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How to install Ubuntu Linux on the decTOP SFF computer


I recently bought a decTOP small form factor (SFF) computer. My goal was to build a cheap, fanless, quiet, and low power consumption Linux server. For $99 plus the cheapest available shipping, $40, my machine arrived 11 days after I placed the order.

This is a tiny computer, about the size of a Mac Mini. But, because it has no fan, it runs a bit quieter and, with the help of a 1-watt, 366 MHz CPU, consumes only 8 watts. For comparison, the G4 Mac Mini consumes about 20-30 watts, depending on load.

The decTOP comes with 128 MB of RAM in its sole SO-DIMM slot and a 10 GB 3.5 inch hard drive. I understand that it's a simple matter to replace the drive and to upgrade the memory to a maximum of 512MB.

It also comes with no operating system and the ability to boot only from a USB drive. This article details the steps I used to build the USB boot/installation drive and install Ubuntu 6.06 on the decTOP.

There is another article -- with additional decTOP links -- here on installing Ubuntu 6.06 on the decTOP with the aid of a Windows system. Fortunately ;), I run Mac OS X and Linux (Ubuntu 7.04), so that article didn't work for me. I did the installation of the Ubuntu 6.06 LTS Server Edition using my Ubuntu Linux box and a 1 GB USB flash drive -- although a 512 MB USB drive should work as well.

  1. Download the Ubuntu 6.06 server ISO image from the Ubuntu download page. Depending on your plans for the decTOP, you might want to choose the desktop version. Unless you have already upgraded your decTOP's memory, however, you'll want to stick with the 6.06 releases.

  2. Install the mbr, mtools, and syslinux packages on the Linux system you'll be using to prepare the USB drive. If you run Ubuntu or some other Debian-derived system, the following commands may do the work for you.
    apt-get install mbr
    apt-get install mtools
    apt-get install syslinux
  3. Partition the USB drive with a single FAT-16 partition. I used the fdisk 'n' command to make the new primary partition 1. The fdisk 't' command can be used to change the partition type to FAT-16. My device name was /dev/sda.
    fdisk /dev/sda
  4. Make the FAT-16 partition the active partition. I used the fdisk 'a' command.

  5. Install a master boot record on the USB drive.
    install-mbr /dev/sda
  6. Install syslinux on the USB drive. Note that the USB drive should not be mounted when you do this.
    syslinux -s /dev/sda1
  7. Create a mountpoint and mount the ubuntu ISO image using the loopback device.
    mkdir /iso
    mount -o loop -t iso9660 ubuntu.iso /iso
  8. Create a mountpoint and mount the USB flash drive.
    mkdir /usb
    mount /dev/sda1 /usb
  9. Copy the contents of the ISO image to the USB drive. This will take some time.
    cd /iso
    cp -r . /usb/
  10. Copy the /usb/dists/dapper directory into a new /usb/dists/stable directory.
    cd /usb/dists/
    cp -r dapper/* stable
  11. Copy several files from /usb/install to the /usb root directory.
    cp /usb/install/vmlinuz /usb/
    cp /usb/install/mt86plus /usb/
    cp /usb/install/initrd.gz /usb/
  12. Install the following text into a file named syslinux.cfg in the /usb root directory.
    default vmlinuz
    append initrd=initrd.gz ramdisk_size=24000 root=/dev/ram rw
  13. Flush all writes, unmount, and remove the USB drive. After the sync step, wait for all of the data to be written to the USB drive.
    umount /usb
  14. Connect the ethernet adapter to the decTOP and connect it to your network to allow automatic configuration of the network interface.

  15. Insert the USB drive into the decTOP and power it up. The decTOP should automatically boot from the USB drive and start the Ubuntu installation.

  16. Answer only the first two questions concerning language selection and go to the next step, below.

  17. Press Alt-F2 (hold down the Alt key and press the F2 function key) to open a shell. Then press enter to start the shell.

  18. Create a /cdrom and a /dev/cdroms directory in the installation ramdisk
    mkdir /cdrom /dev/cdroms
  19. Go to the /dev/cdroms directory and build a symlink from /dev/sda1 (that is likely the device name of your USB boot partition) to /dev/cdroms/cdrom0.
    cd /dev/cdroms
    ln -s ../sda1/cdrom0
  20. While still in the shell, mount the USB drive to mimic an installation CD-ROM.
    mount -t vfat /dev/cdroms/cdrom0 /cdrom
  21. Return to the installation program with Alt-F1 and continue the installation.

From this point, the process should be identical to a routine CD-ROM installation.

For a grand total of $140 and 8 watts of power consumption, I now have a near-silent Linux server running 24/7. You can telnet to it here and marvel at its blinding speed running a 250,000-sector Space Tyrant game.

mail this link | score:9284 | -Ray, August 16, 2007 (Updated: April 26, 2011)
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