Install a Custom Distribution on a Linode

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This guide shows you how to install and configure a custom distribution on your Linode.

For the sake of organization, it has been split into two main sections:

This guide uses Debian 8 (Jessie) as an example, but the steps provided are generic in nature and should work with most distributions.

Advantages of KVM on Linode

Linodes running on our KVM hypervisor offer several advantages, particularly for those looking to install a custom operating system:

  • Direct Disk Boot: Direct disk booting allows you to boot from any disk with a Master Boot Record (MBR). This can be especially useful for operating systems that do not make use of the Grub bootloader, such as FreeBSD.

  • Full Virtualization: Our KVM hypervisor offers a full virtualization option that simulates the experience of running directly from hardware. This can be useful for non-standard configurations.

  • Glish: KVM introduces the Glish graphical console, which makes it easy to access your distribution’s installer directly from a disk.

Install a Custom Distribution

In this section you install your custom distro onto a raw disk, with the direct disk boot option. The end result is a working custom install; however, it does not support disk resizing from within the Linode Manager, nor is it compatible with the Backup Service.

Prepare your Linode

  1. Log into the Cloud Manager

  2. Click the x button next to the default Debian image in the Images dropdown to create a Linode without a distribution.

    When you create a Linode without a distribution you are not prompted to create a root password for your Linode. Continue to choose the region, plan, Linode label, and select Create.

  3. After the Linode is finished provisioning, power it down.

  4. Click the More Options Ellipsis, and select the Resize option.

  5. In the Resize menu uncheck the Auto Resize Disk option at the bottom of the screen.

  6. Next, exit the resize screen and click the Storage tab and click Add a Disk to create two unformatted disks.

  7. Create two raw, unformatted disk images from the Linode’s Dashboard:

    • A disk labeled Installer. The size of this disk depends upon the size of your distribution’s installer, but it’s recommended to make it slightly larger than the space taken up by the install media itself. For this example, the installer disk is 100MB in size, giving us plenty of room for the Debian network installer.

    • A disk labeled Boot. If you don’t plan to complete the next section on Linode Manager compatibility, this can take up the rest of the free space available on your Linode.

          You can always check how much space your disk is actively using and would therefore require by entering the `df -h` command when it's mounted.
    If you intend to continue to the next section on Linode Manager Compatibility, you should make your boot disk no larger than necessary - in this example we’ll install Debian to a 2000MB disk.
  8. Create two configuration profiles and disable the options under Filesystem / Boot Helpers for each of them, as well as the Lassie shutdown watchdog under the Settings menu. Both profiles use the Direct Disk option from the Kernel dropdown menu:

    Installer profile

    • Label: Installer
    • Kernel: Direct Disk
    • /dev/sda: Boot disk image.
    • /dev/sdb: Installer disk image.
    • root / boot device: Standard /dev/sdb

    Boot profile

    • Label: Boot
    • Kernel: Direct Disk
    • /dev/sda: Boot disk image.
    • root / boot device: Standard /dev/sda

Download and Install Image

  1. Boot into Rescue Mode with your Installer disk mounted to /dev/sda, and connect to your Linode using the Lish Console.

  2. Once in Rescue Mode, download your installation media and copy it to your Installer disk. In this example we’re using the Debian 10.11 network installer, but you can replace the URL in the following command with the location of the image you want to install:

    As an additional security step, you can use the keys provided in the same directory as the iso to verify the authenticity of the image.
    dd if=mini.iso of=/dev/sda

    If you would prefer to write the installer directly to the disk as it downloads, use:

    curl | dd of=/dev/sda
  3. Empty the cache so that you have enough space to unpack and install the image.

    sync; echo 3 > /proc/sys/vm/drop_caches
  4. Close the Lish window and go back to Cloud Manager. Reboot into your Installer configuration profile and open the Glish graphical console. You see your distribution’s installer, and you can begin the install process.

  5. During your installer’s partitioning/installation phase, be sure to instruct it to use the /dev/sda volume. Most installers create separate root and swap partitions, but you can adjust this as needed.

    Some installers offer an option to place /boot on a separate partition. If you intend to make use of the steps in the second part of this guide for Linode Manager compatibility, it’s important that your /boot directory is located on the same partition as your root filesystem.
  6. Once the installation completes, close the Glish window and return to the Cloud Manager. Reboot into your Boot profile and open the Glish console. You have access to a login prompt:

Configure Grub for Lish Access

At this point you can connect to your Linode via the Glish graphical console and SSH if it is enabled and included by default. However, you can not connect to your Linode using the Lish serial console. To fix this, update the following settings in your /etc/default/grub file:

File: /etc/default/grub
GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX="console=ttyS0,19200n8 net.ifnames=0"

Once you’ve finished editing grub, issue the appropriate command to apply your changes to your Grub configuration:

  • Ubuntu and Debian:

    sudo update-grub
  • CentOS and Fedora:

    grub2-mkconfig -o /boot/grub2/grub.cfg
  • Arch Linux and Gentoo:

    grub-mkconfig -o /boot/grub/grub.cfg

If you’re still not able to access your Linode via Lish after updating your GRUB configuration, a reboot may be required. If this is the case, make sure you’re rebooting into your Boot configuration profile.

Additionally, in some cases, SSH will not be enabled or included by default as part of your installation. In Debian 10 for example, the openssh-server package will need to be installed manually with the following command before connecting to your Linode over SSH:

sudo apt install openssh-server

Linode Manager Compatibility

If you’ve followed the steps so far, you should have a working custom distribution with raw disks, using the direct disk boot option. While this setup is functional, it’s not compatible with several features of the Linode Manager that require the ability to mount your file system, such as:

  • Disk Resizing: Since the Linode Cloud Manager cannot determine the amount of used storage space on a raw disk, it can only increase the size. The Linode Cloud Manager cannot be used to make a raw disk smaller, and it cannot resize the file system on the disk - this would need to be done manually. Also, some ext4 features like enabled metadata_csum are not supported for custom distribution images.

  • Backups: The Linode Backup Service needs to be able to mount your filesystem, and does not support partitioned disks.

  • Helpers: Several helpful features within the Linode Manager, such as root password resets and Network Helper, need access to your file system in order to make changes.

This section covers how to move your custom installation over to an ext4 formatted disk so it can take advantage of these tools.

These features are not available even if you formatted the disk to ext4 during installation because direct disk was selected during disk creation.

Prepare your Linode

  1. Create some room for two new disks. One formatted ext4 to move the file system to and one for swap.

  2. Create a new ext4 disk. The new disk should be large enough to accommodate the root file system that was created on your raw disk (2000 MB). You can make this as large as you’d like, but you should leave enough space for a separate swap partition. For this example, name this disk Boot-New.

  3. Create the second new disk and choose swap for the disk type. The size of this disk depends upon your needs, but it’s recommended that you make it between 256-512MB to start. Label this disk Swap.

  4. Create a new configuration profile with a name of your choice. For this example, call the new profile Installer-New and it uses the following options:

    Installer-New profile

    • Label: Installer-New
    • Kernel: GRUB 2
    • /dev/sda: Boot-New disk image.
    • /dev/sdb: Swap disk image.
    • root / boot device: Standard /dev/sda

Update your fstab

  1. You should still be booted into your Boot profile using direct disk boot; if not, boot into it now.

  2. Before you update your /etc/fstab file, make sure you know the current root partition of your custom distribution. You can use the lsblk command to confirm which partition has / as its mount point:

    root@custom-kvm:~# lsblk
    fd0      2:0    1    4K  0 disk
    sda      8:0    0  7.8G  0 disk
    └─sda1   8:1    0  7.5G  0 part /
    sr0     11:0    1 1024M  0 rom

    In this case, you can see that the /dev/sda1 partition is the location of your root filesystem.

  3. Next, update your /etc/fstab file to match the following:

    # <file system> <mount point>   <type>  <options>                  <dump>  <pass>
        proc        /proc           proc    defaults                    0       0
        /dev/sda    /               ext4    noatime,errors=remount-ro   0       1
        /dev/sdb    none            swap    sw

    Depending upon your distribution, it may use different parameters for your root disk under the “options” section. These can be adjusted as needed. Note that you’re using /dev/sda instead of the sda1 root partition that was identified previously.

Configure Grub

  1. Confirm the location of your grub.cfg file. Some distributions (notably, CentOS and Fedora) place this file under the /boot/grub2 directory, while others have it under /boot/grub. Your new setup uses our Grub 2 mode, which looks for a configuration file under /boot/grub/grub.cfg. You can confirm if your grub.cfg is located in the necessary spot with the ls command:

    ls -la /boot/grub/grub.cfg

    If your distro places its Grub configuration under this directory, you should receive output similar to the following:

    root@custom-kvm:~# ls -la /boot/grub/grub.cfg
    -r--r--r-- 1 root root 5235 Dec 28 08:05 /boot/grub/grub.cfg
  2. If the Grub config is located under /boot/grub2 instead, create a symlink to provide the correct configuration to the bootloader:

    mkdir /boot/grub
    ln -s /boot/grub2/grub.cfg /boot/grub/grub.cfg
  3. Update your grub.cfg file, replacing all instances of /dev/sda1 with /dev/sda. Note that this command needs to be adjusted if your root file system is located on a partition other than /dev/sda1:

    sed -i -e 's$/dev/sda1$/dev/sda$g' /boot/grub/grub.cfg

    Keep in mind that if your grub.cfg is located under /boot/grub2, you should adjust this command to reflect that.

Transfer your Root File System to your Ext4 Disk

Now that you’ve updated the necessary configuration files, you’re ready to move your root file system to the ext4 disk you created previously. To get started, boot your Linode into Rescue Mode with the following disk assignments:

  • Boot disk mounted to /dev/sda
  • Boot-New disk mounted to /dev/sdb

In Rescue Mode, connect via Lish and transfer your root file system from the /dev/sda1 partition to your new ext4 disk:

dd if=/dev/sda1 of=/dev/sdb bs=1M

Once the transfer completes, reboot into your Installer-New profile. You now have a custom distribution that works with the Linode Manager’s extra features. In order to make use of the Backup Service, you need to remove the raw disks that were used during the installation process.

Linode Images

Linode offers an image feature. The feature allows users to quickly deploy custom or preconfigured distribution images to new Linodes. Review the Images documentation to learn more.

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