Working Linux From a USB Drive: Are You Doing It Proper?

You've probably heard of previewing and installing Linux from USB drives, but did you know that you can also save your data between applications or even do a full permanent Linux installation on a USB flash drive? This can have tremendous productivity benefits, especially if you are a remote worker or cannot afford your own PC.

In short, we're talking about making Linux the ultimate ultra-portable platform: running Linux from a USB flash device. Here are your three ways to carry Linux in your pocket. Find out which method is best for you.

Choose the right USB stick

Before you begin, you should purchase a new USB stick. The lifespan of older USB sticks has already been shortened considerably, and since flash has a limited number of read / write cycles, a new flash stick makes sense. Something affordable with a manageable amount of space would be the best flash drive for a bootable version of Linux.

SanDisk 32GB Ultra USB 3.0 Flash Drive – SDCZ48-032G-UAM46


Also take note of the hardware that you are connecting the USB flash drive to. Does it support USB 3.0? In this case, you will benefit from significant speed (and other) advantages over old-fashioned USB 2.0.

Check the target computer's USB ports. If they have blue plastic rather than black, that's a good visual cue. Not all USB 3.0 ports use this abbreviation. You should therefore read the technical data of the PC. In Windows, you can check Device Manager.

Write a live ISO to USB

It just got really easy to write an ISO image of your favorite Linux distribution to an appropriately sized USB drive. From there you can start a Linux system on any computer that supports booting from USB media. There are many tools out there that can burn an ISO for you, and this method is compatible with virtually any Linux distribution.

One option is balenaEtcher, a free, open source tool for Linux, MacOS, and Windows. While burning an ISO isn't as complicated as it sounds, Etcher is as simple as it gets.

However, the downside to this approach is that once you shut down or restart the computer you are working on, you will lose all of your data. In a live environment, all data is stored in RAM and none is written to the USB drive. Therefore none of this is saved when the system is switched off.

If you want to keep a customized Linux environment in your pocket, this is not what you want. However, if you plan to use the drive as a means of conducting secure communications (such as banking or activities that require TOR) and want to ensure that confidential information is not being stored, this is definitely the way to go.

Download: balenaEtcher

Enable persistent data

Depending on your distribution, you may have the option to enable persistent data on your USB drive. This is great: you can write a relatively compact ISO file to boot from and keep your additionally installed applications and saved documents.

For this to work you will need a compatible program to perform the installation. One option is Rufus, a Windows app that supports creating live Linux USB sticks with permanent storage. If you're already on Linux, you can try mkusb instead. The tool runs on Ubuntu and Debian based distributions as well as a few others.

Persistent data is ideal if you are using a large number of systems with the USB drive, as the live environment recognizes what hardware is available every time it is started. So the benefit in this scenario is that you can save your data, use less storage space, and have maximum support for the hardware you are connecting to.

The disadvantages: You automatically start the live user account, which is not password protected. You must also be careful with software updates as newer kernels can damage the boot loader.

Download: Rufus for Windows

Download: mkusb for Linux

Perform a full installation on USB

Finally, you can do a full installation on the USB drive. You'll have to use a CD or other USB drive for the installation media, but with this method you literally have a full Linux system in your pocket – one that is as flexible as any other traditional installation.

The advantages are obvious: you have your own system set-up, tailored to your needs, right in your pocket. But there are still a few downsides.

First, you need a larger USB drive for this type of installation. Admittedly, this is no longer a problem as it used to be. If your only option is an old drive lying around, 8GB is possible. Since the prices of 128GB and 256GB drives have dropped dramatically, you don't have to spend a lot of money to run Linux on a flash drive the size of an SSD.

Second, since the system believes it is installed normally, changes are usually made that are ideal for the hardware you are currently working with, but not necessarily the hardware you will encounter in the future.

This primarily affects the use of proprietary drivers. For maximum compatibility, do not use them. The open drivers are sufficient for most applications.

Linux loves USB

Surprised? You shouldn't be! Linux has always been very flexible so it can meet all sorts of needs. The fact that no licenses are required means that running Linux on a USB flash drive is quite easy, unlike Windows and macOS.

Now that you know your options, it should be very easy to decide which solution is best for your needs. Or now that you are aware of your options, it may not be that simple.

To help you choose the distribution, we've rounded up the best Linux distributions for installation on a USB stick. You can run Chrome OS from a USB drive too, by the way!

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