Linux on a USB Memory Stick

Posted on Sun 10 July 2005 in WebDev & Code

I've finally got it working! Linux running of a USB Key.

It wasn't so hard to set up once I'd found Puppy Linux.

As this is going to get more technical, you'll have to follow the link to the extended entry about this (otherwise I'll bore most of you reading this).

Still with me? OK, just in case you've got no idea what I'm talking about I'll start from the very very begining:

1) Linux is an operating system, Windows is to Linux as Ford is to Toyota

2) Up until now I've only used linux on servers (computers that generally don't do fancy graphics or games, but do things at my business like let us send and recieve email, share data files and other things). For a long time I've wanted to be able to try Linux on the desktop (a.k.a replace Windows with Linux). There are a number of reasons for wanting to do this (challenge, cost, experience) but I've wanted to do it in a way that doesn't affect any of my computers (because they are already in use doing important things, I try not to break things that are working OK).

3) So, the solution was to get hold of a USB Memory Key, install Linux on that, and use the Linux operating system on any computer I happen to be working at (be it home or at work). Most people use USB Memory Keys to carry around important files or as a backup, this is sort of the same thing but I happen to want to carry a whole operating system with me.

4) It's been very hard (I've been considering this for about 6 months) to get it working, but as with all things computer it was just a case of understanding the problem then seraching for a solution. Puppy Linux is the first solution to work for me.

5) Puppy linux is a small linux distribution. Remember that car analogy, now think of "Operating System is to Car as Windows is to Car as Linux Distribution is to Car". You get all flavours of linux distribution in the same way you get flavours of Windows (XP, ME, 98, 95, 3.1). However, Puppy linux worked for me because the person/people who created it set out with a goal of making it small enough to fit onto a USB Key and simple enough to install without having to get too technical.

6) The process was really simple.
==> Download a 60mb .iso image from the internet (.iso is raw data that can be written to a bland CD - when you reboot your computer it will read from that CD as a fully functional Linux Operating System - and it won't even touch your hard disk so Windows remains safe and sound).
==> Write a CD, then Boot the CD
==> Put the memory key into a spare USB slot, run a program that installs the Linux operating system to the USB Key.
==> Reboot, remove the CD and leave the USB Key in the PC and voila! - Puppy Linux boots from the USB Key into a fully fledged operating system, complete with operating system, word processor, internet browser, and even some games.

7) OK, I missed a few steps in there, but I'm sure you get the idea. IF you are wondering how complete it is, I'm writting this Blog using it now - and I only booted it for the first time 10 minutes ago.

8) Why?
Well, as I said I like a challenge. But also Linux is free so I can use it on any PC - even the old PC gathering dust in my office because it is too slow to use for our work programs. That means it may get a new lease of life as a PC for the children and to save buying another Windows XP licence I can use Linux.

One final point, Free means you don't have to pay to use it, but you do have to learn to use it (just like you first had to learn how to use windows). It is Free because people have given their time and knowledge to create something and allow others to develop that something further. Providing people continue to do that, it will remain free. However, for some things Free isn't good enough. That's why Linux distributions like Redhat can charge for a licence. Rather, it's not the licence they are charging for, but the support and guaranteed response to fix problems. Our business web server uses Red Hat for that reason - if any bugs or security holes are found it is better for me to pay for access to their solutions than wait for a fix to arrive on the 'free' distributions of linux. Of course, often the free distributions perform just as well as Red Hat, but you need certain guarantees in business that free just doesn't provide.