February 15, 2006

Design a custom network install image with Instalinux

Author: Tina Gasperson

Former Hewlett-Packard employee Chris Slater has created Instalinux.com, a site based on HP's Linux Common Operating Environment (LinuxCOE) System Designer. Instalinux lets you build a custom Linux boot image and perform network installs quickly, especially when you have several machines with the same requirements. I tested Instalinux recently, with good results.

Slater says LinuxCOE is very popular within HP, and he's long had a desire to create a site like Instalinux that would allow anyone to try out the System Designer code. System Designer is a CGI-based Web application developed in-house and released as open source software in October 2005. The software efficiently creates install images for identical workstations or servers by eliminating the need for operator input during install. Before you download the boot image, you select configuration options you want, which become part of the set of instructions that the image uses when it pulls operating system packages down from remote repositories and FTP servers. Because System Designer creates a network install, the boot image, which averages six to 10 megabytes, is much smaller and faster to download than a complete operating system image with all the optional software packages.

Testing the powers of InstaLinux is easier if you have a free hard drive to play with, but if you want your new operating system to share space with an old one, you'll need to be intimately familiar with the existing partition table.

One drawback to Slater's implementation of the LinuxCOE System Designer is found in the first step to creating your boot image. You must enter a unique host name or IP if you don't have access to a DHCP server, eliminating the convenience of multi-machine installation from one image. Slater says future versions of InstaLinux.com will include support for static IP addresses.

Next, you pick your distro. Instalinux supports Debian, SUSE, Ubuntu, Fedora Core, and Kubuntu. Slater says there will be more to choose from in the future.

Depending on your distribution selection, the customization options vary. Generally, you'll choose which server to download from, your language support, and the type of installation -- workstation, server, development system, etc. You'll also enter a temporary root password and an initial user account, and decide on disk partitioning options.

If you want a totally hands-free installation image, your partition options are limited. If you're willing to give up complete automation, you can opt to interactively work with the installation to partition the hard drive. Another option is to use a virtual environment, such as that provided by the VMware Player, along with a special configuration file that will look for the Instalinux boot image.

I created an Ubuntu boot image and used the VMware Player to test it. It worked fairly well, though if you're using VMware Player I recommend having at least 1GB of RAM on your host machine, or it could take your computer all night to perform the network install. Slater has published a tutorial at Instalinux.com that includes a link to the VMware configuration file he created and instructions that tell how to use it.

Once I got the operating system installed on my virtual disk, it ran just like the Ubuntu that's already installed on my everyday computer.

Slater hopes that Instalinux will prove useful to network administrators who need a quick, hands-free way to load lots of machines with a pre-configured operating system. He says he will continue to update and enhance the offerings at the site, adding "things like better bundle selection, [and] support for PPC architecture," he says. "Possibly profile support. LinuxCOE lets you create a named profile, and then load that when you go to create an image. That opens the door to more complicated Kickstart, AutoYAST, or Preseed options, and a custom set of bundles, as well as custom post-install scripts."

Slater emphasizes that even though LinuxCOE comes from HP, Instalinux is not affiliated with his former employer. "I just really love LinuxCOE and have thought for a long time that it would be slick for others to get to use it. But I sort of waited until I was not working directly for HP any more."


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