boot manager : Computer Hardware Buyers’ Glossary

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boot manager
You might have several different operating systems in different partitions on your computer, e.g. JavaOS, Beos … How does the BIOS (Basic Input Output System) know which one you want to use? It looks for a partition marked active. A boot manager lets you choose which OS (Operating System) you want. Typically, the boot manager lives in a tiny partition marked active. The BIOS always boots it, then the boot manager chooses which actual partition you want to boot from. Typically you choose from a menu. If you are not quick enough, it selects a default and goes with that.

Booting is a two stage process. First CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide on Silicon) boots from the active partition of the device selected in CMOS. From there, the is the software in that partition’s job to select which partition you really wanted to boot from. Win2K itself acts as a primitive boot manager, at least to other copies of Win2K.

A decent boot manager should have the following features:

  1. Be controlled also from the command line of your various operating systems so that you can select an OS to reboot to. You use this to run your end of day scripts unattended on a variety of operating systems. A batch script can reboot the machine to a different OS and start up another script that runs then reboots back, all unattended. Boot-It has a command line BootNow reboot utility where you select the next OS.
  2. Backup and restore the partition tables to a self-booting floppy.
  3. It should also let you boot directly to DOS (Disk Operating System) on a Windows FAT (File Allocation Table) partition, Windows, Windows safe mode or NT bypassing the infernally inept Windows boot manager.
  4. It should let you hide some of the partitions from arrogant operating systems so they won’t mess with them.
  5. I don’t know if this is technically feasible but it would be nice if you could hide drives or reorder so that when an OS booted it would naturally assign drive letters the way you wanted it to. This should mesh with any such abilities the OS es themselves have.
I originally wanted the boot manager to provide a way for differing OS es to communicate, e.g. pass the name of a script to start executing on reboot. The TeraByte/Boot-It people pointed out that was unnecessary. You could use a small FAT partition for that purpose since now nearly every OS supports FAT in addition to its native formats. You would just put the name of the script you wanted to execute next, or any other intercommunication data there.
Boot Managers
Products Notes
Acronis Disk Director Lets you create, delete, grow, shrink, shuffle, copy, split and merge partitions. You do it all with a GUI (Graphic User Interface). You plan out your work which could take many steps, then commit and in a batch in shuffles the partitions around for hours. Includes a boot manager and a low level disk editor you can use to study the various control blocks. Unfortunately, even after many hours of fooling about I could not get the boot manager to notice my bootable Vista partition. The Acronis techs were unable to figure out why. I spend days fooling around trying to get it to work. Boot-It can see it, and all the Acronis tools display it just fine as a bootable partition. I used the recovery tools bootrec and bootsect to no avail.
boot.ini Free, (its only saving grace), comes bundled with Microsoft Operating Systems. The ultimate in user-unfriendliness. The documentation scattered over the web is mostly incorrect and contradictory. You configure it by editing the C:\I\ file. It uses an arcane system of naming the partitions: e.g. multi(0)disk(0)rdisk(1)partition(1) or scsi(0)disk(0)rdisk(0)partition(1). The rules are very complex but usually this will work: multi(0)disk(0)rdisk(0=first, 1=second)partition(1..4).

The secret is that the partition numbers are 1-based, yet they don’t refer to the first, second etc. partitions on hard disk. They don’t even refer to the first through fourth slots in the MBR (Master Boot Record). They refer to the first, second and third partitions mentioned in the MBR. So if you delete the entry in slot 2, all the partitions further down get renumbered, and their boot.ini files stop working! What a dildo brain invented that scheme! Only primary partitions count as partitions in the numbering scheme. TeraByte did an excellent video that explains boot.ini and its numbering scheme.

Before you edit boot.ini, make a bootable diskette with your old copy of boot.ini on it and make sure it lets you get at your various partitions. Boot.ini is intended to work only with Microsoft operating systems, though you can fool it if you are a masochistic techie. Some entries in C:\BOOT.INI e.g. point to files on the current C: partition containing absolute, preconfigured bootstrap code, e.g. to boot in recovery mode (C:\CMDCONS\BOOTSECT.DAT="Recovery Console /cmdcons), to boot to DOS (C:\BOOT.DOS=PCDOS 6.3"), Linux or triple boot OS shared partition. The partition location information is burned into this code. Other entries, e.g. multi(0)disk(0)rdisk(0)partition(1)\WINNT=W2K /fastdetect point to the WINNT directories on other partitions where the W2K/NT system code lives. It expects to find NTLDR in the root of such partitions.

When experimenting, it never hurts to put in extra dummy boot.ini entries that point to other plausible combinations of drive and partition. If you guessed wrong for your official setup, you still have a way of recovering. Label every boot entry uniquely so you can tell which boot.ini was being used. It gets very confusing when drives may be reordered, and there are multiple boot.ini files.

The BootPart utility will help you edit C:\BOOT.INI and extract the necessary absolute bootstrap files from the boot sectors. I was unsuccessful extracting bootsectors with DOS Norton Utilities DiskEdit. The whole business is complicated by the different OS ’s see different partitions, and that boot sector code is invalidated if you change CMOS disk settings.

Booting to a DOS partition is especially tricky. You need to create a BOOTSECT.DOS file on your W2K partition, and the DOS partition must be on the same drive!

Note that you cannot include ;-style comments in C:\BOOT.INI the way you can in other INI files.

Here is a sample boot.ini file for Win2K:

There is only one bootable partition, and it is the first on the drive. There are several data partitions, but they are not mentioned in boot.ini.

Here is a sample boot.ini file for XP:

There is a recovery partition followed by the boot partition followed by a data partition. There is only one bootable partition.

Windows Vista does not use this boot.ini mechanism. It uses its own incompatible BCD (Binary Coded Decimal) boot manager.

CMOSSAVE A simple, extremely limited, but foolproof boot manager works by using CMOS to select which physical drive to boot from. Make sure the primary partition you want to boot is marked active, and starts in the first 1024 cyls. You can use CMOSSAVE/CMOSREST to semi-automate the process of changing CMOS settings. Only works with DOS, W3.1, OS2, W95, W98, Me and NT. ; W2K, XP, W2003, Vista, W2008, W7-32, W7-64, W8-32 and W8-64 will not permit on the fly CMOS changing.
OSL20000 Does not require a partition for itself. Supports DOS, Win95/98/ME/NT/2K/XP, Linux. Does not appear to allow programmatic control of which OS to reboot to next. It is all menu driven. Shareware
OS/2 boot manager bundled with PartitionMagic. Requires its only tiny primary partition. Simple, but gets in trouble if you add a drive that moves the primary boot drive elsewhere.
Ranish Minimalist for techies only. The documentation is impenetrable. You have to have written your own boot manager to make any sense of it.
Symantec Boot Magic bundled with PartitionMagic. Simple rebooter that lets you select a physical primary partition to reboot too.
TeraByte Boot-It Bare Metal commercial, best features. Vista ready. $35.00 USD . It also lets you grow, shrink and move partitions. This is the tool I use myself for partitioning and boot management. I have written an essay on it.
Avantquest (née V-com) Partition Commander Partition Commander (copy, move, split and merge any partition without losing data) which costs $50.00 USD Does not include a boot manager. The V-com boot manager seems to have been discontinued.
XOSL (extended Operating System Loader) free. Works only with DOS and Win9x. Suffers from extreme featuritis. I want to strangle the authors of XOSL. They fool around with frills like fancy GUI s, mouse interfaces and configurable fonts and ignore the bread and butter purposes of a boot manager.

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