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How to Run Linux from Your USB Stick

Updated on April 15, 2013

Run from USB?

The Linux Operating System, has a short history, but a huge user base. It's being used to run some of the largest sites on the internet and also some of the smallest embedded devices. SMBs are embracing Linux's ability to match high end solutions with a small expendature.

If you are curious to try Linux, but don't want to commit, a solution has arrived that will allow you to try Linux in a "live" environment yet keeps your current data safe. This method is similar to booting from a CDROM, but faster and more versatile.

Running Linux from a USB stick is a simple matter and will allow you to try the myriad of Linux distributions before deciding which to use. There are also other Linux distributions that serve niche markets. For example, there are Linux distributions that boot from a USB stick for data recovery andd forensics, there are some that are for backup purposes, and some for network security purposes.

Before deciding to run Linux from a USB stick, you must first understand why you want to run Linux.

Which Linux?

Before attempting to run Linux from a USB stick, you must decide what your goal is. If you are curious to try a Linux desktop, there are virtually hundreds to choose from. If you goal is more focused, you will have fewer choices, but robust options nonetheless.

Desktop Linux

Here is a list of the more popular Linux desktop choices that provide USB stick images to boot from:

  1. Ubuntu Linux - Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distributions on the market. It is also one of the easiest for a beginner to use.
  2. CentOS - CentOS is a free equivalent of Red Hat's Enterprise Linux distribution. It is great for SMBs who want to use Linux but cannot afford the cost of a RHEL subscription.
  3. Fedora - Fedora is the testing ground for Red Hat. Fedora is a free distribution of Linux that is community supported. RedHat tests their RHEL additions and improvements with the Linux community before committing those changes to their commercial offering.
  4. OpenSuSE - Like Fedora, OpenSuSE is a testing ground for Novell's commercial SuSE Linux product. It is community supported and is a mature distribution.

There are many more Linux distributions, far too many to list here. Distrowatch is a great resource to learn about new distributions and version releases.

Specialized USB Images

If you are looking for more specialized uses of Linux, you may be interested in some portable USB versions of Linux meant for forensics, data recovery, backup/restore, online anonymity, etc. Here are a few very popular specialized Linux distributions that are meant to run from a USB Stick:

  1. CloneZilla - Clonezilla live is suitable for single machine backup and restore.
    ISO Download
  2. BackTrack Linux - a Linux-based penetration testing arsenal that aids security professionals in the ability to perform assessments in a purely native environment dedicated to hacking.
    ISO Download
  3. TAILS - Privacy for anyone anywhere. Tails aims at preserving your privacy and anonymity.
    ISO Download

Preparing the USB Stick

Preparing the USB Stick is a relatively simple matter, no matter your operating system. There are various tools available each with its own advantages and disadvantages. It doesn't really matter which one is used as long as the end result is the same. Follow the detailed instructions on for whichever software you choose and you'll have a bootable USB Stick.

UNetBootIn - Universal Network Boot Installer is a great tool that will take a Linux ISO and put it on a USB stick and make it bootable. THis is a great tool that has the ability to download many of the more popular desktop and specialized Linux distributions. After downloading it will put the ISO on the USB stick and from there you're ready to boot into Linux. One disadvantage is that it messes with some Linux distributions' boot menus.

PenDriveLinux - PenDriveLInux.com is the solution preferred and recommended by Ubuntu. It is a great tool that allows you to make easily booted USB Sticks in Microsoft Windows.

Linux Live USB - Is another good windows tool to create a bootable Linux USB Stick.

Booting From USB Stick

Booting from a USB Stick is a relatively simple matter. Some modern BIOSs look for USB Sticks to boot from and thus require no manual intervention. Computers with an older BIOS will need to be told to boot from a certain device. It is beyond the scope of this article to detail how to do this on every BIOS, however the "Delete" key usually takes a user into the BIOS if pressed shortly after powering on the computer.

Once inside the BIOS, you'll have to specify the default boot order. Set this to USB if possible. Save the settings and reboot your computer with the thumb drive plugged in.

If everything is successful, you should be presented with a Linux boot menu depending on the distribution of Linux you installed to the USB Stick.

© 2013 davidwhoward

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    • drpennypincher profile image

      Dr Penny Pincher 

      4 years ago from Iowa, USA

      I boot Ubuntu from a memory stick on an old laptop. The hard drive failed and it would no longer boot Windows. Linux was free and the memory stick cost less than $10. This was a nice way to keep the computer running without putting money into an older computer. Thanks for the detailed information on running Linux from a memory stick.

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