Live Systems are Handy

The personal live system I configured a couple months ago has turned out to be quite handy. I’ve used it almost every day, especially as I’ve learned more about the features of live-boot and live-config, the runtime components of live-build.

At work I use a number of “scratch” computers whose only real purpose is to temporarily sit at particular points on an experimental, isolated network. It doesn’t matter what operating system is installed on them; they really just need to be able to communicate on the network and, occasionally, run Wireshark.

For awhile these systems just had a base Ubuntu install from a couple of years ago. This works fine, of course, but it was missing all of my dotfiles. It didn’t feel like home. I could put my dotfiles on these systems, but there are a number of these machines and I’d have to keep my dotfiles up to date on each, without any Internet access, as they changed.

More so, Unity, Ubuntu’s default desktop environment, isn’t all that friendly to a keyboard-only setup. I don’t have any mice attached to these systems so I have to navigate without one. Sure, It has keyboard shortcuts for the basic things, but that’s not enough. On the other hand, my personal configuration is entirely built around avoiding the mouse. Except for a few specific, reasonable cases (graphics programs like Gimp, Inkscape), I can do anything just as comfortably without as I can with a mouse.

Here’s where my live system comes to the rescue. The generated ISO is a “hybrid” image. This means it can be both burned into a CD as a standard ISO 9660 filesystem and written directly to a hard disk as a read-only disk image. After dding the ISO onto a thumb drive, I could plug the drive into these machines and boot directly into a comfortable development environment. When I update my dotfiles significantly I just build a new ISO (takes about 5 minutes) and copy the new version onto the thumb drive.

Running a live system from RAM

So the next problem is that there are a number of these systems but I have only one thumb drive. Once I boot a machine from the thumb drive I can’t remove the drive and continue to use the system. I could burn a bunch of CDs, one for each system, but, fortunately, live-boot has a wonderful solution for this: toram.

That’s right, just add toram to the system boot arguments and during boot the entire system is lifted into memory. Editing the system arguments before booting can be done by hitting tab at the isolinux/syslinux boot menu. Once the system is up I’m free to remove the thumb drive and use it to boot another system. Additionally, the system will also be much faster — faster than even a normal system — since it’s running entirely in RAM.

The disadvantage is that there’s now less memory available to the system for other things. This can be mitigated by making use of a swap partition on a local disk.


These live systems use an interesting filesystem called SquashFS. It’s like a compressed tar archive, but it has two significant advantages:

SquashFS is read-only. This presents a big problem if you want to use it as your root filesystem. Luckily there’s another cool trick to fix this: a union filesystem, aufs. A writable filesystem can be mounted over top the read-only SquashFS filesystem, unioning the contents of the two filesystems, providing the illusion of a writable SquashFS. It’s effectively copy-on-write.

Typically for a live system the writable filesystem is tmpfs, a filesystem backed by RAM. This means all changes are lost when the operating system halts. This is useful for a throwaway operating system, but sometimes data persistence between boots is required. This time live-config has a solution: persistence. Add this word to the system boot arguments and, rather than a RAM filesystem, a partition on real media will be used to back changes to the SquashFS filesystem.

The next question would be, “Which partition?” That’s part of a discovery phase. During boot, the various storage media are scanned looking for a filesystem labeled “persistence”. If one is found, it looks for a file in the root of that filesystem called persistence.conf, which explains how to map this partition with the live system. Full persistence can be achieved with this one-liner configuration,

/ union

This means the root of this filesystem should be union mounted with the live system. However, this will capture some extraneous directories like /tmp, which I don’t want to write to storage media. I prefer a more nuanced configuration,

/etc union
/home union
/opt union
/sbin union
/usr union
/var union

This captures all the important stuff while leaving /tmp to a RAM filesystem (where it belongs!). Not only is my home directory persistent, but so is any additional software I install. Effectively, it is now a normal, non-live system.

If the live system is installed on a thumb drive, the space after the image can be used for this persistence. After dding the ISO, use fdisk/parted to add a second partition, format a fresh partition labeled “persistence” in it, then drop in config file.

mkfs.ext4 -L persistence /dev/sdb2
mount /dev/sdb2 /mnt/sdb2
cp peristence.conf /mnt/sdb2

Furthermore, the persistence partition can be encrypted with LUKS, providing a portable, persistent, encrypted operating system. The live-config will automatically find it, prompt for the passphrase on boot, and handle all the rest on its own like normal. (Well, once this bug fix is released.)

Persistence as an installation

Remember how I had said the exact operating system for these scratch computers wasn’t important? While using one of these systems a lightbulb went off in my head. After booting the live system, I could just dd the contents of the thumb drive directly onto the hard disk, including the persistence partition, make “persistence” a default boot argument, and I’ll have installed a fully configured operating system with all my goodies within a few minutes! It’s the ultimate anti-thin client. This is what I’m using now.

Since it’s possible to build a live system image within a live system (“Yo dawg …”), I can use the toram boot option to update and/or reinstall the entire system from scratch, in-place, without the help of external storage.

Live systems are a powerful tool, at least for my line of work.

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Chris Wellons