files and folders to the hard drive. The only hitch came when I realized it was not clear where on the drive my files were being stored -- although I was able to find them after briefly hunting for them. Overall, however, the process seemed to be a major improvement over a typical, ad hoc migration -- especially for items such as browser and email settings, which a user might otherwise be forced to move piecemeal, or simply attempt to restore from memory.CrossOver Office 5.0.1 Standard Edition

CodeWeavers' CrossOver Office addresses another major obstacle to adopting Linux: A lack of support for some of the most familiar and important Windows software titles, including Microsoft Office.

According to CodeWeavers, CrossOver Office will run Windows productivity applications in Linux, without requiring a Microsoft Windows license -- a mandatory, and often costly, requirement for Mac OS X users who run Virtual PC, perhaps the best-known Windows emulator. And in fact, CrossOver Office delivers on this promise, at least most of the time.

To run Windows software under Linux, CrossOver Office uses Wine: an open-source implementation of the Windows APIs that works with any x86-based Linux distro. Wine is not, strictly speaking, a Windows "emulator" at all; rather, it is a compatibility layer that consists entirely of non-Microsoft code. Since its creation in 1993, thousands of volunteers have worked on the project; currently, CodeWeavers provides almost all of the project's funding, and many of its key developers.The CrossOver Office implementation of Wine uses what CodeWeavers refers to as "bottles": separate, completely independent Windows-compatible environments, each with its own simulated "C" drive and directory structure, capable of running one or more applications. Different bottles may run different versions of Windows -- CrossOver Office ships with Windows 98 and Windows 2000 bottles, with the latter providing Windows XP compatibility. Users can also run multiple bottles using the same version of Windows, a helpful feature that prevents a crash within one bottle from affecting applications running in the others.

There are two versions of CrossOver Office: standard and professional. Both offer the same core features, but the professional version adds the ability to package bottles in a form suitable for network-based installations. CodeWEavers has tested, and provides support for, about 50 applications, including most major Microsoft, Adobe/Macromedia, and Intuit titles. Users may also, however, create bottles and run other Windows applications; Wine currently implements around 90 percent of the system calls in most of the major, published Windows API specifications, giving it a very good (and constantly improving) track record when it comes to running Windows software.In practice, CrossOver Office does a good job of making it easy for users to install and run Windows applications under Linux, especially those on the official support list. To use a supported application, the user starts CrossOver Office and then simply selects their application from a list of supported choices. (Advanced users may also choose an "install unsupported software" option.) CrossOver Office will then ask the user to specify where it can find the installer for the chosen application, either on a CD-ROM or elsewhere on the system. It will usually install each application separately, within its own bottle; if the default bottle type is not compatible with the application, CrossOver Office will suggest using a different bottle, if possible.

I first attempted to install Office 2003 and then Office XP; unfortunately, neither installation worked properly, although I was not able to determine whether this was due to a problem with CrossOver Office or a software-dependency issue (both products were older, pre-service pack releases). In any event the third time proved to be the charm: My attempt to install Office 2000 started up without a hitch.

My next steps in the installation process are familiar ones to any Windows user: agreeing to the Microsoft Office licensing agreement and entering the license key. Since CrossOver Office currently supports only Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, I also used the Office "custom install" option to de-select Access and Outlook before proceeding.

When the installation process completed, the three applications were accessible and appeared to be working normally; a brief session with Microsoft Windows confirmed that the software was fully operational. I could, for example, open files migrated from a Windows system, using Progression Desktop, edit and save them as Word files, and then re-open the saved documents after closing them. In addition, when I clicked File/Open, I found the familiar "My Documents" folder listed, although other familiar Windows landmarks, such as "My Computer" and "Desktop," were not present.I also experimented with some popular, but not officially supported, titles from Adobe/Macromedia's Studio MX suite. The Fireworks MX image-editing application installed and worked correctly, even though CodeWeavers provides support only for the suite's Dreamweaver and Flash MX software. Another product in the Studio MX suite, the Freehand vector-graphics software, appeared to install normally, but it would not run.

Opening Windows software while running Linux was an interesting experience -- in fact, it was actually a bit disorienting. In the long run, a product such as CrossOver Office is probably most useful as a transitional tool, allowing users to run familiar software while they get used to Linux-compatible (and often outstanding in their own right) software such as or the NVU Web-page editor. For users who are loathe to leave behind their favorite software, however, while still making a permanent move to Linux, CrossOver Office is a practical, easy to use, and undeniably clever alternative.

Clearly, both Progression Desktop and CrossOver Office represent a major step forward for Windows users who want to migrate to Linux without disrupting their usual routines or giving up their favorite desktop applications. It's important to remember, of course, that these tools cannot completely solve the Windows-to-Linux migration puzzle: many users, for example, still face serious problems getting their PC hardware to work seamlessly (or sometimes to work at all) with a particular Linux distro. Nevertheless, these products will simplify the transition process for most Windows users, and make it relatively easy for many of them -- and they are very likely to win over quite a few new desktop Linux users who might otherwise never kick the Windows habit.
Progression Desktop 1.2.3
Versora Software

CrossOver Office 5.0.1

Standard Edition

If you're ready to make the jump from Windows to Linux, or even if you just want to dip your toe into the Open Source waters, Progression Desktop 1.2.3 and CrossOver 5.0.1 are likely to make life a lot easier.

Progression Desktop 1.2.3: Enables users to move their Windows settings, email, files, and other personal data to a Linux desktop system; works with most of the leading desktop Linux distros.CrossOver 5.0.1 Standard Edition: Bridges the Linux "app gap," giving desktop Linux users the ability to run a number of popular Windows-based software titles.

The bottom line: Neither application is perfect; CrossOver Office, in particular, may stumble when installing supported applications, and it may not officially support a user's favorite Windows software. Nevertheless, both products work well enough, and often enough, to give Windows users a lot of help making a smooth desktop Linux migration.

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