Booting distros from an external hard disk - a trial

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    Join Date
    Jun 2004
    Newcastle upon Tyne

    Booting distros from an external hard disk - a trial

    Booting distros from an external hard disk


    I know there are problems of booting distros from an USB hard disk so I thought I would wait and let others to sort out all the trouble before coming in to enjoy fruit of their success. Therefore I waited and waited but my patience ran out.

    Last weekend I made my second serious attempt to boot some distros off an external hard disk with some degree of success. Here is the write-up on the attempt.

    The USB disk is a 200Gb Pata known to Linux as sda. I have disconnected the internal disk temporarily to do the installations. I pre-partitioned the disk with 3 primaries sda1 (1Gb fat16), sda2 and sda3 (25Gb each, sda2 in partition type a5 for ufs filing system and sda3 not used), sda5 as a 1Gb swap, sda6 to sda10 in 10Gb each and the remainder from sda11 to sda15 20Gb each. sda6 to sda15 are partition type 83 for native Linux. I used cfdisk program for the partitioning work.

    The installation is no different to the one for internal hard disk except the hard disk name will be the SCSI/Sata type for being a USB disk. The same disk was used internally as a hda before. I just put it into an external hard disk enclosure and hooked it to a PC via a USB cable.

    The PC has a MSI KT8 Neo mobo, a AMD64 3000 CPU, 2GB ram, a Nvidia fx5200 video card and onboard Gigabyte nic and sound.

    12 installed systems

    A SCSI/Sata/USB hard disk can have a maximum of 15 partitions and I used them as follow:-

    sda1 : FreeDOS, the only system not installed but ported directly from another disk
    sda2 : PcBSD 1.0, the only BSD that works. FreeBSD and Solaris failed.
    sda3 : not yet filled
    sda4 : extended partition for sda5 to sda15
    sda5 : swap partition for all the Linux
    sda6 : Slax 4.1.8
    sda7 : Mandriva 2007
    sda8 : Suse 10.3 alpha1 (booted by FC6 kernel)
    sda9 : Fedora Core 6
    sda10 : Slackware 11 (booted by FC6 kernel)
    sda11 : Ubuntu 7.04
    sda12 : PCLinuxOS 2007 test 2
    sda13 : Sabayon 3.0
    sda14 : Raysx 1.5 (booted by Knoppix kernel)
    sda15 : Knoppix

    All the above 12 installed systems are working normally.

    I made the attempt because only recently I discovered the USB legacy support had been disabled all the time and I couldn't get the USB hard disk to boot. When I corrected it I was surprised Mandriva boots without a hitch. Hence I decided to try the big names like Red Hat, Slackware, Suse, Ubuntu, Gentoo and Knoppix

    Non-Linux systems

    The FreeDos was what left in the disk in a different partition when it was working as an internal disk before. I just migrated it to sda1. It was the first Dos I run from an USB drive.

    I tries FeeBSD 6.2, DesktopBSD 1.0, Solaris 10 and PcBSD 1.0. Only the last one was successful. These Unix-like distros need to be installed in the primary partitions of sda2 or sda3. It was a surprise to me PcBSD boots as I wasn't expect any of them would work.

    Partition scheme

    For Linux installation I just used a single partition for each distro and tell each installer to use the single partition to mount the root “/” of the Linux.

    The common swap in sda5 was seized by every distro without any intervention from me.

    The output of terminal command “fdisk -l” is show below
    root@saikee-desktop:~# fdisk -l
    Disk /dev/sda: 203.9 GB, 203928109056 bytes
    255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 24792 cylinders
    Units = cylinders of 16065 * 512 = 8225280 bytes
       Device Boot      Start         End      Blocks   Id  System
    /dev/sda1   *           1         122      979933+   6  FAT16
    /dev/sda2             123        3161    24410767+  a5  FreeBSD
    /dev/sda3            3162        6200    24410767+   c  W95 FAT32 (LBA)
    /dev/sda4            6201       24792   149340240    5  Extended
    /dev/sda5            6201        6322      979933+  82  Linux swap / Solaris
    /dev/sda6            6323        7538     9767488+  83  Linux
    /dev/sda7            7539        8754     9767488+  83  Linux
    /dev/sda8            8755        9970     9767488+  83  Linux
    /dev/sda9            9971       11186     9767488+  83  Linux
    /dev/sda10          11187       12402     9767488+  83  Linux
    /dev/sda11          12403       14834    19535008+  83  Linux
    /dev/sda12          14835       17266    19535008+  83  Linux
    /dev/sda13          17267       19698    19535008+  83  Linux
    /dev/sda14          19699       22130    19535008+  83  Linux
    /dev/sda15          22131       24792    21382483+  83  Linux
    Linux systems that boot immediately after installation

    I found all the distros have no resistance against being installed in a USB external hard disk and the following Linux boot straight way without hestiation:-

    Slax 5.1.8, Fedora Core 6, Mandriva Free 2007, Ubuntu 7.04, PCLinuxOS 2007 Test 2, Sabayon 3.0 (representing Gentoo) and Knoppix

    Linux systems that failed to boot after installation

    Three distros Suse 10.3 Alpha 1, Slackware 11 and Rayslx 1.5 didn't boot after installation with error like panic and not syncing etc.

    I believe the proper way to make such distros bootable could require a different ram disk file and possibly a re-compilation of the kernal, all of which are foreign and a lot of work to me at this stage.

    Being lazy by birth I thought if distro A can successfully boot from an external disk while distro B can't then what is stopping me from using the kernel and ram disk file from of distro A on distro B. So I tried and had some success.

    Suse 9.3 doesn't boot by iteslf. Attempting to boot it with Mandriva and Knoppix kernel also failed but it boots happily with Fedora C6 kernel and initrd.

    Slackware 11 doesn't boot by itself. It boots when I substituted the Fedora C6 kernel and initrd.

    Rayslx 1.5 doesn't boot by itself too. Fedora and Mandriva sets of kernel and initrd failed to fire it up but those from Knoppix did the trick.

    I can't offer any explanation except that a Linux user has enormous amount of choices of kernel and ram disk files at his/her disposal and trying a few ones out can bring an happy ending to the booting problems. I know it is a short term fix and even be regarded cheating but it is perfectly legal in Linux and I have seen some distros offer to multi-boot fellow Linux by this technique.

    Boot loader consideration

    When installing each system I only allow FC6 to take over the MBR and for the rest of the distros I require each installer to install the boot loader inside the root partition, thereby making each distro “chainloadable” by either Grub or Lilo.

    The FC6 menu.lst is shown below
    title Fedora Core (2.6.18-1.2798.fc6) @ sda9
    	root (hd0,8)
    	kernel /boot/vmlinuz-2.6.18-1.2798.fc6 ro root=LABEL=/ rhgb quiet
    	initrd /boot/initrd-2.6.18-1.2798.fc6.img
    title Freedos @ sda1
    	rootnoverify (hd0,0)
    	chainloader +1
    title PcDOS 1.0 @ sda2
            root (hd0,1)
            chainloader +1
    title Slax 5.1.8 @ sda6
            root (hd0,5)
            chainloader +1
    title Mandriva 2007 Free @ sda 7
            root (hd0,6)
            chainloader +1
    title Suse 10.3 @ sda8
    	root (hd0,7)
    	kernel (hd0,8)/boot/vmlinuz-2.6.18-1.2798.fc6 ro root=/dev/sda8 rhgb quiet
    	initrd (hd0,8)/boot/initrd-2.6.18-1.2798.fc6.img
    title Slackware 11 @ sda10
    	root (hd0,9)
    	kernel (hd0,8)/boot/vmlinuz-2.6.18-1.2798.fc6 ro root=/dev/sda10 rhgb quiet
    	initrd (hd0,8)/boot/initrd-2.6.18-1.2798.fc6.img
    title Ubuntu 7.04 @ sda11
            root (hd0,10)
            chainloader +1
    title PCLinuxOS 2007 Test 2 @ sda12
            root (hd0,11)
            chainloader +1
    title Sabayon 3.0 @ sda13
            root (hd0,12)
            chainloader +1
    title RaysLx @ sda14
            root (hd0,13)
            kernel (hd0,14)/boot/vmlinuz-2.6.19 root=/dev/sda14 rw ramdisk_size=100000 apm=power-off nomce vga=791 
            initrd (hd0,14)/boot/initrd.img-2.6.19
    title Knoppix @ sda15
            root (hd0,14)
            chainloader +1
    The red bits in the above indicate how I added the absolute partition reference in front of the kernel and initrd statements to “source” another kernels to boot the Linux. If I miss the red bits out Grub will search the vmlinuz and initrd files within the partition specified by the “root” statement.

    For comparison purpose I list out the relevant menu.lst of the three Linux that can't boot themselves from the USB external hard disk (they boot after kernel and initrd substitutions)

    Suse 10.3 menu.lst
    title openSUSE 10.3
        root (hd0,7)
        kernel /boot/vmlinuz-2.6.20-2-default root=/dev/disk/by-id/usb-Maxtor_6_Y200P0_68-part8 vga=0x31a    resume=/dev/sda5 splash=silent showopts
        initrd /boot/initrd-2.6.20-2-default
    Slackware 11 lilo.conf
    boot = /dev/sda
    message = /boot/boot_message.txt
    timeout = 1200
    vga = 773
    image = /boot/vmlinuz
      root = /dev/sda10
      label = Linux
    Rayslx 1.5 menu.lst
    title           RAYS LX
    root            (hd0,13)
    kernel          /boot/vmlinuz-2.6.15-1-486 root=/dev/sda14 ro vga=785 splash=silent 
    initrd          /boot/initrd.img-2.6.15-1-486

    In attempting to install the 12 operating systems into an external hard disk the following 9 distros boot normally just as though they are in an internal hard disk.

    FreeDOS, PcBSD 1.0, Slax 4.1.8, Mandriva Free 2007, Fedora Core 6, Ubuntu 7.04, PCLinuxOS 2007 test 2, Sabayon 3.0, and Knoppix

    These 3 Linux did not boot initially but fire up if their kernels are replaced by those from other Linux
    Suse 10.3 alpha1 (booted by FC6 kernel)
    Slackware 11 (booted by FC6 kernel)
    Raysx 1.5 which is a Chinese Debian (booted by Knoppix kernel)

    I failed to install the following systems : FreeBSD 6.2, Desktop BSD 1.0 and Solaris 10.

    The only Linux that I didn't manage to install was Gentoo which reported one of my partitions its installer “dislikes”.

    It looks like Debians (Ubuntu and Knoppix), Red Hat (Fedora), Mandrake (Mandriva, PCLinuxOS), Gentoo (Sabayon) and Slax familes distros are USB-disk friendly.

    Suse and Slackware are not bootable out of the box from a USB hard disk. They could be overcome by selectively substituting their kernel and initrd files with those from Linux that boot successfully from the same USB hard disk.
    Last edited by saikee; 05-03-2007 at 09:26 AM.
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