Using a persistent live Ubuntu USB flash drive in VirtualBox
Recently, I needed to test some operations to be performed during the installation of Ubuntu on a system.
This requires multiple sessions and reboots, so retaining the changes on the installation media would considerably streamline the task.
VirtualBox doesn’t support booting a VM from a USB flash drive though, so a workaround is required.
This small article explains how to do this.
- Options and procedure(s)
- Conclusion and considerations
Introduction, and options
The standard Ubuntu live system - which in the past was on CD, while nowadays on USB flash drives - doesn’t persist changes; they’re applied in-memory, and lost on shutdown.
Some live media tools though (but currently, not the standard Ubuntu installation tool), can create a so-called “persistent live” system on a flash drive.
Now, the problem is to make the system accessible from a (VirtualBox) virtual machine; there are currently two options.
Using the VMDK format
VMDK format is the format typically used by VMWare products, and supported (but not used by default) by VirtualBox.
It’s a very flexible format. The relevant functionality in this case is the “Raw device mapping”: the VMDK file simply acts as a proxy for a device.
With this functionality, using a flash key is simple: one creates the proxy VMDK, then makes the virtual machine use it, so that I/O operations are redirected to the raw device.
The security implications of this setup are very serious, though; therefore, although this is an exact solution to the problem, I won’t go into the details; instead, I’ll just leave a reference to the Stack Overflow answer to a relevant question.
For people interested in raw device mapping (in the context of VMWare products), the VMWare website has a dedicated guide.
Using the key dump as a disk
My first attempts at accomplishing the tasks were to use a loop device associated to a blank file, so that I could instruct the live media tool to create the live system on the file itself, pretending it was a flash key/disk.
These attempts failed because the tools typically available on Ubuntu (
unetbootin) they don’t support loop devices, or persistent live systems, or both.
However, the subsequent solution was very simple.
- Create the live system
Create the desired live system on the USB flash key, via any tool fulfilling the requirements (I chose
mkusb has a bug that sometimes causes the flash drive write operation to file, resetting to the first menu, without error messages; the workaround I’ve found to this is to first switch to root user, then invoke
username$ sudo su root# mkusb
Don’t invoke mkusb via sudo:
username$ sudo mkusb # no!
or let it switch:
username$ mkusb # no!
- Make a disk image that is usable by VirtualBox
Another VirtualBox limitation is that it doesn’t directly support raw disk images, so we should assume that another step - the conversion - is required after dumping.
Turns out, it’s not needed at all. Let’s create a VDI image directly from the flash drive:
disk_device=/dev/sdb # change according to the case VBoxManage convertfromraw -format VDI $disk_device ubuntu_live.vdi
This is a bit ugly; there is no progress! So let’s pipe from stdin, instead:
disk_device=/dev/sdb disk_size=$(sudo blockdev --getsize64 $disk_device) sudo dd if=$disk_device status=progress | VBoxManage convertfromraw -format VDI stdin ubuntu_live.vdi $disk_size
Don’t forget to unmount all the partitions before dumping (see my RPI VPN router project installation file for a neat way to script unmounting).
- Run the image in a virtual machine
Now we’re ready. Create a standard virtual machine, and attach the disk to a controller; there are two options:
- attach it to the IDE controller; this will make it boot by default, but it will also cause the drive to be mapped to
/dev/sda, which could cause some confusion to the user when (if) it’s detached from the controller;
- attach it to the SATA controller; this will require invoking the boot menu (tap F12 on boot), but it won’t change the other devices mapping.
Conclusion and considerations
While originally I preferred the idea of directly using the flash drive in the VM, I changed idea while using the new solution.
I don’t really have a use case requiring a single device to be used (I seldom change the content of the system on the flash drive), and if I need, say, to copy anything, I can still attach the key to the VM.
Having the persistent live system in my archive of ready-to-use disk images is actually very practical, so ultimately, the solution has been a win-win.