Wishlist/LiveUSB distro

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Wishes warning! This article or section documents one or more OpenMoko Wish List items, the features described here may or may not be implemented in the future.



NOTE: this page may be renamed: portable desktop

An openmoko device could act as the perfect geeky swiss knive: go anywhere with your Linux desktop and tools.

YES, there are tons of liveCDs out there, but CDs/DVDs:

  • get easily damaged
  • don't fit in a pocket (except for businesscard-sized ones ; too exotic...)
  • don't update or save settings/personal data without a supplementary USB device

YES, there are LiveUSB distros but:

  • a Neo/Openmoko device IS sort of an USB stick; one object is better than two
  • you may carry my cellphone everywhere, what about usb sticks or cds ?

The biggest argument against these ones is that you'd have to carry an USB cable with you... But it's a standard one, which is good news :) An integrated zippable plug could be an interesting add-on...

Similar functionality can be found in the Wizpy portable media player, but relies on different methods for working under Windows (cd-rom emulation).

When the openmoko device is in mass storage mode, a host computer should be able to boot on it, presenting a grub menu offering to boot into several images / partitions (payloads) on the transflash: memtest, UBCD (the ultimate boot cd), a lightweight security oriented livecd distro, you name it...

It's sometimes called Live USB: from Wikipedia LiveUSB definition, A live USB is a USB flash drive containing a full operating system which can be booted from. Live USBs are closely related to Live CDs, and are sometimes used interchangeably. Like Live CDs, Live USBs can be used for system administration, data recovery, or the testing of operating system distributions without committing to a permanent installation on the local hard drive. Many of the smaller Linux distributions can also be used from a USB flash drive.

Usually, all you need for this with an USB storage device (flash USB stick or external drive) is a partition, flagged "bootable" (see fdisk), containing a boot loader (say grub). But the problem is that specifications vary between motherboards, so there are variants and mandatory requirements to define (here would be a good idea), so that one can optimize/maximize the compatibility.

The perfect geek knife

We may want to start our own distro with the following constraints:

  • Multiboot: small utilities/compilations + bull blown light OS
  • Aiming at maximum hardware compatibility, possibly using liveCD technology (knoppix-based distros)
  • Aiming at minimum resource+system footprint, and boot speed
  • Being able to install software temporary (for the session) or permanently, upgradable
  • Being able to use the phone features at the same time (access pim, data & calls)

Optimally, being able to charge the device while plugged in would be great too.

About USB Booting

From DSL Wiki:

Older computer BIOS usually do not support direct booting from a USB device. Around 2001, PC motherboard manufacturers started to add USB boot support.

There are two common BIOS methods for direct USB booting:

  • One method is called the "USBHDD" method and it is used to support the booting of standard USB mass storage devices that are configured like a normal PC hard drive.
  • The other method is called the "USBZIP" method and it supports booting from a USB storage device that behaves like the original IOMEGA ZIP drive with USB support.

Most computers (just about all Dells, for example) made today have a BIOS that supports the USBHDD method so I expect that this will eventually become the standard way to boot a USB device. However, many motherboards will support BOTH methods, and many older motherboards have USBZIP support.

Some newer BIOSs which support USB 2.0 will not boot from an older pen drive. Using a USB 2.0 compliant one usually solves this problem. Also, some older BIOSs which only support USB 1.1 will not boot from newer drives which support USB 2.0!

Some USB keys don't boot. If this is the case, it may be possible to fix them by installing a new master boot record. (Most keys boot OK by default; some cannot be fixed even by doing this. However, it helps in some cases). Run the command:

lilo -M /dev/$usbdevice

(where usbdevice is the key, ex: /dev/sdb, checking dmesg shall give the appropriate one when plugging the neo in mass storage mode)

USB Booting in Neo1973's kernel

Although there is very little information about it, the g_storage kernel module is responsible for the Neo's mass storage mode. The boot-or-not criteria might rely on this very module.


Testing/further research has to be conducted to determine:

  • if a bootable-flagged partition / grub doesn't mess openmoko up
  • if the phone can still act as a phone, or if the booted os can use the gprs functions
  • if the phone can recharge on mass storage mode (from the usb cable)
  • if a dedicated partition for each payload is needed (see memtest example...)
  • if multi-boot is possible: grub?

Linux distro Howto's: liveUSB creation

In short:

  1. Mount USB drive, with e.g. mount /dev/sda1 /flash - can be either FAT16 or FAT32!
  2. Mount ISO image, with e.g. mount /tmp/dsl-3.2.iso /tmp/iso -o loop
  3. Copy all contents from ISO to USB drive: cp -vr /tmp/iso/* /flash/
  4. Rename and move syslinux files to root directory: mv /flash/boot/isolinux/* /flash/
  5. Rename isolinux.cfg: mv /flash/isolinux.cfg /flash/syslinux.cfg
  6. Unmount USB drive: umount /flash
  7. Install syslinux: syslinux /dev/sda1 and eventually set the MBR boot flag for this partition (with fdisk).
   * Flash installation via Windows: XUbuntu, DSL, Knoppix, Slax, MiniMe
   * Flash installation via Linux: Ubuntu Edgy, Knoppix, PCLinuxOS

Transflash partitioning schema example

  • 2 Gb: /dev/sd? (where N is the transflash's number)
  • 700 Mb: /dev/sd?1 : containing bootable iso, FAT16
  • 1300 Mb: /dev/sd?2 : openmoko & bootable os home partition, EXT3?
  • + eventually a swap

The limitation of this method is that the booted OS is static (not-self modifiable). There's the option to install linux using the partition, but it's not really mobility-oriented (liveCDs are optimized for maximum autoconfiguration).

Alternative methods

Booting ISO files ?

   If you want to boot from a iso file on a harddisk, do something in menu.lst like
   title Boot from iso on a harddisk
   map (hdX,Y)/your.iso (hdZ)
   map --rehook
   chainloader (hdZ)+1
   rootnoverify (hdZ)

Grub & memdisk can boot floppy images, but (AFAIK) not isos. Example from the stock /boot/grub/menu.lst ubuntu:

   title           Ubuntu, memtest86+
   root            (hd0,2)
   kernel          /memtest86+.bin

Using the memdisk kernel from the syslinux package, you can load disk images and execute them in a non-emulated environment.


Bootfrom needs access to a running Knoppix-System with the same Kernel as the Bootkernel, before it is able to mount the partition / ISO-Image.

  • Maybe there's a way to achieve a boot cd iso selecter see (this post)
  • virtualization-oriented distro... ex Xenoppix Cons: would work best only on modern VT-capable computers. What about a very minimal distribution (say DSL without X) kqemu-enblaed, booting into an ncurses iso-loader? The delicate part would be on the networking side.

Zero-Install / Networked systems

  • Klik with more than 1000 packages ported. See comparison chart.
  • The Zero Install System, with automatic dependancies, upgrading. See [1] comparison chart.
  • Why not rolling a Conary/RPath-based distro, based on rPath linux reference distribution ? Or choose within the available ones...
  • The FUSE httpfs may allow pure http net booting, downloading files from a distant livecd only when needed (this image may be very minimal though).
  • some people are thinking of using Amazon S3 as virtual disk

Using Qemu to boot Linux from a flash drive within Windows

The following tutorial explains how to use Qemu to boot Linux from a portable USB flash device while still working within Windows. This Enables the user to have both systems running at the same time eliminating the need to restart the PC and set your BIOS options to boot Linux.

PendriveLinux article

Putting a vnc server on openmoko + IP over USB or BlueTooth/Wifi

That's another alternative :) Will bring a VGA-sized capture screen. However, given the current animated behaviour in openmoko, performance will be poor.

The BlackDog project

"When plugged into the host computer’s USB port, BlackDog starts up, automatically launching the X Window system for Windows Xming and a software NAT router via an autorun application that the BlackDog presents to the host through a virtual USB CD-ROM. Once those applications are running, the virtual USB CD-ROM drive disconnects, and a virtual USB-to-Ethernet adapter is connected to provide the communications link.

The host machine’s monitor, keyboard, mouse, and Internet connection are used by the BlackDog for the duration of the session."

The BlackDog server project has lots of interesting concepts (and software). Could personal servers change the face of computing ? Together with biometry, they open up the possibility of carrying your personal server, or an extension of it, with you on your physical person. The reason this is so exciting is because it enables biometric authentication that doesn't require shipping your biometric data to a third party'.

Interesting distros/payloads

System diagnostics / recovery

General purpose

Security-oriented: pentesting, forensics, anonymous webbrowsing

The SabayonLinux distro offers a lot of boot cheatcodes, such as booting onto GeexBox. We should take a look at the method used.

List of live distros @ livecdlist.com Includes sizes

List of live distros @ wikipedia

List of live distros @ distrowatch

Wikipedia LiveUSB article

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