Creating a Zip bootdisk which runs Linux in a ramdisk

This document tries to describe what needs to be done to create a pair of disks (floppy and zip disk) to boot Linux from and have it run completely in a ramdisk.


This approach is similar to other minilinuxes, which boot from a single floppy disk, but some of thouse systems keep (a part of) the floppy mounted. The advantage of this setup is that you can boot your system and then take out the disks and it will continue to run (this might be useful for e.g. installing a cluster). You could of course also do this with e.g. muLinux or some other "one floppy Linux system", but a Zip disk allows you to have a much more comfortable system. The disadvantage is that you need some amount of RAM in your machine, as you need a ramdisk for your whole system (80 MB in our case) and should still have some spare RAM for your programs to run.

This description is by no means complete or perfect, but I hope it will help someone with the same or similar goals. The ressources I found helpful during my installation were:

Maybe this document is too much focused on our own system (a cluster of 400 HMz Pentium II machines with 128 or 256 MB of RAM and SCSI disks, see the CoPs project). Hopefully it's still useful... You should already have some experience with Linux as I will not explain everything from the basics.


I will try to write down what had to be done to make the boot disks work. Much of the following should be done as root, so be careful.

A boot floppy disk

Take a fresh floppy disk and create an ext2 filesystem on it ("mke2fs /dev/fd0"). Put your kernel image (bzImage) and the boot-sector (usually /boot/boot.b) on it using the cp command. Note that your kernel must have ramdisk as well as initrd support. If your Zip drive is on a SCSI bus, your kernel also needs SCSI support (I don't know what to do with other Zip drives).

Then, create an empty file of approx. 1.4 MB in size ("dd if=/dev/zero of=floppyroot.img bs=1024 count=1400"). This file must reside on a local harddisk, NFS doesn't work. Create an ext2 filesystem in this file ("mke2fs -m 0 floppyroot.img", the "-m 0" tells mke2fs not to put any space aside for the superuser).

Mount the file using the loop interface (your kernel must support this... "mount -o loop /tmp/floppyroot.img /mnt") and put a very minimal system on it (in /mnt). I took most of the very small files from the muLinux distribution (if you unpack the sources for the muLinux distribution, you will find many things in the tree subdirectory. It's quite useful as these programs have been made as small as possible). What you need is at least:

You also need a file "linuxrc" in the root of your floppy image. The file has the following contents (substitute your own Zip device/partition for the "XX", e.g. "sdb1"):

export PATH=/bin:/sbin:/usr/bin:

[ -x /bin/sleep ] && sleep 2 

echo Preparing to setup ramdisk.

mount -o remount,rw / 2>/dev/null

echo Mounting proc...
mount -t proc none /proc

echo Mounting zip readonly...
mount -o ro /dev/sdXX /zip

echo -n Copying new root to ramdisk... please wait...
gunzip -c /zip/minisys.dd.gz > /dev/ram1
echo done.

echo -n Unmounting zip...
umount /zip
echo done.

echo Changing to new root.
echo 257 >/proc/sys/kernel/real-root-dev

echo -n Unmounting proc...
umount /proc
echo done.

echo Continuing normal boot procedure from ramdisk.

Make sure that the script has execute permission. Unmount the floppyroot.img ("umount /mnt") and compress it ("gzip floppyroot.img").

Your Linux system for the ramdisk

Create a partition somewhere on your harddisk of about 80 MB in size (you can again use the "-m" switch for the "mke2fs" filesystem to save some space). You could probably also use the loop interface again, but then you can't test your installation. Install your complete Linux system in that partition. I did so by installing nothing but the minimal requirements from the SuSE CD (we usually use SuSE Linux) and some small stuff required for system and network diagnostics as well as some tools for installations (you should know yourself what you need on your system...). After making sure that your system works, change the / entry in /etc/fstab to /dev/ram1, because that's where your root filesystem will be after the system is booted from the ramdisk.

When your partition is ready, unmount it and create a compressed image ("dd if=/dev/hdx | gzip -c > minisys.dd.gz"). This may take a while.

The Zip disk

Create a single partition on an empty Zip disk, create an ext2 filesystem in the partition and copy the file with your Linux system to it (minisys.dd.gz in this example).

The LILO config file

To install a bootable floppy disk, we need lilo. You probably don't want to change your real lilo file (it's not required here anyway). Create a file with a content similar to the following:
# Test for ramdisk boot zip with floppy.
append="INFO=1440 load_ramdisk=1 prompt_ramdisk=1 ramdisk_size=84000 ramdisk_start=652"
Check the file and make sure that all the devices are correct for your setup. Also check:

Putting everything together

To finish everything, mount your floppy disk under /floppy and your Zip disk under /zip (or wherever you want, but don't forget to change the above Then, try "lilo -C".

Now, if you boot from the floppy, the following should happen:

  1. The LILO prompt appears. After that, the kernel is loaded from the floppy disk.
  2. The kernel is startet and initialises itself.
  3. The kernel loads the first, very small root filesystem (floppyroot.img.gz) to the ramdisk, uncompresses it and mounts it as root filesystem.
  4. The kernel finds the /linuxrc script and executes it.
  5. The script then loads the Linux system image (minisys.dd.gz) from the zip drive, uncompresses it on the fly and writes it to the second ramdisk.
  6. The script changes the kernels root filesystem to the second ramdisk.
  7. The system boots in its normal way from the ramdisk.
I hope it works for you too!
ICS [Laboratory for Computersystems], DINFK [Dept. of Computer Science], ETHZ [Swiss Institute of Technology], Patagonia Cluster Project.
Maintained by Felix Rauch.
Last changed: 10-Dec-1999