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tux-usb-vector.pngLast time, I wrote about Live CDs Put your Linux Distro on a Live CD Put your Linux Distro on a Live CD Recently, Live DVDs and Live USB have cropped up as well. These live systems are full versions of the operating system that run completely from the given medium. Read More and how you can make your own custom one. Live CDs are great, but let’s face it, sometimes even a CD is just too big to carry around. You male geeks probably have no idea what I’m talking about, but the other ladies can testify that the pockets on our clothes are just too small to carry around anything bigger than a small cell phone. CDs also have the magic ability to go from pristine to horribly scratched about 5 minutes before you need them and, since they’re CDs, don’t save changes.

Every bootup is like a clean install. This can be great if you have a tendency to break your configs. It’s actually a great way to poke at your system and break things without any repercussions. However, being able to persist changes could be nice, right? Aibek wrote about a few Windows-based 4 Ways to Carry your PC on iPod or USB Thumbdrive 4 Ways to Carry your PC on iPod or USB Thumbdrive Read More solutions to this last week. Linux users can make a persistent live USB stick to solve these problems.

You have two options when getting or making a persistent USB drive. The first option is to have the operating system installed natively on the drive. This is probably more common. The other way is to have a portable virtual machine on the drive which loads using Qemu. The main advantage of the latter is to avoid having to reboot. The former is the preferred choice when there is a chance that the computer lacks a hard drive or if you need to rescue data from a MacBook Air, since they lack optical drives.

There are a few different ways to get one of these. The easiest is to buy a 4GB Mandriva Flash 2008 or 2GB Damn Small Linux USB Drive. The Damn Small one has both an installed system and a Qemu-based system on it, though these do not, to my knowledge, share files. You do have the option to use whichever is more convenient at the time, though. The alternative is, of course, to make one yourself. I guess the remaining option would involve Tom Sawyer-ing your annoying little brother into doing it.

The main difference in installation methods will be whether or not you need to be running from a Live CD already. On the Ubuntu Wiki, there are directions to install which do not require that you be running from a Live CD, though you do need to have the .iso available. The directions are pretty complicated, but all of the steps are there. A friend of mine, who regularly uses a persistent Ubuntu flash drive to boot up and watch Star Trek during his office hours, recommends following Pendrive Linux’s Ubuntu 7.10 directions if possible. Those directions do require that you be running from a Live CD, but he said they were considerably more straightforward. There’s even a nice little script to automate parts of it, and you don’t have to edit any configuration files like you do with the wiki’s directions. Pendrive Linux has directions for tons of distros, including SuSE, PCLinuxOS, Gentoo, and SLAX. Many of these involve scripts for Windows so you can install to the flash drive from inside Windows without a Live CD. Really guys, if you want an easy install””one that doesn’t even involve figuring out how to burn an ISO with whatever CD burning software you have””this is it.

If your flash drive is really small and you don’t mind booting from a Live CD, Damn Small Linux’s Live CD includes a menu option to install to a flash drive. Damn Small is only 50MB, so even that 3 year old 128MB stick you’ve got in the back of the junk drawer will work. The old Pentium II will also be able to handle it extremely well. This is a great choice for old hardware.



I wish I’d known about these the first time my laptop went out of commission. I carried around an external hard drive in an enclosure for 3 weeks, booting random computers from it, while it was being fixed. In a world where CDs are increasingly seen as annoyingly large, a full 3.5″ hard drive is a crazy thing to carry around.

Mackenzie is a college student who likes to promote Linux and Free/Libre Software. Most of her free time is spent on the computer, helping new users, or hanging out with some of the friends she’s made in the Linux community. Check out her blog, Ubuntu Linux Tips & Tricks.

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  1. Anya
    April 8, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    This is an awesome solution for my Linux-loving programmer who likes to run Linux on other computers but not actually install it on the box. Thanks for the info.

  2. tyronebcookin
    April 8, 2008 at 11:19 am

    So here it is, a few questions...and if you would send me an email address to address the right person I can pursue this of the comment section...

    1) I have the DSL live disc and have hesitated to do the USB install because of these two reasons:
    a) the computers at works are set so you can not change the boot configuration/BIOS without admin privileges.
    b) even if I didn't want it for work, how can I make the DSL on USB persistent even after the live cd to usb install of DSL like shown above in the picture?

    and last, which is just a statement...a cd may be a cumbersome to carry around but most all computers still boot from the cd/dvd drive before the usb drive.

    Also, what theme is used in the DSL picture used in this post? I like it better than the one I got when I downloaded the live cd which was just a few days ago, and this was one is not the one I have.

    Thanks if someone can address these issues...

    • Mackenzie Morgan
      April 8, 2008 at 2:18 pm

      1a: They have to be bootable from USB. Many computers let you select the boot device without entering the BIOS

      1b: I *think* it's persistent, but I'm not positive

      2: It's the default one on whatever version of DSL I would've downloaded in early 2007.

      • tyronebcookin
        April 8, 2008 at 5:15 pm

        Alright, thanks for the reply!

        Yeah, our computers at work...I had to ask them to 'release' whatever it was they were using because you can't run ANY programs from usb, or the desktop, and somehow they have quarantined the rest of the computer so you can't really mess with anything...but at least now i can run my portable apps so I know the usb was opened up for using .exe files even though you can not still run any directly installed on the computer except for what they have set up already, I have tried to switch the boot drive to no avail, you can't even get to the disk management in windows or bios from f12 at startup...

        But thats ok,

        Hopefully the usb install will be persistent, that will be good...

        Its funny about the 2007 theme to me it looks better than the theme i got from downloading the most recent this month! humph!

        ALright, once again thanks for the swift reply and the great articles and posts here!!!

  3. Shankar Ganesh
    April 7, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    Great article.

    A distro that I recommend for pen drives is Puppy Linux - Puppy linux has got a package manager inbuilt, so it's very easy to add additional applications :)