Linux Bootable Drive Tutorial

Linux Bootable Drive Tutorial



Hi again! In this segment we’ll be discussing various topics regarding USB booting. I’ll primarily be focusing on using some of the most popular Linux distributions, and I’ll touch on some more common operating systems as well.


Booting refers to the basic set of operations a computer performs when its switched on. This can either be supplied through introduced electrical power or a reboot. A reboot is when a computer restarts without removing electrical power, (under normal conditions usually through an interface command), initiating a reset of the device. Typically these basic operations include initializing peripheral devices, such as a keyboard and mouse, then locating and starting a set of programs that controls and distributes application software.


This set of programs, is an operating system. Currently the most widely distributed operating systems include Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux distributions. While Mac and Windows need no introduction, Linux tends to be a little more obscure in some circles. Linux is a Unix-rooted operating system widely known for its free and open source software collaboration. This means the Linux kernel can be used, changed, sold, and distributed by anyone. For free. This OS is, consequently, extremely popular with mainframe computers, servers and supercomputers for its flexibility and customizable properties. Linux distributions, distros for short, are operating systems that were built on the original Linux kernel, or from some derivative of it. Some of the more popular Linux distros include Debian, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora, and openSUSE.


USB Booting is when you initialize and run an operating system from either a USB hard drive or a USB flash drive. With this approach, the computer resumes the virtual interface, giving the user access to his/her personal environment, including previously running computations. USB booting is commonly used for data recovery, system administration, and system tests, but has a number of other possible applications.


A USB flash drive or a USB external hard drive with an embedded, bootable operating system is called a Live USB. Live USB drives can be either manually installed with an OS, or created using a specific software. Also, some companies sell preinstalled Live USB drives that I’ll discuss a little bit later.


Before anything else, make sure you have/do the following:


  • A USB device that has at least 128 MB data storage capacity to work on Linux. For other OS systems I’d suggest at least 2 GB. (Most USB drives don’t come any smaller than 2 GB now anyway).
  • Back up your data. Just to be safe.
  • A computer that supports USB-BIOS capabilities.


BIOS stands for basic input/output system. This is a standard firmware interface that is built into every PC, and is the absolute initial startup mode that is run when the computer boots. BIOS includes a set of basic input/output functions that are used to manage software and peripheral devices. In the case of USB-BIOS, the initial start up is run through the USB device. A computer’s CPU can only execute code found in either the ROM (read-only memory) or the RAM (random access memory). When a computer is first turned on, it usually does not have an OS stored anywhere in its memory.


BIOS executes a small program known as a Boot Loader that loads other data and programs which are then executed from RAM. Most of the time, multiple-stage boot loaders are executed, during which several programs of increasing complexity load one after the other in a process of chain loading. The Boot Loader executes this from RAM located in the hard drive, CD/DVD drive, or a USB drive. In our case we like it to boot from a USB drive. In order to do so we have to override the boot loader hierarchy and manually reroute it to run first from the attached USB device.


USB-BIOS consists of two BIOS methods that are used for direct USB booting and installation.


  • USBHDD – Support booting USB mass storage devices that are configured like normal PC hard drives. (Most computers use this method).
  • USBZIP – Support booting from USB mass storage devices that act like the original IOMEGA ZIP drives with USB support.



Some of the following instructions involve sensitive lines of code that could cause serious damage to your computer system if not executed correctly. Take your time. Read through it twice, and leave a comment if you’re not absolutely sure about something before proceeding. I will reply!



Installing Linux Ubuntu on a USB flash drive using UNetbootin


Let’s begin with an easy method.


For this install you’ll need UNetbootin, short for Universal Netboot Installer. This is a small, free software package that creates Live USB systems, and is designed to make the installation process quick and simple.


  1. Download the software from and run it from your desktop or applications folder depending on where it’s saved.
  2. From this menu you can select a distribution and version to download from the list provided on the top, or manually specify files to load from the Disk Image or a custom kernel. (Since you are installing to a USB flash drive you can save any distribution/OS on it and the process will in no way effect the host computer.) I’m running the most current version of Linux Ubuntu but you can use whatever you’d like. It’s an amazing feature.
    • If you choose to load from the Disk Image, the process will extract the files from an ISO then copy them to the flash drive. An ISOis an image of the all the files and folders that need to be present on the USB, to install the operating system. it’s like a grocery bag filed with ingredients. Better yet, it’s like a shopping cart filled with grocery bags filled with ingredients.
  3. Once the program is complete, (this process should only take a few minutes), you’ll be asked if you want to reboot your computer or exit the UNetbootin menu. I suggest testing it to make sure everything came out as desired, so, reboot!
  4. After rebooting, select the USB boot option in the BIOS boot menu and you’re set.


Click HERE to see how to boot your live USB drive



Create a Live USB drive using Command-Line Interface and GRUB on Linux Fedora


Fedora is a decent Linux distro. Let’s see how the ‘dreaded’ CLI is used to install an OS onto a USB device.


  1. You’ll have to format your USB drive first. Navigate to your USB drive icon and select format. Select Win FAT32 as the File system, then click start. This will erase all data currently stored on the drive, so make sure you’ve back everything up!
  2. Next open your terminal. A terminal is essentially the same as a Command-Line Interface. They’re method of typing commands to the computer. You can either open a terminal inside of Fedora’s graphical OS environment by clicking the icon in the main menu, or by pressing Ctrl-Alt-F2.
  3. Locate information on your current devices and partitions (USB Device name, DVD Mount, USB Mount Point, USB File System, and ISO or DVD image). To do so, run:


# dmesg | less
# dmesg | egrep -i ‘cd|dvd’
# fdisk -l


In this example, we’ll be using the following device names:

– USB Pen Device Name : /dev/sdb1

– USB Mount: /media/cdrom0

– USB Mount Point: /media/usb

– USB File System: Win FAT32

– ISO Image: Fedora/CentOS/RHEL


  1. Next we’re going to mount the CD/DVD ISO. Run:


# mount Fedora-12-x86_64-netinst.iso -o loop /media/cdrom0/
# DVD=/media/cdrom0
# ls -l $DVD

  1. Now let’s format the USB. Create the fdisk partition. Run:


# fdisk /dev/sdb


  1. Format the partition. Run:


# USB=/media/usb
# mkdosfs /dev/sdb1


  1. Great! Now let’s mount the partition. Run:


# mkdir -p /media/usb
# mount /dev/sdb1 /media/usb
# USB=/media/usb





  1. Now we’re going to copy the required files for the OS Fedora. Run:


# cp -av $DVD/isolinux/* $USB
# cd $USB
# rm isolinux.bin TRANS.TBL
# mv isolinux.cfg syslinux.cfg

  1. Then copy the installer’s original RAM disk CD/DVD on the USB. Run:


# cp -v $DVD/images/pxeboot/initrd.img $USB


  1. Unmount the USB drive and make it bootable. Run:


# umount /dev/sdb1


– press enter –


# syslinux /dev/sdb1
# mount /dev/sdb1 $USB


  1. Next we’re going to install GNU GRUB. This is a boot loader package used predominately on Linux distributions. Run:


# grub-install –root-directory=$USB /dev/sdb


  1. Create grub.conf. Run:


# cd $USB
# mkdir -p boot/grub


  1. Edit the grub.conf file. Run:




root (hd1,0)

title Fedora Linux

kernel /vmlinuz

initrd /initrd.img


  1. Finally, unmount the USB drive. Run:


# umount /dev/sdb1


You’re USB flash drive is now ready to go!


Click HERE to see how to boot your live USB drive






Create A bootable USB flash drive with Mac OS X


With Mac OS X gaining more and more mainstream popularity, it seems only fair to give it some attention. A relatively easy process, we’ll see how to make a bootable USB drive loaded with the most current version of Mac OS X Lion. (Mountain Lion launching in the summer of 2012 is essentially the same process).


For this process you’ll need:


  • Mac with OS X 10.6.8 or higher.
  • Minimum 8 GB USB flash drive


  1. Back up anything currently stored on your USB flash drive. You’ll lose whatever is on there if you don’t.
  2. Open your applications folder.
  3. Locate the Install Mac OS X Lion application, (there’s a cute, cuddly lion on it) then hit Ctrl and click it with your mouse.
  4. Select Show Package Contents.
  5. Go into the Contents folder then open SharedSupport.
  6. Open InstallESD.dmg. This will mount the Lion Disk Image onto your desktop.
  7. Plug your USB flash drive into you Mac USB 2.0 port.
  8. Launch Disk Utility.
  9. Open your USB flash drive on the menu located on the left of the Disk Utility.
  10. Click the Erase tab.
  11. Select Mac OS Extended (Journaled) as the format, then name it whatever you’d like.
  12. Click on the Erase button to format your USB flash drive.
  13. Navigate back to the Disk Utility and hit Ctrl then click your USB flash drive. (It will appear with whatever name you gave it).
  14. Select Restore.
  15. Drag the formatted USB drive to the Destination bar and check the Erase destination option below it. This will take a couple of minutes.



You’re finished and ready to use your USB drive on any computer!



Click HERE to see how to boot your live USB drive













Create A Bootable USB Drive with Linux Mint 11


Linux Mint is an Debian/Ubuntu-based distribution. It’s goal was to provide a more complete “out-of-the-box” feel than Ubuntu by including browser plugins, media codecs, support for DVD playback, Java among others. It also adds a custom desktop and menus, several unique configuration tools, and a web-based package installation interface. Overall it’s cleaner, leaner, and meaner that its predecessors. Not that there’s anything wrong with Ubuntu, in fact I still prefer it, just they’ve added a few cool extra features. Like it? Want it on a USB flash drive to take anywhere? Let’s get started.


For this process you’ll need:


  • Computer running Linux Mint 11
  • 8 GB USB flash drive


  1. Plug in your USB drive.
  2. Either in your files or on the desktop, locate your USB drive icon.
  3. Right click it and select Format.
  4. Click Format again. Remember this will delete any data currently stored in your USB flash drive so make sure you back up your data!
  5. Open the Control Center in the Main Menu.
  6. Navigate to the Startup Disk Creator application in the Hardware category and open it.
  7. You’ll be prompted to insert a Linux Mint 11 boot disk. This is the disk with the OS on it. Either place the disk in the CD/DVD drive or navigate through your system interface and find an ISO image of a Linux Mint Boot DVD.
  8. Select you’re USB drive as the device to be written on under Disk to use.
  9. Select the amount of storage space you wish to use for the OS.
  10. Click on Make Startup Disk. That’s it! Installation should only take a couple of minutes.
  11. Let’s change the syslinux.cfg file of the installed OS to a Live USB. Navigate the USB device and locate the syslinux folder. Open syslinux.cfg with a Text Editor. This is a type of program that allows you to edit properties in plain text files.
  12. Change the first line from:


default vesamenu.c32




default live



You’re done! You now have a bootable USB drive with Linux Mint 11.



Click HERE to see how to boot your live USB drive





Create a Bootable USB flash drive using Linux Live USB Creator.


Like UNetbootin, LinuxLive USB Creator aka LiLi is a completely free, small package software designed to work through Windows OS only. It has a built-in visualization feature that allows you to run Linux within Windows OS perfectly. It’s list has many of the popular Linux distros including Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, OpenSUSE, Mint, Slax, CentOS, ArchLinux, Gentoo, PCLinuxOS, Sabayon, BackTrack, and Puppy Linux, among others. Let’s see how this little software can help us create a bootable USB flash drive.



  1. Plug in your USB flash drive into the USB 2.0 port. Linux distros tend to use very little memory, but on the safe side make sure you have a USB with at least 4 GB of storage capacity.
  2. Let’s format your USB. Locate your USB flash drive icon in your computer or on your desktop and right-click it. Select format.
  3. Under File System select the drop down menu and click on FAT32.
  4. Select Quick Format and press Start. This will delete any files currently stored on your USB flash drive. So make sure you’ve back up all your data!
  5. Download and Run LinuxLive USB Creator. Remember this will only work if you’re currently running Windows on your host computer.
  6. Select an ISO file, CD or folder containing the LinuxLive ISO files. If you’re not sure which ISO to install, never fear!
  7. Use the download button and select a Linux distribution of your choice.
  8. Now you can choose the amount of data used for the OS, called Persistence in LinuxLive. This depends on what you want to use the OS for. Just browsing and checking out the graphical interface? Select 0mb. This will default the Live USB into Live mode. Changes made or saved on the OS will be lost once you reboot your computer. If you’re going to use this drive quite a bit and save quite a bit more, I’d suggest using at least 2 GB. It’s your choice.
  9. Click on the lightning button and installation will begin! This could take a few minutes, to several depending on your specification options, but it should be no more than ten total.


You’re done! You now have a bootable USB drive with your own custom Linux distro.



Click HERE to see how to boot your live USB drive
















Booting your Live USB on a computer


Now that you’ve created your bootable jump drive let’s see how you reroute your computer’s BIOS to run directly from your USB flash device.


The Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) is an essential set of operations stored on a chip in the motherboard of your PC. Basically, it’s like an intermediary between a computer’s hardware and its operating system and peripherals. This is an extremely important component of your computer. Without it, your operating system would have no way of communicating with your hardware, in other words, it wouldn’t run.


If even a single component of these options were corrupted, it could damage your computer permanently or at the very least, drastically slow down it’s processing speed. As new processors and motherboards are released, BIOS continues to become more and more cryptic, but not impossible. Luckily what we’re going to do doesn’t involve much effort and most motherboards make it pretty straight forward. The goal is to set the BIOS to run from the operating system stored in your newly created live USB versus the operating system embedded in the computer’s hard drive.


Let’s take a look!


Before anything else, you’ll need to make sure that your motherboard supports booting from an external USB device. A simple Google search can clear that up pretty quick. And don’t worry, it’s becoming more and more of a standard now.


  1. Plug in your Live USB flash drive.
  2. Enter BIOS from your computer. This can either be on startup or through your graphical interface. (If you choose startup you’ll need to restart your computer).
  3. Locate your computer brand below and follow the given command to enter BIOS. If your computer make/model was not listed, or the command did not work, don’t panic! This is a generic list and these are the most current set of commands. You’re computer might be using a different setup depending on how old it is. Also, your computer might have a different BIOS firmware. You can easily look the command for your specific computer online.


Acer (Aspire, Power, Veriton, Extensa, Ferrari, TravelMate, Altos): Press [F2] or [Del] Immediately After Power Up
Compaq (Presario, Prolinea, Deskpro, Systempro, Portable): Press [F10] When Blinking Cursor Jumps To Top Right Corner of Screen
Compaq (Presario, Prolinea, Deskpro, Systempro, Portable): Press [F10] When Logo Screen Is Displayed.
Dell (XPS, Dimension, Inspiron, Latitude. OptiPlex, Precision, Vostro): Press F2 When Dell Logo Is Displayed Until “Entering Setup” Appears
eMachines (eMonster, eTower, eOne, S-Series, T-Series): Press [Tab] or [Del] During Boot
Fujitsu (LifeBook, Esprimo, Amilo, Tablet, DeskPower): Press [F2] When Fujitsu Logo Is Appearing.
Gateway (DX, FX, One, GM, GT, GX, Profile, Astro): Press [F1]
Hewlett-Parkard (HP Pavilion, TouchSmart, Vectra, OmniBook, Tablet): Press [F1] Upon Startup or Bootup
Hewlett-Parkard (HP) Tablet PC: Press [F10] or [F12]
Lenovo (ThinkPad, IdeaPad, 3000 Series, ThinkCentre, ThinkStation): Press [F1] or [F2] on Boot Up
Sony (VAIO, PCG-Series, VGN-Series): Press [F1], [F2] or [F3] After Turning On the Computer
Toshiba (Portégé, Satellite, Tecra): Press [F1] during Boot


  1. From BIOS, go to the section that contains your boot devices. You’ll have to do this using the directional keys on your keyboard.
  2. The USB device should be listed. If it’s not, most likely your motherboard does not support USB boot capabilities. If it is, select it and press enter.
  3. Exit the BIOS configuration and save your changes.

Your computer should now load from the OS in your USB device. To undo this action, go back into BIOS and restore it to its original settings.

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Vincent Clarke

Vincent Clarke is the Universal Serial Bus (USB) Guru for When he's not writing tutorials and catching up on the latest USB news, Vincent is busy preparing his next blog post and answering USB questions from his readers and subscribers.

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