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Booting from USB sticks, when it fails

Today I set up an USB stick to act as a SysRescueCD LiveUSB disk, since my CD-RW started failing on me (probably they are too old by now, they have more than five years, and huge amount of erasing in their count). Since I end up using SysRescue a fair amount of times, also to install Gentoo on my boxes many times, I decided to put it on a flash drive; most of the systems I maintain nowadays boot from USB sticks just fine.

My hopes actually are for having a decent Live DVD-like system to use, something with a little more software on it for when I have to actually USE foreign systems, and I already found a 4GB USB stick cheap enough for that. But in the mean time, SysRescue will do just fine. I already had the latest ISO image so I ended up just following the instructions on their site .

But there is a note that is missing there, and even on Fedora’s LiveUSB page it does not seem to put much emphasis on that issue, although it gives a way to fix it. While SysRescue seem to say that the results depend on the hardware (which I highly doubt), Fedora’s How To actually has a section “Errors and Solutions” that shows how to make a partition bootable, and even there’s a note about adding an MBR to the flash drive.

I think that’s most likely the common problem there: most USB keys lack an MBR so computers won’t boot from them by default. Add the sample MBR you find with syslinux, even in Gentoo, and you’ll be done with it.

I hope this service entry can be helpful to somebody who’s fiddling with USB sticks and Live distributions.

Comments 6
  1. Hmm, this might explain why that old Dell X200 wouldn’t boot off the Ubuntu 8.10. LiveUSB I made. The latest Ubuntu version includes a LiveUSB creator that uses the iso you’ve downloaded; it can even use the existing CD if you’re running it from a LiveCD.However, trying to boot on the old laptop that supports USB booting resulted in the “No operating system found” error. Now I wonder if the LiveUSB utility didn’t work as it should have for the syslinux flags.***How much are 4GB USB sticks in your part of the world? I was at a store the other night that sells brand-name 4GB sticks from Patriot, Corsair, PNY, etc. for only $17 or so. 8GB sticks were only about $3 more. I would expect a 4GB stick might not be enough for a typical LiveDVD; aren’t most at least 4.7GB or so?

  2. 4GB Sandisks were €7.49, 8GB were €19, so quite a bit more… But I don’t think all the LiveDVDs are full 4.7GB, I’d expect actually people to count on the fact that 4GB USB keys do exist…Fedora also has a script that takes care of the LiveUSB creation but it also does not add an MBR if it’s missing (syslinux does not do that) nor it makes the partition bootable (again, syslinux does not do that).Since the instructions for installing SysRescueCD on a LiveUSB encompassed just copying files over and running syslinux, I expect the other scripts to just do the same…

  3. You know that the gentoo LiveUSB documentation does not have a special note about it, but just as a step in the guide, right?;)

  4. I didn’t even know there was such a guide… which brings me to the question: why didn’t Josh know about it either? 😛

  5. Heh, you kiddin’ me? I helped write that doc. I just figured it was so obvious that everyone knew about it. 😉…Besides, the rest of releng does not really support creating LiveUSB media. They don’t bother to test the ISOs on USB sticks, as they’re just interested in getting working CDs and DVDs. So it’s not something they help out with or endorse.

  6. Aaaaand I meant to close the parenthesis after “write” in the first paragraph. Fail.

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