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I currently have Ubuntu 13.04 installed on my Desktop PC. It is 32-bit. I have 3 partitions: one for /, one for /home and another one for swap. Say I want to install another operating system (another distro) over / but not formatting my /home partition.

Will it be compatible?

More specifically: if I install a non Ubuntu-based distro over /, like Arch or Fedora or openSUSE, will my system break or my programs stop working after the installation?

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I have had essentially the same $HOME carried across over the last decade from Mandrake to SuSe to openSuse to Ubuntu to Linux Mint to LMDE. Sometimes I had to remove certain .config files to solve problems but it usually just works. –  terdon Jun 26 '13 at 14:00
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3 Answers

I have shared /home between SuSE and Ubuntu (at the time I did transit) and currently between different versions of Ubuntu. So not formatting is /home is ok.

The thing to do is make different users on the different installs, whose home directories all end up on /home (and often have the same user id (1000)). They can have the same username ('anthon') but have different directories: /home/anthon-suse, /home/anthon-6.06, /home/anthon-12.04 etc.

After that you can link or move your non-problematic content from the old directory to a new one.

Non-problematic are in my experience anything that does not need conversion (directories with photos e.g.) and things you need to explicitly save (e.g. OpenOffice/LibreOffice files).

Problematic can be configuration files that are written out in a new not backwards compatible format.

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Could you give me some examples of files which would not work / be compatible between two different systems? I'm not speaking about specific distro things like package managers, but about general programs. –  thiagowfx Jun 27 '13 at 11:08
    
One thing that comes to mind was that pidgin changed its configuration files. They were automatically converted on my workstation but when I used my home directory on my laptop running an older Ubuntu version it could not read the converted data. (This was some time ago, so I don't know which version of pidgin and/or Ubuntu this was). Currently my old laptop is stuck on Ubuntu 10.04 as later versions no longer have the appropriate NVidia driver (just to prove that keepign things in sync between systems is not always possible). –  Anthon Jun 27 '13 at 11:47
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As others put out there might be problems with configuration, however it is possible to have common folders in them like music, pictures, movies, etc and any folder from any partition. Research mount --bind option (for example this tutorial: http://backdrift.org/how-to-use-bind-mounts-in-linux) to have common folders in different partitions.

For example: I have partition for multimedia storage, I can mount it in folder /mnt/multimedia and bind Music and Video folders to home directory with this fstab:

/dev/sda9   /mnt/multimedia ext4    rw,relatime,data=ordered    0   0
/mnt/multimedia/Music   /home/user/Music    none    bind    0   0
/mnt/multimedia/Video   /home/user/Video    none    bind    0   0

There is nothing (except perhaps permissions if the users are not same named (user home folder does not need to be same named as user name)) that prevents bind mounting folders from one home folder to another:

/dev/sda9   /home   ext4    rw,relatime,data=ordered    0   0
/home/user-suse/Music   /home/user/Music    none    bind    0   0
/home/user-suse/Video   /home/user/Video    none    bind    0   0

You can still have parts of home folders bind mounted and common between home folders, despite having different folders for your users.

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This bind option sounded good to me! I'll definitely try that. Looks like permanent symbolic links, right? –  thiagowfx Jun 27 '13 at 11:10
    
Yes, but bind mount have some performance advantages: serverfault.com/questions/98487/ln-s-vs-mount-bind –  IBr Jun 30 '13 at 11:47
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you are probably going to have problems if you are dependent on specific locations and version of shared library files for your programming. If you are keeping your /home directory clean of binaries, scripting is ok, you have a higher probability of success.

Remember the distributions may relocate system files to different locations. Also different versions of support libraries also make this difficult.

So summary, I'd probably not expect a lot of compatibility but of course you are welcome to try and see if this works in your circumstances. Professionally, I'd not be doing this however.

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The OP wants to keep /home there are few shared libraries in there normally. I did read that as / is going to be formatted. –  Anthon Jun 26 '13 at 5:12
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