Creating a multi-distro Linux Live USB stick (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 25 Oct 2011

Creating a multi-distro Linux Live USB stick

Linux live USB sticks (flash drivers) are awesome. You can carry them anywhere and give a demo of Linux on anyone's computer, any time. But how do you keep track of them? Especially since USB sticks don't have any place to write a label. How do you remember that the shiny blue stick is the one with Ubuntu Oneiric, the black one has Ubuntu Lucid, the other blue one that's missing its top is Debian ... and so forth. It's impossible! Plus, such a waste -- you can hardly buy a flash drive smaller than 4G these days, and then you go and devote it to a 700Mb ISO designed to fit on a CD. Silly.

The answer: get one big USB stick and put lots of distros on it, using grub to let you choose at boot time.

To create my stick, I followed the easy instructions at HOWTO: Booting LiveCD ISOs from USB flash drive with Grub2. I found that tutorial quite simple, so I'm not going to duplicate the instructions there. I used the non-LUA version, since my grub on Ubuntu Natty didn't seem to support LUA. Basically you run grub-install to the stick, create a directory called iso where you stick all your ISO files, then create a grub.cfg with magic incantations to boot each ISO.

Ah, wait ... magic incantations? The tutorial is missing one important part: what if you want to use an ISO that isn't already mentioned in the tutorial? If Ubuntu's entry is
linux (loop)/casper/vmlinuz boot=casper iso-scan/filename=$isofile quiet splash noprompt -- and Parted Magic's is
linux (loop)/pmagic/bzImage iso_filename=$isofile edd=off noapic load_ramdisk=1 prompt_ramdisk=0 rwnomce sleep=10 loglevel=0 then you know there's some magic going on there.

I knew I needed at least the Ubuntu "alternate installer", since it allows installing a command-line system without the Unity desktop, and Debian Squeeze, since that's currently the most power-efficient Linux for laptops, in addition to the distros mentioned in the tutorial. How do you figure out what to put in those grub.cfg lines? Here's how to figure it out from the ISO file. I'll use the Debian Squeeze ISO as an example.

Step 1: mount the ISO file.

$ sudo mount -o loop /pix/boot/isos/debian-6.0.0-i386-netinst.iso /mnt

Step 2: find the kernel

$ ls /mnt/*/vmlinuz /mnt/*/bzImage

Step 3: find the initrd. It might have various names, and might or might not be compressed, but the name will almost always start with init.

$ ls /mnt/*/vmlinuz /mnt/*/init*

Unmount the ISO file.

$ umount /mnt

The trick in steps 2 and 3 is that nearly all live ISO images put the kernel and initrd a single directory below the root. If you're using an ISO that doesn't, you may have to search more deeply (try /mnt/*/*).

In the case of Debian Squeeze, now I have the two filenames: /install.386/vmlinuz and /install.386/initrd.gz. (I've removed the /mnt part since that won't be there when I'm booting from the USB stick.) Now I can edit boot/grub/grub.cfg and make a boot stanza for Debian:

menuentry "Debian Squeeze" {
    set isofile="/boot/isos/debian-6.0.0-i386-netinst.iso"

    loopback loop $isofile 
    linux (loop)/install.386/vmlinuz iso_filename=$isofile quiet splash noprompt --
    initrd (loop)/install.386/initrd.gz

Here's the entry for the Ubuntu alternate installer:

menuentry "Oneiric 11.10 alternate" {
    set isofile="/boot/isos/ubuntu-11.10-alternate-i386.iso"
    loopback loop $isofile 
    linux (loop)/install/vmlinuz iso_filename=$isofile
    initrd (loop)/install/initrd.gz

It sounds a little convoluted, I know -- but you only have to do it once, and then you have this amazing keychain drive with every Linux distro on it you can think of. Amaze your friends!

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[ 22:21 Oct 25, 2011    More linux/install | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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