Thursday, July 16, 2009

Using Linux to increase your Windows security

I've spent some time discussing why Internet security is such a mess, as well as why Windows is simply harder to secure than Linux. Today, I'm going to show you how you can make your security better, without giving up applications that only run under Windows.

First, a few points (read the earlier posts I linked if you want more background):
  • There's simply no doubt that Linux is more secure than Windows. Major architectural design decisions simply mean fewer security failures.
  • There's simply no doubt that Windows is targeted much more by the Bad Guys. It's an easier target, and there are more targets: this makes it irresistable to malware authors.
  • There are some applications that simply do not run under Linux.
The last point is what keeps everyone from being like me, and moving to an exclusive Linux environment (actually, the laptop that they gave me at work runs Vista, so it's not actually exclusive).

If you're a gamer, you're pretty much out of luck with Linux. I'm not, so this isn't a problem for me, but it was a deal breaker for #1 Son. If you live and die by iTunes, you're out of luck with Linux. I don't particularly care about iTunes, since I'm a dinosaur who still likes CDs.

So, it's a quandry. Keep Windows for the applications they can't do without, but at the cost of lousy security that will pwn them longtime. Actually, most people are in this category. What would be ideal is to keep Windows for the Games or applications that only run on it, and use Linux for browsing and email - which are by far the biggest security risk.

As it turns out, you can have the best of both worlds. Ubuntu Linux lets you install it right on your Windows computer, without getting rid of Windows. There are two bits of magic that go into this:

1. The Ubuntu "Live CD" configuration, which lets you boot Linux from the CD without touching your existing Windows data. This lets you try it before you install it, and you can go back to Windows just by rebooting.

2. Wubi. This program comes on the Live CD, and lets you set up a "dual boot" configuration, where you can shoose to run either Windows or Linux when you boot your computer. Your Windows files are completely untouched, because Wubi installs all the Linux files in what looks like a big Windows file.

So as long as you have 5-10 GB or so of disk space, you can keep your current Windows configuration and install an Ubuntu Linux one, and switch between them whenever you want.

Ubuntu is the Linux of choice. It's the easiest to install, and it's very easy to run. There's none of the Linux triple-propellerhead power geeking involved. My experience is that hardware compatibility is outstanding - I have yet to find a hardware device that doesn't work with it (unlike Vista, which seems oddly persnickety).

It's surprisingly easy to try this all out:

1. Download Ubuntu and burn it to CD. If you don't have a CD burner in your computer, you can download it onto a USB memory stick.

2. While still in Windows, eject and reload the CD to make it autorun (if you downloaded to a USB stick, use Windows Explorer to browse to the USB drive and double-click on the autorun application.

3. Follow these instructions to get Ubuntu installed on your Windows computer.

What's even cooler is that if you don't like Linux after using it awhile, you an uninstall it. However, you'll have Firefox, a selection of good email clients (or gmail), and absolutely no need for antivirus or malware removal tools. Just do all your web browsing and email from Ubuntu.


Mongo said...

This is excellent help, and sorely needed. Thank you for taking the time to write it up. Very much appreciated.

I'll be doing this on one of my PC's this week, to see for myself how easy it is. Maybe I'll get some cred with techno-geek son... the old man is using Linux (g).

Borepatch said...

Mongo, you're welcome. No extra charge, it's all part of the service.


Anonymous said...

Great tips. I've got my vista laptop dual-booting Vista and Ubuntu. I also installed Ubuntu on an external HDD that I carry with me everywhere. It has all my music, contacts, email, and bookmarks. That way I can plug into any computer, anywhere, be completely secure and have everything I need. Comes in very handy.

Keep up the great tips!

Anonymous said...

Wait - Ubuntu is a free download

From you previous article:
Borepatch's First Law of Security is "free download" is Internet Security speak for "open your mouth and close your eyes."


Borepatch said...

Anonymous, you're right. The key point is to know whether you're downloading from a source you can trust.

I'll actually allow the lovely-and-trustworthy Mrs. Borepatch to do the "Open your mouth and close your eyes" thing to me. I trust her not to feed me worms or rocks or stuff.

Likewise, downloads from sites like Microsoft, Ubuntu, Adobe, Apple, etc will be trustworthy, as these companies all have brands to protect.