Automatic installation of Debian Squeeze from a USB flash drive

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In this post you are going to learn how to build a USB Flash Drive that contains a fully automated Debian installation system. At Wallix this installation system is used in addition to our traditional PXE/preseed system to deploy our products Wallix LogBox and Wallix AdminBastion.

This installation media will be based on:
The method described in this post is easy to deploy and maintain:
  • deploy a custom Debian system without external resources like eg. a remote repository.
  • based on standard Debian iso and debian installer images.
  • preseed file is stored on the USB flash drive filesystem.
  • additionnal packages are stored on the USB filesystem.

Prepare the USB flash drive to start the Debian Installer at boot

The first step is to prepare the USB flash drive partitions, create a filesystem and install grub2. If you don’t want to wipe your USB flash drive you can use an existing partition as long as Grub2 supports the filesystem on it.

Using fdisk, cfdisk or your favorite partition tool, create a primary partition of at least 2G, and set the bootable flag (we assumes the USB flash drive is attached to /dev/sdb)

# cfisk /dev/sdb

Create the filesystem on the first partition

# mkfs.ext2 /dev/sdb1

Then install Grub2

# mkdir /mnt/usb
# mount /dev/sdb1 /mnt/usb
# grub-install --root-directory=/mnt/usb /dev/sdb

Grub2 need to write on the MBR (Master Boot Record), the first 512 bytes of the flash drive, to copy the boot.img image. Furthermore it will create a directory that contains a set of grub modules. Later in this directory we will create the grub.cfg file.

Now we’ll use the hd-media method of the Debian Installer. This method will look for an iso of a valid Debian installation media. So let’s go

# mkdir /mnt/usb/hdmedia-squeeze
# wget http://ftp.debian.org/debian/dists/squeeze/main/installer-amd64/current/images/hd-media/vmlinuz -O /mnt/usb/hdmedia-squeeze/vmlinuz
# wget http://ftp.debian.org/debian/dists/squeeze/main/installer-amd64/current/images/hd-media/initrd.gz -O /mnt/usb/hdmedia-squeeze/initrd.gz
# mkdir /mnt/usb/isos
# cp debian-6.0.3-amd64-CD-1.iso /mnt/usb/isos/

To finish the preparation we need to provide a configuration file for grub

# This is to define colors in the grub menu
#set color_normal='green/black'
#set color_highlight='light-green/black'
 
# Define some paths
# The / is the root of the installation media (/dev/sdb1)
set isosdir='/isos'
set hdmediasqueeze='/hdmedia-squeeze'
 
# Below is where the running debian installer will find the preseed file
# Debian installer provided with hd-media images mounts the installation media filesystem
# under /hd-media
set preseed='/hd-media/preseed'
 
# Manual entry
menuentry 'Debian 6.0 amd64 manual install' {
    linux $hdmediasqueeze/vmlinuz iso-scan/filename=$isodir/debian-6.0.3-amd64-CD-1.iso priority=critical
    initrd $hdmediasqueeze/initrd.gz
}
 
# Automated entry
menuentry 'Debian 6.0 amd64 automatic install' {
    linux $hdmediasqueeze/vmlinuz iso-scan/filename=$isodir/debian-6.0.3-amd64-CD-1.iso preseed/file=$preseed/standard-squeeze.preseed auto=true priority=critical
    initrd $hdmediasqueeze/initrd.gz
}

The Manual entry will boot a normal Debian install and the Automated entry will boot a preseed installation. The iso-scan/filename option tell the installer where to find the full Debian Installer. The priority indicates which kind of questions will be asked during the installation. The preseed option tell the installer where the preseed file is stored. The auto option will delay some installer questions later after the installer retrieved and read the preseed file.

The Manual entry should work now, to try it you can use VirtualBox or even try to boot it on a real box. To boot a VirtualBox guest from a USB Flash drive you need to link the real device /dev/sdb to a special vmdk file and attach /tmp/usb.vmdk as first SATA disk in the guest configuration panel

# VBoxManage internalcommands createrawvmdk -filename /tmp/usb.vmdk -rawdisk /dev/sdb

Preseed the Debian installation

Assuming you have succeed booting the Debian installer with the manual entry we can now provide a preseed file.
With this preseed file, we’ll set responses for the debconf database. The debconf database is used during the Debian installer and asks the user for installation details. Using the preseed file we load pre-defined responses for the installer then the installer will not prompt the user.

The preseed file below contains the minimal preseed responses for installing a Debian Squeeze. For complete details about the preseed file and the whole preseed system have a look to complete documentation.

Create a preseed directory at the root of the USB Flash disk and copy the preseed file

# mkdir /mnt/usb/preseed
# cat << EOF > /mnt/usb/preseed/standard-squeeze.preseed
d-i debian-installer/locale string en_US
d-i console-tools/archs select skip-config
d-i time/zone string US/Eastern
 
# We don't need network as all stuff is contained in the USB flash drive
d-i netcfg/enable boolean false
d-i netcfg/wireless_wep string
 
# Don't prompt for firmware
d-i hw-detect/load_firmware boolean true
 
# We only create a root user
d-i passwd/make-user boolean false
d-i passwd/root-password password rootpasswd
d-i passwd/root-password-again password rootpasswd
 
# We assume the target computer has only one harddrive.
# In most case the USB Flash drive is attached on /dev/sda
# but sometimes the harddrive is detected before the USB flash drive and
# it is attached on /dev/sda and the USB flash drive on /dev/sdb
# You can set manually partman-auto/disk and grub-installer/bootdev or
# used the early_command option to automatically set the device to use.
d-i partman/early_command string \
   USBDEV=$(mount | grep hd-media | cut -d&quot; &quot; -f1 | sed &quot;s/\(.*\)./\1/&quot;);\
   BOOTDEV=$(list-devices disk | grep -v $USBDEV | head -1);\
   debconf-set partman-auto/disk $BOOTDEV;\
   debconf-set grub-installer/bootdev $BOOTDEV;
#d-i partman-auto/disk string /dev/sdb$
#d-i grub-installer/bootdev  string /dev/sdb
d-i grub-installer/only_debian boolean false
d-i grub-installer/with_other_os boolean false
 
# Here we set the partition layout using a predefined recipe (atomic)
# Refer to preseed documentation to create custom recipes
d-i partman-auto/method string regular
d-i partman-auto/choose_recipe select atomic
d-i partman-partitioning/confirm_write_new_label boolean true
d-i partman/choose_partition select finish
# Uncomment the line below to preseed the disk layout confirmation
#d-i partman/confirm boolean true
d-i partman/confirm_nooverwrite boolean true
d-i partman/mount_style select uuid
 
# We don't want use a remote mirror (all stuff we need is on the USB flash drive)
d-i base-installer/install-recommends boolean false
d-i apt-setup/non-free boolean false
d-i apt-setup/contrib boolean false
d-i apt-setup/use_mirror boolean false
# We will use a local repo for our packages (this repo has not been signed)
d-i debian-installer/allow_unauthenticated boolean true
 
# Install a standard debian system (some rocommended packages) + openssh-server
tasksel tasksel/first multiselect standard
d-i pkgsel/include string openssh-server
d-i pkgsel/upgrade select none
popularity-contest popularity-contest/participate boolean false
 
d-i grub-installer/only_debian boolean false
d-i grub-installer/with_other_os boolean false
 
# Avoid that last message about the install being complete
#d-i finish-install/reboot_in_progress note
 
EOF

When you have copied the preseed file on the key you can validate the automated entry. Be sure to uncomment "d-i partman/confirm boolean true" once you have validated that "partman/early_command" has chosen the expected device to install the target system and the bootloader.

Automatically install additional packages from a local repository

You may want to automatically install your own custom packages to the target system. This is pretty easy as the hd-media images mount the boot device filesystem on /hd-media during the installation. So we’ll create a local repository on the USB flash drive and via the preseed file tell the installer to deploy our packages on the target system.

To create the local repository

# mkdir /mnt/usb/repo
# cp mytool_1.0.0-1_amd64.deb /mnt/usb/repo
# cd /mnt/usb
# dpkg-scanpackages repo/ /dev/null | gzip > repo/Packages.gz

Now we have one package in our repository we’ll use the late_command option to bind the repo directory on the target system and then install the mytool package. Add the following line to the preseed file:

d-i preseed/late_command string \
    mkdir /target/tmp/repo;\
    mount -o bind /hd-media/repo /target/tmp/repo;\
    echo "deb file:///tmp/ repo/" >> /target/etc/apt/sources.list;\
    in-target aptitude update;\
    in-target aptitude install mytool;\
    echo "deb http://ftp.debian.org/debian squeeze main" > /target/etc/apt/sources.list;

Article contributed by Fabien Boucher, Technical leader at Wallix.

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