August 5, 2008

Fedora on a stick

Author: Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Fedora 9 now lets you create a bootable Linux distribution on a flash drive with persistence. In other words, you can not only boot any PC that will accept USB drive booting into Linux, you can even boot into your own personal desktop. Now, that can be useful.

Perhaps the easiest way to set up your own Fedora desktop on a stick is to use, believe it or not, liveusb-creator on Windows. This program gives you a straightforward GUI for creating Fedora desktop sticks. There is also a version of the program for Linux, but it's still in beta.

Of course, you can also install the Fedora stick desktop with command-line instructions. I tried both ways, and while the Windows application is mindlessly simple, using the manual way on Linux isn't going to task anyone with any Linux experience.

Either way you do it, you have the option of installing Fedora as a non-destructive upgrade, so if you already have files on a USB drive you can keep them while still turning the stick into a bootable drive. In practice, however, I found that I got better results by zapping the stick's files and reformatting it. After all, it is just a USB drive. As far as I'm concerned, they're meant for temporary storage.

I also found, although Red Hat staffers told me that you can deploy Fedora on USB sticks with as little as 64MB of storage, you really don't want to do it with drives that hold less than 512MB. Officially, Fedora recommends that you use 1GB or larger USB drives.

The USB stick needs to be formatted in FAT-16 or -32 or the ext2 or ext3 filesystems. Most drives arrive preformatted in Windows' FAT-32.

There's a long list of tasks to keep in mind when creating a Fedora USB stick, including making a USB drive bootable and setting a master boot record. I ran into a problem that wasn't covered though. I discovered that, for me at least, trying to create Fedora desktops on smaller USB drives or with older systems with USB 1.1 interfaces didn't work. When I tried, the installation either failed or I ended up with a stick that would boot but ran as slowly as if it had one foot in a bear-trap. Once I moved to good-sized drives and PCs with USB 2.0 ports, creating the Fedora desktops went off without a hitch.

I also found that it was almost impossible to boot and run the stick-based Fedora on old PCs with USB 1.1 ports. On systems with 2.0 USB ports, however, everything went well. You should be aware though that, to quote the Fedora scripts page, "This may or may not work on your flash drive or your computer due to different BIOS settings and capabilities. I've tested several flash drives on several computers and the results were unexpected and surprising. Flash Drive A worked on Computer X but not on Computer Y. Flash Drive B didn't work on Computer X but worked on Computer Y." In my experience, using recent Lenovo, Dell, Gateway, and Hewlett-Packard PCs, the USB-stick-based version of Fedora ran flawlessly.

That said, you won't mistake Fedora on USB for Fedora installed on a hard drive. The system is fast enough to be useful, but it's not as fast as native Fedora on the same system. On the other hand, I found it to be much faster than using a live CD on the same PC. And, of course, you can save your settings and work on the USB stick.

You can also install additional programs on your portable desktop. To do this you simply use Fedora's usual System -> Administration -> Add/Remove Programs from Fedora's default GNOME 2.22 interface. Once you've installed them on your stick, you can use the new programs just as you would any other application. This really is a full, no-compromise version of Fedora. It just happens to live on a USB stick.

Once you've booted a system with it, you can also use all of the PC's peripherals. To make full use of a system that normally boots Windows, you'll want to be sure to install NTFS Config. With this program, you'll be able to read and write to Windows systems' native NTFS hard drives. Once installed, you'll need to set up the drive configuration every time you're working on a new Windows PC. It's easy enough to do: pick NTFS Config from the System menu and set the hard drive to read/write. You will need to do this by hand, however, and you'll need to re-do it every time you switch PCs.

With Fedora on a stick drive, no matter where you go or what PC you're using, you'll have your own Fedora desktop already set up just the way you want it. Fedora 9 is an excellent, modern Linux; if you enjoy using it, you'll enjoy even more being able to use it on almost any PC at hand.


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