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Boot Portable Live USB Linux on Older Hardware

Your Linux is Portable, But Where's the Port?

  • March 11, 2011
  • By Emery Fletcher
Portable USB Linux distros are wonderful go-anywhere Linuxes for troubleshooting and repair. The catch is older hardware doesn't always support booting from a USB stick-- but there is a workaround called Plop Boot Manager
I don't usually offer my opinions on purely technical matters related to computers and systems, because I don't consider myself an especially technical person. On the other hand, when I come across something technical that makes a major improvement in my life at the computer, I do my best to advertise it to others. The latest item to perform that minor miracle for me has been the Plop Boot Manager, and the need arose when I first put a Linux distro on a thumb drive.

There is a lot to be said for the Linux-on-a-stick concept, a USB thumb drive with a bootable Linux distro on it. The small size of the system image many distros offer means that even a modest thumb drive can hold the image and still provide a healthy amount of space for the persistence you need to save your configuration and the work you do on it. Further, the capacity of thumb drives is increasing so fast that the largest now exceed the storage available on the 40 to 80GB hard drives that used to be regarded as the business standard. All the potential of a thumb drive distro can be put to work or installed on any computer that will boot from a thumb drive.

And there's the rub. Modern PCs, those built within the last few years, almost always have a BIOS that can be set to accept boot loading input from a CD, a DVD, or a USB drive. But out in the world there are still a lot of fully working older computers that simply can't read a boot loader file from a USB. That's really a shame, because so many Linux distros are light enough that they can be agile and productive on the modest resources of those old but healthy machines.

The fundamental problem is a straightforward matter of connectivity. The USB contains digital information which can handle the later stages of bootstrapping an operating system using the available resources of the old machine; the BIOS can access the firmware in the CMOS to supply the very first stage of the boot process; and the BIOS and the USB each use a language the other can understand. The problem is that there is just no way for the existing BIOS to accept input from the USB port.

As a relative newcomer to computers in general, my first response was to accept that condition as absolute. I knew just enough to be aware that a BIOS is not something to be dealt with casually. When you come right down to it, altering the BIOS is potentially the most dangerous activity you can do on a computer. Botching your GRUB boot loader is a real annoyance; losing your MBR requires major digital surgery; but a wrecked BIOS can render your motherboard useless.

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