In Defense of Multiple Partitions in Linux

If you’ve ever installed Linux or UNIX, you’ve surely come across this idea: installing across several partitions. These days it’s not so common in many distros, but just a few years back everybody wanted you to do it. Reccommended partition tables included: /, /var, /var/log, /usr, /boot, /home, /tmp, SWAP, and /everyone/and/their/mother. The silliness knew no end. Lately, in the age of Ubuntu, distros have decided that this list could be reduced to: /, /boot and SWAP. I’m here to urge you not to go along with this.

Why not?

I’m glad you asked. If you do a quick google search for why you should have multiple partitions like this, you’ll see the usual enterprisey reasons. The words “security” and “disk quotas” will come up often. You might think that as an end user you don’t really care about these things. You’d probably be right. Indeed, in this day and age you tend to only see these crazy partitions schemes server operings systems like Solaris.

There is one thing that typical Linux end users do tend to do though: switch distros. With so many choices, it’s easy to want to try a different one. Maybe you’re tired of replacing Iceweasel with real Firefox, so you switch to Ubuntu. Maybe Mark Shuttleworth spoke ill of your mother, so you switch to Mint. Maybe you want real Java, which only comes packaged in a .rpm, so you switch to Fedora. Either way, if all your filesystems are in one partition you’ll be sorry.

One of the historical problems with Linux that has yet to be solved is cleanly upgrading and replacing distros. Some try to support in-place upgrades, but the process still involves prayer. Others have extremely convoluted processes that are much harder than starting from scratch. My personal home server is still running Debian Squeeze because the upgrade process sounds like so much work.

Oh Dear. What Should I Do?

The solution is simple. There is no need for the complicated partition schemes of yore. All you need to do is partition your system like so: /, /boot, SWAP, and /home. If you partition your system like this, then switching distros is simple. All you need to do is not touch this partition. You will be able to delete and recreate /, /boot, and SWAP, and leave /home untouched. This will ensure your data is safe. Obviously backups are in order when messing with partitions, but it’s a pretty safe bet if you decide to gamble on it. So long as you don’t use some crazy filesystem for /home, the new distro should be able to mount it seamlessly.

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