SHCC WYSIWYG Article from October 1998

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This article appeared in the October 1998 WYSIWYG newsletter.

System Commander 3.0

by Ralph Osinski

When I first suggested presenting this software to the club as one evening's General Meeting demo, Rick nixed it on the basis that, apart from two or three people, it would be beyond most members interests and their abilities to use and fully appreciate this rather specialized program.  He was probably right.  System Commander is not for everyone nor, despite a recent, customized release just for Windows 98 upgrades, does it try to be.  However, for those who require the ability to boot their systems with multiple Operating Systems ("OSes"), without resorting to hardware tricks or surrendering to certain software limits, either for increased flexibility or, simply to rebel against what they perceive as any one company's domination of the PC marketplace, it offers what may be the most flexible solution.

What System Commander (henceforth referred to as "SC") does, is to allow multiple OSes to be installed on, and booted from, separate partitions on a single hard drive; from multiple directories within partitions and, in non-Microsoft OSes on most computers; even from partitions and directories on additional hard drives.  In a sense, as suggested by the clever depiction of a selector switch on the package cover illustration, it makes changing OSes as easy as changing channels on a TV.  Don't expect to find that knob in the package however: this is a software-only product, and there's no need to open the computer case up for any hardware installation.  Selecting from a list of alternate OSes is as simple as turning the computer on, or just rebooting.  For regular use of one OS, a timeout setting will automatically select the last one used.  How many different systems?  Around 100, according to V-Communications Inc.'s ads and the manual's count although, allowing for up to thirty two per each of the four primary partitions available on the machines in use today, that number seems a bit off.  Even more should be possible if the OSes support booting from drives and partitions other than the primary partitions on the first hard drive.

So . . . who needs more than one OS?  Well, gamers, for instance.  Gamers?  Aren't we talking about SERIOUS power-users'  systems-level "warez" here?  Well, one of the main driving forces behind the PC processor, bus and video card horsepower race in these mature years of personal computers is gaming.  Yet most of the really good games are still DOS-based, even in this age of supposed Windows 95 "tyranny." Games do not always run their best under other OSes, particularly DOS games on Win95.  V-Com says they get "hosed" and, lately, news that QuickTime-based content and some Win95 games, like Quake 2, reportedly not running under Win98, tends to support that claim.  Thus, being able to boot DOS for DOS games, Win 3.X for Win 3.X games, and Win95/8 for Win95/8 as games migrate there, offers the best of all worlds.

Upgrade phobia is another common reason; not wholly unfounded due to the "predatory nature" [V-Com's phrase] of certain OSes.  Users are often hesitant to try that new OS over fear of losing the easy familiarity and ready use of their existing one during the transition.  A dual- or multiple-boot system can help them move into a current release without losing any immediate functionality of their old one.  In fact, a new market for SC has arisen with the latest release of Windows: that of allowing Win3.X and Win95 users to keep their old versions while safely upgrading to Win98.  A special "Upgrade Edition" is now on store shelves but, be aware that it only supports the Windows 3.X or 95 to 98 coexistence, no others.  It's only about $20.00 street but, at the asking price for the full package of SC on sale and with rebates, it's not the better overall value.

For "Systems Developers" (remember when we used to call them just Programmers?") Help Desk/Tech Support Representatives, and Software Testers, having the ability to switch OSes to run multiple releases, either for customer support or software development & testing can save the considerable expense of buying and supporting excess computers and their peripherals, the time it takes to load other OSes, or the cost & complexity of swapping hard drives; even those relatively-expensive, and now dinky, removable disks from SyQuest and iomega.  Salesmen now no longer need to lug several laptops on the road just to demonstrate and compare their offerings of cross-platform applications.

Another reason is to have the same OSes on a home machine that employers or customers require, without having to give up the OS one would rather be using.  The home computer can even have multiple personalities to accommodate different uses or users, with full password protection at the boot sector level to keep the kids out of verboten systems and file areas.  This also would apply to the educational sector, both for its multi-OS training, as well as its security features.

Foreign language versions of both OSes and applications designed to run on them can exist side-by-side with native language systems - useful for multi- national businesses in addition to language students alike.

The main OSes addressed in the documentation are the currently most popular ones -- DOS and its Windows 3.X GUI shells, and Win95.  Win98 was not available for testing at the time of this writing, however the manual addressed Microsoft's future efforts by offering installation advice for the beta release of what was expected to be Windows 97.  If Win98 is installed it can be identified by a little icon for the never-officially-released Win97 in the SC boot-selection menu!  It is presumed that later releases will correct this historical quirk.  Comparatively little manual space is devoted to the other supported OSes, although they are legion: including several DOSes; the UNIX variants, such as the increasingly-popular Linux; Next Step; Novell DOS & NetWare; Pick; Solaris(x86); OS/2; NT; and others.  This is an Intel iapx86-compatible-chip based solution and, to install it, a DOS or Win95 is initially required, although they do not need to remain on the machine afterwards.  Most of the more obscure OS installations are not covered at all in the docs, other than generic references, but such are bound to be in the hands of experienced people who've installed them under the usual adverse conditions and should see no new bizzarities due to SC that they haven't encountered before.

While the gist of what is an automatic installation taking less than five minutes & expressed in only two manual pages, exclusive of preliminaries, may lead novices to believe that this is a program that can be installed and run without first thoroughly digesting the documentation and understanding the underlying theory.  The fact that the rest of the book is devoted to caveats, options, message-handling, exceptions and minutiae that only a systems programmer could love, should dissuade them from such a course.  Suffice it to say, that considerable experience in installing and maintaining OSes and hard drives is a prerequisite to being happy about using this program.

Deciding on an overall strategy is probably one of the hardest parts of the whole process in planning to install or add OSes.  SC is not the only path to running multiple OSes on a single machine.  Excluding hardware-based solutions (which could form the basis of a presentation or article in their own right) experienced systems installers will know that so-called "Dual-Boot" options come with a few OSes, OS/2 and NT being the most familiar.  Win95's ability to co-exist with a previous copy of Windows 3.X, with certain trade-offs, like needing to reinstall legacy Windows apps under it, and potential coexistence problems with other dual-boot installations.

It's easy to draw comparisons between these on a very basic level and, if one only wants to run an OS such as either OS/2 or NT and another compatible OS, like Microsoft's DOS/Windows, or Win95, then dual-booting through such a Boot Manager may be the easier way to go, particularly since these boot programs are included in those products' prices.  However, they have certain limitations as to which other OSes they will peacefully work with, and the order in which each must be installed.  Anyone who has exercised his option of keeping his old Win3.X along with a new Win95 installation has had to make similar decisions as where to put the new stuff, and how much of the old to retain and replicate or reinstall under the new OS.  It takes thought, time, work, and disk space, but it can be done without SC.

Indeed, part of the dilemma with these Boot Managers is not so much in deciding which OS and loader or partitioning methodology to use, as it is in figuring out in what order to install them so that all the desired systems will inter-operate and be able to read each others' data as required.  The addition of new OSes as later acquired or developed further complicates this.  SC allows future installations of OSes in most any order, in addition to recognizing those already installed, so the likelihood of having one go unrecognized is decreased.  Any that are not detected by SC can be added, or even duplicated, through its menu system; activated before any OS starts.  This menu feature is quite neat in its own right.  It has its own fonts and graphics built in and, has screen saver, sound effects, system controls & password security available BEFORE boot-up.  Most of this resides in the Master Boot Record, with the support and configuration files occupying only one megabyte of hard drive space.

The standard, 16-bit File Allocation Table format will be the most likely used FAT for every partition & OS if the intention is to share files, typically data, between OSes, particularly if such reside in different partitions.  This precludes using advanced file systems, such as FAT32, NTFS and HPFS (in addition to others, as they are developed) if communication between partitions is important, as not all formats are recognizable to each other.  For the same reason, disk compression, although possible, is not advised.  Due to licensing and other concerns, most of the DOS & Windows compression methodologies use differing and incompatible compression schemes that cannot see each others' compressed areas across partitions.  Unix file formats present additional permission concerns, and other compatibility issues with the regular "WIMP" (Windows, Intel, Microsoft, PCs) world.

Also, since only Windows NT and Win95/98 can see and preserve their long filenames, be aware of this.  Using applications and utilities that alter disk files and directories across differing partition formats: like some defragmenters and undeleters, can result in lost data and malfunctioning programs due to truncated filenames, or worse.  This really only presents a problem if the operator isn't aware of these constraints and, if such a prospect sounds too scary, then SC can be configured to hide various partitions from view/use, although doing so will limit cross-partition data exchange.  Password protection in SC can keep guest users who are ignorant of the oddities of disk-level software from accessing the other OSes/partitions and doing any mischief.

A major part of using many OSes on a single drive involves using multiple partitions.  While more than the one partition most hard drives are initially set up for is not absolutely required for using SC (not even for its own files), they often offer the cleanest method of segregating OSes, data and applications, particularly with an OS like Win95, which has its own way of organizing such things.  Multiple, smaller partitions also provide more effective use of drive space, through using smaller disk sectors.  Be aware that all current Microsoft OSes have a four partitions per drive limit, and will only boot from a primary partition on the first drive.

In starting with a clean drive these can be created, easily enough, with a program like DOS's FDISK.  When the entire drive is already formatted as a single, large partition things can get a little tricky.  The procedure used to require the backing-up of ALL data on the disk, then its repartitioning, followed by reformatting each partition for its intended OS, and finally the reinstalling of whatever was backed-up to one of the new partitions, hoping that everything would still fit in the now smaller space.  While offering the advantage of not requiring the outlay for any additional software (Backup, FDISK and Format, or their equivalents come as part of Operating Systems) it is a time-consuming, and to some, a daunting process.  Therefore, there arose a need for another way; hackers & software vendors were quick to offer a solution.  The repartitioning of an IBM ThinkPad's disk, in testing SC for this review, was done with a freeware disk repartitioner called "Fips Ver. 1.5" provided on a Debian Linux distribution CD-ROM, included with the November 97 issue of the computer magazine "bootDISC." Despite its non-intuitive and non-self-documenting nature, it performed the job with the desired results.  The average user would be better off to use a commercial product, such as "Partition Magic" that claims to repartition drives on the fly, while still maintaining the integrity of the data in adjoining partitions.  So useful is such a program that a later, and costlier ($60.00), version of SC: "SC Deluxe" (not reviewed here) also will include similar repartitioning capabilities.

The initial installation attempt showed BOTH the current MS-DOS 6.22 bootable OS primary partition and a SECOND non-bootable partition, created under 6.22, but mislabeled as "MS-DOS 5.0." This actually reveals a little-known mistake in the naming of new OS releases, particularly those made for OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) in that, when a new version is released, the programming staff often omits changing the OS version name that the program reports as its own.  Apart from the significance to computing history, it can be a little confusing, especially in the context we're discussing.  Fortunately the manual includes a translation table for figuring the actual version numbers out.  SC also permits renaming its menu selections to anything wanted, and for rearranging the order in which it presents them.  For a reason only explained after a very thorough search of the serious manual, it turns out that SC had catalogued a partition created in the preparations for the second bootable primary one, as a secondary, logical partition that was useless for the boot scenario planned.  This had to be removed and then recreated as a bootable primary after SC was installed, using its internal functions followed by an FDISK and DOS Format.  After that, a second, bootable Win95 partition retaining the same set of programs as installed in the DOS 6.22/Win 3.X partition was created.  During all of this fidgeting with the installation, SC even remembered the user I.D. registration info that was entered before an aborted installation, and didn't require reentering it on continuing.

Windows 95 really prefers to be the only OS on the system, and so will install itself in the first partition, overwriting what is there.  That's OK if Win95 is to reside in the first partition.  This installation was to have it in the second, however, so SC had to do a few tricks by hiding the first partition from Win95's view.  Redmond's finest OS then installed itself in the second partition, overwriting what it presumed to be the only other system there, and in so doing automatically migrated all the applications installed for the duplicate Win 3.X present.  This worked just as planned, although in this particular system's final configuration, applications will most likely be restricted to the windowing environment for which they were originally written.  "Render unto Windows what is Windows'; Render unto DOS what is DOS's." Win95 also has the nasty habit of overwriting the Master Boot Record, often requiring some computer systems' BIOS Boot Sector Virus-checking option to be disabled during its installation, lest the computer halt upon mistaking Win95 for a virus.  SC expects this and saves a copy of the MBR and can restore it after successfully installing such ill-mannered OSes.  Win95 then performed as expected, even allowing the restarting of itself without having to reboot the entire computer (using the <shift> + <restart the Computer> option) is still possible.  And the DOS/Win 3.X partition is still as usable as it was before.  Any of the niggling problems that showed up were eventually traced to the ThinkPad hardware and OS peculiarities, other than SC itself.  Anticipated future system upgrades here will include a monster hard drive, resulting in even more OSes being added to the testing machine - with the intent of having about eight OSes to choose from upon startup.

The only concern presently, beyond that of a FAT16 system being limited to two-gigabyte partitions, is a reported inability of OSes (and by implication SC), other than Win98 or the later versions of Win95 to use the newest hard drives of greater than 8 gigabyte capacity with anything other than FAT32X, or OSes like OS/2, NT and the UNIXes that have their own formats.  SC claims to handle drives up to 4 terabytes (that's 4,000 gigabytes!) but is now apparently stymied by BIOS and OS limitations similar to those that had occurred when hard drives first exceeded 1024 cylinders.  A patch is supposedly ready at V-Com's website, and will be applied to any large disk installation acquired here, provided any included "readme" files indicate that they've really got a handle on the situation.

Tech Support for questions arising from this product was handled via E-mail, as there is no toll-free 1-800 number available.  Replies took a few days, often having to be re-sent until they were delivered to the correct technician.  An initial question regarding the default directory for SC's configuration files was finally answered very competently - by two different techs!  However, a well-worded inquiry, about the touchy subject of compatibility with drives greater than 8 gigabytes, produced only a curt suggestion to check the website for the patch and included none of the hoped-for technical explanations.  There is a troubleshooting report program, "Scout," provided on the disk, also available online, but its use did not apply in either of these questions.


System Commander promised a slightly-confusing array of many possibilities, and yet delivered a genuinely painless way to provide multi-OS boot capabilities.  Overall it is an excellent solution to the problem it addresses, and a valuable addition to the serious System Guru's/Techie's/Power User's or Advanced Gamer's computer system.  TechnoPeasants need not apply.

System Commander 3.07

V-Communications, Inc.

2290 North First St.
Suite 101
San Jose, CA 95131
Sales: 1-800-648-8266
Main: 1-408-965-4000
Help: 1-408-965-4018
BBS: 1-408-965-4016
Fax: 1-408-965-4014

How much:
~$45 street; frequently $25, on sale & after rebates.

System Demands:
Intel/AMD/Cyrix IBM-compatible 80286, or higher, PC.
DOS or Win95 is required to install, but not for use.
Floppy drive for installation.  Single 1.44 Meg. media supplied.  Cannot be copied to hard drive to install.
IDE, EIDE or SCSI hard drive (ESDI support implied).
Only 1 megabyte free primary hard drive space needed.
Requires NO RAM residency after booting.
Guarantee: Unconditional, 60 days money back.
Copy protection: None!

©1998 Ralph Osinski

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