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Understanding Linux on a USB Flash drive
written April 20, 2020 by Time Traveler
Category: SupportNote Tags: USB Flash Drive; USB Complete Collections    #20
 

This expands a bit on our previous post: What NOT to do with a Bootable USB Drive or Collection

For single disc options, the ISO (data image of the CD/DVD disc) is transferred onto the USB. So when you boot from the USB drive (as long as supported on the particular computer you are booting from), it is essentially the same as booting from the disc itself. You can do things like test/check media, and for all practical purposes, it will operate just like booting from the disc. The major difference is often speed - reading from USB 3.0 is significantly faster than reading from optical media and quite noticeable.

We do offer the dual USB and disc option for various reasons - if something happens to the USB, you still have the original "data". Since the data on the optical media can't be modified, you will always have the original as a backup. Also, if you have a system that can't boot from the USB drive, you will still be able to boot via the disc option.

As an aside, the term "boot" in this context is the act of loading the operating system. When you start a typical computer, it will initialize its BIOS (from Basic Input Output System), that allows important functions like accessing memory, accessing media, accessing peripherals, and accessing network hardare. Once this initializes, the BIOS then doesn't do much more, but will try to load an operating system (as based on its boot priority). Often this can be a CDROM (which also covers DVD drives), Hard Drive, network, or USB drives. Once it starts loading this, it falls back into a supporting role, letting the operating system run your computer. If it can't load (i.e. can't find a bootable option), it will put a message like "DISK BOOT FAILURE, INSERT SYSTEM DISK AND PRESS ENTER"

It is also important to understand what Linux is. Linux is an Operating System that can run a computer, just like Windows 10 or Mac OS X. So this means you must "boot" from the media (whether CD, DVD or USB). You CAN NOT load or run a bootable Linux distro in Windows, for example. Meaning if you are in Windows, and are trying to figure out how to load or do something with the media, you need to step back, shut down Windows, and then start your computer with the media in the drive. IMPORTANT: Your BIOS may also need settings to allow the correct "boot" order - for example, if you have Hard Disk as primary/first, you will always boot from the hard drive, and your disc or USB will simply be ignored - you must set these as a higher priority than the hard drive.

For details on how to configure a system to Boot from USB, refer to this reference section from our Quick Reference pages - How to Boot from USB

Please be aware that the typical USB is made for storage, and hence, can be written to. This means you should not modify or change the data on the USB if you wish to use it as it was delivered - a bootable version that can run/install the included Linux versions. All Collections USB include a user storage partition (USB_Storage) that can be used to transfer data from different operating systems (e.g. Windows to Linux to Mac, etc.). But all other partitions / files should remain untouched. Also an important note: If performing an install, when actually selecting where to install, be 100% positive you are not selecting the USB device. Typically the size/partitions/name will make it clear which drive is which, but if unsure, take the time to clearly identify and select the drive you wish to install on!

A final note on security - most systems are concerned with protecting you from remote access vs. physical security. For the vast majority of systems, if you have physical access to the system, it is assumed security was in protecting the actual physical access (i.e. keeping system in a locked room), rather than protecting the system now that you can dismantle it or boot from a different device. For a generic version of Windows on a generic system, you can boot from Linux and then mount (access) the hard drive, and see the directory and access files, etc. There are ways to prevent this, but it requires another layer of security (such as encrypting files, UEFI secure boot, etc.).

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