USB stick update: TAILS 1.4, GParted 0.22, SysResCD 4.5.2, Debian Jessie

I have posted a view times (here and here) about how to get a multi-boot/multi-purpose USB stick working. Now that TAILS has seens a major upgrade, and Debian 8.0 Jessie has been released, I think it is time to update the procedure to reflect the latest releases. That turned out to be a painful experience, in particular since Debian removed support for any reasonable boot method.

(Update: See this post for fixes to get Debian working again)


So going through these explanations one will end up with a usable USB stick that can boot you into TAILS, System Rescue CD, GNU Parted Live CD, but unfortunately not anymore to boot into an installation of Debian 8.0 Jessie installation. But the USB stick will still be usable as normal media.

Let us repeat some things from the original post concerning the wishlist and the main players:

I have a long wishlist of items a boot stick should fulfill

  • boots into Tails, SystemRescueCD, and GParted
  • boots on both EFI and legacy systems
  • uses the full size of the USB stick (user data!)
  • allows installation of Debian (not possible anymore) (again possible: this post)
  • if possible, preserve already present user data on the stick

This time I have added the GNOME/GNU Partition Editor gparted as it came in useful at times.


A USB stick, the iso images of TAILS 1.4, SystemRescueCD 4.5.2, GParted Lice CD 0.22.0, and some tool to access iso images, for example ISOmaster (often available from your friendly Linux distribution).

I assume that you have already an USB stick prepared as described previously. If this is not the case, please go there and follow the section on preparing your usb stick.

Two types of boot options

We will employ two different approaches to boot special systems: the one is directly from an iso image, the other via extraction of the necessary kernels and images.

At the moment we have the following status with respect to boot methods:

  • Booting directly from ISO image: System Rescue CD and GNOME Parted Live CD
  • Extraction of kernels/images: TAILS (Debian Jessie does not work in any way)

What is a pity is that during the testing phase, booting and installation from testing images worked for Debian as documented previously. But with the final images (and my guess it has to do with systemd, wouldn’t surprise me), there is no Debian CD detected as it cannot find the iso image on the USB stick. Bummer. That means that for having a Debian/USB stick you need a dedicated one.

Booting from ISO image

Grub has gained quite some time ago the ability to boot directly from an ISO image. In this case the iso image is mounted via loopback, and the kernel and initrd are specified relatively to the iso image root.

For both SystemRescueCD and GNOME Partition Live CD, just drop the iso files into /boot/iso/, in my case /boot/iso/systemrescuecd-x86-4.5.2.iso and /boot/iso/gparted-live-0.22.0-1-i586.iso.

After that, entries like the following have to be added to grub.cfg. For the full list see grub.cfg:

submenu "System Rescue CD 4.5.2 (via ISO) ---> " {
  set isofile="/boot/iso/systemrescuecd-x86-4.5.2.iso"
  menuentry "SystemRescueCd (64bit, default boot options)" {
        set gfxpayload=keep
        loopback loop (hd0,1)$isofile
        linux   (loop)/isolinux/rescue64 isoloop=$isofile
        initrd  (loop)/isolinux/initram.igz

submenu "GNU/Gnome Parted Live CD 0.22.0 (via ISO) ---> " {
  set isofile="/boot/iso/gparted-live-0.22.0-1-i586.iso"
  menuentry "GParted Live (Default settings)"{
    loopback loop (hd0,1)$isofile
    linux (loop)/live/vmlinuz boot=live username=user config components quiet noswap noeject  ip=  nosplash findiso=$isofile
    initrd (loop)/live/initrd.img

Note the added isoloop=$isofile and findiso=$isofile that helps the installer find the iso images.

Booting via extraction of kernels and images

This is a bit more tedious, but still not too bad.

Installation of TAILS files

Assuming you have access to the files on the TAILS CD via the directory ~/tails, execute the following commands:

mkdir -p /usbstick/boot/tails
cp -a ~/tails/live/* /usbstick/boot/tails/

The grub.cfg entries look now similar to the following:

submenu "TAILS Environment 1.4 ---> " {
  menuentry "Tails64 Live System" {
        linux   /boot/tails/vmlinuz2 boot=live live-media-path=/boot/tails config live-media=removable nopersistent noprompt timezone=Etc/UTC block.events_dfl_poll_msecs=1000 splash noautologin module=Tails  libata.force=noncq
        initrd  /boot/tails/initrd2.img

The important part here is the live-media-path=/boot/tails, otherwise TAILS will not find the correct files for booting. The rest of the information was extracted from the boot setup of TAILS itself.

Current status of USB stick

Just to make sure, the usb stick should contain at the current stage the following files:

        vmlinuz Tails.module initrd.img ....
            lots of files
            lots of files
            lots of files
        grub.cfg            *this file we create in the next step!!*

The Grub config file grub.cfg

The final step is to provide a grub config file in /usbstick/boot/grub/grub.cfg. I created one by looking at the isoboot.cfg files both in the SystemRescueCD, TAILS iso images, GParted iso image, and the Debian/Jessie image, and converting them to grub syntax. Excerpts have been shown above in the various sections.

I spare you all the details, grab a copy here: grub.cfg


That’s it. Now you can anonymously provide data about your evil government, rescue your friends computer, fix a forgotten Windows password, and above all, install a proper free operating system.

If you have any comments, improvements or suggestions, please drop me a comment. I hope this helps a few people getting a decent USB boot stick running.


Postscriptum concerning Debian/Jessie

Working method is now described in this post.

So I have first tried to boot directly into the Debian Jessie firmware ISO image by dropping the ISO into /boot/iso/firmware-8.0.0-amd64-i386-netinst.iso and adding a grub entry like:

submenu "Debian 8.0 Jessie NetInstall ---> " {
    set isofile="/boot/iso/firmware-8.0.0-amd64-i386-netinst.iso"

    menuentry '64 bit Install' {
        set background_color=black
        loopback loop (hd0,1)$isofile
        linux    (loop)/install.amd/vmlinuz iso-scan/ask_second_pass=true iso-scan/filename=$isofile vga=788 -- quiet 
        initrd   (loop)/install.amd/initrd.gz

That was a no go. I have added the iso-scan/ask_second_pass=true iso-scan/filename=$isofile thingy after some research in forum and web, without any change. Of course I have also tried the official ISO image debian-8.0.0-amd64-netinst.iso, with the same effect.

Although I was sure it doesn’t make any difference, I have also tried to extract the kernel and initrd, and boot directly from it, i.e., copying the files to /usbstick/boot/debian/ as follows:

mkdir -p /usbstick/boot/debian
cp -a ~/tails/install.amd /usbstick/boot/debian/
cp -a ~/tails/install.386 /usbstick/boot/debian/

In addition, copy the iso image itself into /usbstick/boot/iso (or directly into the root of the usb stick, didn’t change anything), and added a grub.cfg entry as follows:

submenu "Debian 8.0 Jessie NetInstall ---> " {
  menuentry '64 bit Install' {
    set background_color=black
    linux    /boot/debian/install.amd/vmlinuz vga=788 -- quiet 
    initrd   /boot/debian/install.amd/initrd.gz

All these were without success, always ending up in error messages like: Mounting sdb, this is not a Debian Installation CD, etc etc.

I have also submitted a bug report to the installation reports, unfortunately no answer (not that I expected one). In case someone has a better idea, please let me know!

It is very sad that these kind of support is removed. The Installation Manual lists some options to install from USB, and the only difference is that there syslinux on a FAT16 system is used. This restricts the USB stick size a lot, and does not allow for easy multi boot via grub.

As reported here, I had this actually running. Unfortunately, I stupidly removed the old iso image and replaced it with the current Jessie ISO image, assuming that there will be no regression. Wrong assumption. Now I cannot even investigate the changes by looking into the initrd. Looking at the date of the original post I see that it is more or less one year ago, so before the Systemd introduction. I don’t know whether this has any effect, I doubt, as the installer is separate. But something happened in the mean time. Bad for us.

11 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    What about grml?

    • Hmm, I used that some time ago, but dropped it. Will see if it can be easily included!

    • Checked it now with the 2014.11 release, where I dropped the iso into /boot/iso/. It worked with the following grub.cfg entry

        menuentry "Grml Rescue System 64bit" {
              export iso_path
              loopback loop (hd0,1)$iso_path
              set root=(loop)
              kernelopts=" ssh=foobarbaz toram  "
              export kernelopts
              configfile /boot/grub/loopback.cfg

      Thanks, I will add it to the list.

  2. I had the same problem with getting the Debian installer to see the ISO from the USB stick but when I used the vmlinuz/initrd.gz from it picked up a debian-8.0.0-amd64-netinst.iso just fine off the stick.

  3. Philip Hands says:

    Note that d-i uses busybox as it’s init, so not even sysvinit — a fact that took mere seconds to double-check, by running ps on the d-i console.

  4. Philip Hands says:

    That too puzzles me.

    The thing that pulls iso-scan into hd-media in the installer is build/pkg-lists/hd-media/common. build/pkg-lists/netboot/common does not include this — which was last edited in 2011.

    Hunting for changes in the udeb dependencies also turns up nothing. Looking for the string ‘iso’ in last year of diffs in the installer also turns up nothing.

    Is it possible that the firmware ISO you used was built differently from the standard ones for a while (and so worked), and has since reverted to matching the standard images?

    • Good question – I never checked into these details till now. It was on of the normal testing firmware images, downloaded from the link I gave in the very first post. How that was built – I don’t know.

      But wouldn’t it make sense for all the iso images to include iso-scan, what speaks against that?

  5. JM says:

    Have you tried to also add the live Debian image ( inot your USB stick?

    • Hi JM,
      since I have other Debian based live images already, I don’t think this is necessary, at least not for me. And now that I can again boot/install into Debian/jessie (see the next blog post), I don’t see any need for it – for me.

      If you want to add it, you can easily add the iso image I guess, and use a similar incantation like the one for Grml (also for this, see the next blog post).

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