Why Users Switch Linux Distros + How to Plan for an OS Migration

With Windows Server 2003 end-of-life having come and gone, countless IT teams are surely in the process of migrating from Microsoft’s latest ticking time bomb to something more reliable. The risks associated with running an abandoned operating system are very real, but expired EOL dates aren’t the only drivers behind OS migration projects. There comes a point when your existing system just isn’t cutting it anymore. For Linux users, the push to a new distro might be triggered by a number of factors.

Better User Experience and Easier Management

So you know your way around the dark, lonely environment that is the Linux shell. That may be the case, but even the most seasoned of IT professionals appreciate a hassle-free user experience – or something close to it. Although the open source community is admirable in the support department, the time spent chasing solutions in the forums is time that can be spent on production. An administrator catching the flux with Fedora would be justified in moving to a Linux flavor better known for ease of use.

Community Support Is Lacking

Sometimes the biggest difference between one distro and the next is the community behind it. For example, the Ubuntu troop is so large and active that you can literally take your pick of Linux resources when something goes awry. You might not be so lucky if you’re running an obscure distro like Mepis, which is pretty much maintained by a single developer. When the community around your system starts to resemble a ghost town, that’s a telltale sign that it’s time to move on.

Hardware Compatibility is an Issue

Linux has better hardware support than it’s usually given credit for. Your chances of successfully running something like LXLE on an older desktop are far greater than getting Windows 8 to act right on the same machine. Slowly but surely, manufacturers are stepping up to build hardware and retool drivers to better support Linux environments. A the same time, the compatibility problems with peripherals and certain graphics cards are well documented. Everything else could be running smoothly, but if hardware compatibility issues are cramping productivity, an OS migration only makes sense.

One Too Many Bugs

Linux is often praised for its out of the box security, flexibility, and stability. However, any administrator who has test driven a few distros may uncover an experience that isn’t necessarily as smooth and fluid as it was made out to be. Some will say that it’s not the Linux kernel, but flaws in the accompanying software that lead to stability issues within a given distribution package. Still, the fact remains that some variants have a buggy stigma they just can’t seem to shake. A Linux migration is warranted when developers are slow to address bugs, or there are just too many nasty bugs to begin with.

Still Looking

Maybe you’re running a distro that looks and feels nice, yet want to keep your options open . You like what you see, but haven’t found “the one”. Thanks to the open source nature of Linux, playing the distro field makes perfect sense for someone in this situation. Live CDs, DVDs, and USBs make it fairly easy to test drive CentOS and various other distros without fear of commitment. In researching this topic, I ran across accounts from several users who frequently change distributions just to see what’s out there.

Linux Migration Considerations

Regardless of what drives your desire to switch Linux distros, you can rest assured that there is no shortage of probable destinations. Whether you’re in search of something similar to your current installation or have mapped out a different direction, there are a broad range of options at your fingertips. Having said that, it should be noted that changing distros isn’t as simple as going from Google Search to Bing. From desktop controls to system utilities, the changes can be rather significant from one environment to the next.

The following considerations have been outlined for IT managers tasked with guiding an OS migration project between Linux distributions.

Picking the Right Distro

The importance of choosing the right distro is spelled out in the reasons Linux users move on from one particular environment or another. In order to ensure that your move isn’t short-lived, you’ll want to identify specifics such as:

  • What you need a distro to do
  • What you like about the current system
  • What you don’t like about the current system
  • Your desired ease of use
  • Community activity and support availability

Some users don’t mind aimlessly leaping across the vast pond of Linux pads. If consistency is imperative to your business, you’ll better appreciate the peace of mind that comes from having a stable relationship between your distro and IT infrastructure.

Backing Up the Essentials

IT managers should definitely backup all critical system data before setting up shop in a new environment. At the very least you will want to backup the folders that respectively house your root, user, and configuration files. Fully restoring the contents of these folders is something that may, or may not be required. Either way, having copies of them will make sure you can recover whatever needs to be restored, or find specific sets of data to satisfy compliance demands if necessary.

Transferring Folders and Files

Since all your important system files are backed up and easily accessible, setting up your old directories in the new environment is an option at your disposal. However, select files are specific to desktop environments and other distro components so the transfer process may be best approached on a case by case basis. Luckily the configurations for LibreOffice, GIMP, and other cross-distro applications can be easily copied over with a simple file management utility – or of course, in your trusty terminal. The same holds true for any individual documents, video, or audio files you want to port over.

Fall-back Cushion

Installing a new operating system is often like starting from scratch. For many users, it means wiping all data and applications clean from the existing machine and making a commitment to something else – but that doesn’t always have to be the case. In fact, it makes good IT sense to create a separate partition for the new distro while keeping  the partition that houses your existing installation intact. This way, you have something to fall back on in the event that you change your mind for one reason or another.

Assembling the Migration Team

An OS migration can be a complex and time-consuming undertaking. Whether it’s porting over the entire infrastructure or just a few core core apps, IT managers need a seamless and reliable way to move from one distro to another. This might be the perfect job to hand off to a third-party that specializes in assisting organizations with upgrading to the latest technology platforms.

Commonly offered by managed service providers, OS migration might include:

  • Backup of existing system and user data
  • Installation of chosen distro on designated hardware
  • Installation of applications on new distro
  • Restoration of user data and system settings on new distro
  • Training programs designed to familiarize end users new OS environment

Companies are forced to adapt as their system and application needs change. Perhaps you require a helping hand. Maybe you’re equipped with the resources to handle it all internally. In either case, a comprehensive plan is needed in order to ensure that your Linux migration project goes off without a hitch and has no impact on business performance.

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Effective Ways to Tame Outlook

Many of us rely on Microsoft Outlook to manage not only our email, but our lives. It’s one of the few programs I keep open all day, and I can’t imagine my life without it.

In addition to managing my email, it manages my contacts, calendar and tasks. Next week I’m taking a trip to Seattle and Outlook will keep track of my flight schedule as well as details about my hotel, rental car and schedule. I’ve used other tools such as Evernote, but I keep coming back to Outlook primarily for its power and flexibility. There’s no other tool that I rely on more than Outlook, but the flip side is that when it goes down, it causes a lot of grief and lost productivity.

This week, I will take a look a number of ways to tame Outlook and make it a more effective tool. It’s powerful, yet it can be a bit unwieldy to work with at times. Since leaving my corporate job a few years back, I no longer receive hundreds of emails each day. When I worked at Microsoft it wasn’t uncommon to receive 200-400 emails a day. When I’d take a vacation I’d fret about returning to an inbox with over 1,000 messages. It felt overwhelming. Today, I might receive 10 to 15 emails each day, but they are important to me because they are often from clients instead of coworkers who are less likely to cut me slack on a delayed response.

Email is still a critical part of our work whether we receive 5 or 500 emails a day. I’ve collected a number of best practices over the years that I’d like to share this week. You’ve probably heard of some of these tips before but haven’t taken the time to implement them. Others may not be as relevant to your to workflow. But adding even one of these tips could potentially save you an hour or two a week.

Use Rules to Sort Email

Take a moment to look at your inbox right now. I’ll wait.

Did you find more than 50 emails waiting for your attention? If so, I’ll bet you haven’t set up rules to sort your email. Or, if you have rules, they aren’t applicable to how you work today.

I set up rules to route meeting confirmations to a specific folder. Same goes for online purchase confirmation emails. Rules can be especially helpful if you subscribe to RSS feeds or online newsletters that tend to clutter your inbox if left unmanaged.

Below I created a rule for email sent to me from my hosting company. Bluehost sends me a lot of emails because I manage a number of domains and websites for my clients. Making sure that I pay for a domain registration on time is critical, so I route all these emails to a folder that I can address at the end of the week.

Rules

Most of my rules focus on moving incoming email to a specific folder from which to manage. But you can apply even more complex rules depending on the message type and importance. Outlook allows you to display an alert, play a sound or even send an alert to your phone when a certain type of email arrives.

I work with a number of clients each day, and keeping track of them and their associated projects can be tricky. To assist me, I’ve created a number of rules that look at the subject and body of the email and then sort it into folders. I’ve found that creating similar rules for my outgoing email can also save time when I’m trying to track down a specific response I made to a project participant.

If your inbox is full of emails that could be sorted into folders automatically, go to your inbox, right click on an email and select Rules and then Create Rule to get started. It’s quite self-explanatory, but Microsoft includes a step-by-step guide for managing, creating and deleting rules. I’ve found that rules work best with emails I’d like to save, but seldom require any action or response. I’m not an Inbox Zero zealot, but I feel better closing down for the day knowing my inbox is empty or nearly empty, and rules go a long way towards achieving that goal.

Reduce Size of PST File

If you’ve been using Outlook for more than a few years, it’s not uncommon to have a PST that’s 5GB in size or larger. Outlook used to have problems managing PST files that were larger than 2GB, but new versions are able to handle PST files that are 50GB or more. But that doesn’t mean you should allow yours to grow that large. The larger the file, the longer Outlook will take to load and the more likely you are to run into corruption issues. And having a single point of failure is never a good idea.

This is where archiving your email can help. In short, archiving moves your data from the Exchange server to your local machine or network drive. I set up my email so my PST consists of my last two years’ worth of email, and then I archive everything older. I’ve found that two years is enough given the type of projects I accept. If you work on projects that last longer than a year, you might need to modify your archive schedule. Some companies have policies that dictate how long email is held on the server before it’s archived. Outlook has an auto-archive feature as well if you need to automate the process.

But before you archive your email, there are steps you can take to reduce the size of your PST. The first thing I recommend is to take a look at your Deleted Items folder.

If this is your first time here you might be shocked at what you find. All the emails and files you see here contribute to the size of your PST. If you don’t need them anymore, right click on Deleted Items and select Empty Folder. If you feel confident that those emails you delete are actually the ones that should be deleted, you can set Outlook to automatically empty your Deleted Items folder when you close out of Outlook. This setting is found under the Advanced tab in Outlook Options.

DeletedItems

Another way to reduce the size of your PST file is to eliminate duplicate emails. Say you send an email to staff members with a few attachments. You will now have a copy of that email in your inbox and another copy in your Sent Items folder. If there’s not a compelling reason to keep the forwarded copy, you can go ahead and delete the copy in Sent Items. I went through a stretch where I sent large PowerPoint decks back and forth between team members. If the deck includes pictures or video, your PST file can grow quickly in size, and you probably don’t need to keep every version of the deck.

A quick way to free up space and get rid of these large emails is to sort your Sent Items folder by size. I was able to clear up nearly 1GB worth of space in under a minute by deleting old emails with massive attachments I no longer needed.

Use the “Clean Up” Tool

This is one of my favorite Outlook tips. Although it’s unlikely to free up as much space as the previous tip, this step not only reduces space but it reduces clutter too. It’s called Clean Up and it’s brilliant in its execution, but a bit confusing as to what it actually does.

CleanUp

Clean Up is found right off the Home tab and comes in three forms: Clean Up Conversation, Clean Up Folder and Clean Up Folders & Subfolders.

What Clean Up does is look at your conversations (some call these threads) and analyzes the content of each message. If a message is completely contained without one of the replies, the previous message is deleted.

Clean Up Conversation reviews the current conversation and deletes redundant messages.

Clean Up Folder reviews all conversations found in a specific folder and deletes redundant messages.

Clean Up Folder & Subfolders reviews all conversations in a selected folder and any subfolders, and deletes redundant messages.

I can’t tell you handy this Outlook feature has been to me over the past couple of years. It’s been especially helpful while working on larger projects where the group uses email to collaborate on documents or approve web copy or whatever else requires group participation. If you have a boss that uses “reply all” a lot, you will love this feature.

Use Conditional Formatting Rules

We’ve probably all received a visit from a boss asking why we haven’t replied to their urgent email. Maybe it got pushed down to the bottom of your inbox by less important messages. Or maybe you just failed to see it when it arrived. Conditional formatting helps you make important email stand out so you don’t miss them.

I used to work for a guy who demanded a reply within 30 minutes to his email or he came looking for me. I used conditional formatting to change the font color of his emails to red so I never missed them.

ConditionalFormatting

You’ll find the various options for conditional formatting under the View Settings ribbon icon under the View tab. Here I’ve applied a specific font and color to email sent to me from my boss.

Color

It’s easy to get lost among all the various options available. I usually leave the default properties alone and apply a font and/or color changes to draw my attention to those emails from senders who require immediate attention. I’m careful not to apply this to too many people or it loses its effectiveness.

Always Back Up

It helps to know exactly where Outlook saves your PST file. For users running Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 10, you’ll find this file at drive:\Users\user\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Outlook as long as the default options were used during installation. But it could have been installed elsewhere.

The first thing to do is to open up Account Settings and look under Email Account to see exactly where Outlook is saving your PST. In fact, if you’ve been using Outlook for a long time on the same computer it doesn’t hurt to do a wildcard search for “*.pst” and see what shows up.

Now that you know where your PST is being stored, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to back it up to an external drive. Make sure you’ve closed out of Outlook before doing this. My PST is important enough that I add it to my backup routine by saving it each week to my cloud storage provider. Your company might have a network share you can use as backup as well.

Of course, many of you manage Exchange Servers where backup is even more critical. A product like StorageCraft ShadowProtect GRE allows you to recover or migrate user’s mailboxes, folders, messages and more. I’ve deleted entire Outlook folders a few times, and I wish our IT department had had this in place at the time.

Conclusion

You probably don’t give a lot of thought to your inbox until something goes wrong. I’ve found that by archiving my email each year, I can reduce the size of my PST file and speed up Outlook at the same time. I see too many people who used Exchange for a decade and have generated one massive PST file. Too often these same people end up with a corrupt file, and are unable to access many years’ worth of email and contacts.

It never hurts to ask your IT department what would happen if your PST file gets corrupted or if you were to delete a folder’s worth of email. That should give you an idea of how prepared they are to handle some common scenarios. Over the years I’ve found that keeping my PST as small as possible by taking the above steps has been well worth the effort.

What tips or tricks do you perform that make Outlook work more effectively for you?