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Laptops that Boot From External Drives? 42

Posted by Cliff
from the flexible-hardware dept.
ducman asks: "I'm a consultant and carry two laptops. I have to assume that my employer can see everything I do and access every file I store on the machine they provided me with. But I'm tired of hauling two laptops (and power supplies, etc) everywhere I go. My personal machine is an Apple TiBook, which will boot off an external, firewire drive. Could I do the same thing with an Intel laptop and run Linux on it for personal stuff? Am I the only one with this problem?" Which Intel-based laptop, that supports booting from an external drive, would you recommend?
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Laptops that Boot From External Drives?

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  • Simple. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by glenstar (569572)
    Repeat after me: "My work laptop is for *work* and my personal laptop is for personal use."

    That being said, unless your company consists of facists, or you are using the laptop for, um, illicit purposes, I don't really see what the problem is. Just *never* store anything personal on your corporate laptop and you should be ok.

    • Re:Simple. (Score:2, Insightful)

      by zootread (569199)
      You basically just stated his problem back to him. He has two seperate laptops. He needs to store personal information (nudie pics of his wife, etc) when using it for personal uses. He doesn't want to carry around two of them (probably travels a lot).

      This shouldn't be too difficult. The easiest immediate solution is to use a boot CD to boot the firewire/usb drive. Shouldn't be hard since he plans to use Linux. Even simpler, you could even use something like the Knoppix live CD and then use the external drive just to store data (mpegs of wife stripping or whatever).

      I can't say I know of any laptops that can boot directly to a firewire/usb drive, but I would be interested in this as well.
  • CD + Floppy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Tolchz (19162) on Thursday December 12, 2002 @07:56PM (#4876737) Homepage
    Wouldn't it be possible to boot from a CD and then use some rewritable media for /home , like a floppy or zip drive if it is available ?
  • So they can access everything you put on their hardware. Well, you're only working on their hardware during the hours your billing for, and therefore you're only doing work that in the end belongs to them anyway.

    I understand a request for privacy, but I don't understand what keystrokes you are concerned they'll catch.

    Second, and if your laptop doesn't support external booting, just load up a minimal install and mount the drive as root, or pivot_root it or something. Should be easy nuff to set up.
    • A guy asks a simple question, and he gets his intentions questioned? He obviously wants to watch videos of him and his wife getting it on when he's travelling and he doesn't want his boss getting a copy to wank off to or share on the internet. Where I work, our local drives are shared. Occasionally we have our machines available for remote access. Sure, I do personal stuff on off hours and even leave browser cache files sitting around because the people around here are cool and I don't gotta worry. But I'd never leave naked pictures of my girlfriends sitting around.
  • *scratches head* (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TheSHAD0W (258774) on Thursday December 12, 2002 @08:03PM (#4876805) Homepage
    Does this mean your employer will buy any laptop machine you wish, for your use? And you want this information so you can recommend which one he should get? If you have to foot the bill for your own machine, you ought to be able to tell your employer to fuck off if he wants to examine the contents.

    Or are you afraid some piece of proprietary company software contains spy tools, letting the IS department observe your doings? Yeah, I can see where that would be a problem.

    You might have more luck with a generic brand notebook PC than with one of the name brands. Companies like Dell and Sony tend to rip some of the features out of the system BIOSes to keep people from screwing them up and then calling for help. A good generic laptop would probably have a default BIOS with all the features therein intact.
    • What kind of facist employer do you have if you are not allowed to pick your own workstation and laptop and the OS of your choice for your work? Of course if you work for the government you may only be allowed to shop from those who have government contracts, but that still gives the ability to select from a bunch of large companies and at least 20 models.
      • You, sir, obviously don't work for a computer manufacturer, or you'd know what it was like to get stuck with the weirdest not-meant-for-daily-use-but-looks-cool desktop system.

      • Geeze, where do you work? Every job I've had it's been: "Here's your computer." I've never had the luxury of picking the hardware. The best I've done is once when the PHB's decided we were better off with Windows 95 and X-Terminal software than the HP-UX workstations we'd been using, I figured out that we could re-use our 19" HP monitors. The PHB's approved it because it saved them the cost of the standard 15" monitors they were going to give us.

        Generally, if they pay the bill, they decide what to buy, so again: What enlightened nirvana company do you work for?

      • Most companies above a certain size whose work force isn't completely composed of computer experts have an IS staff who is given the odious task of maintaining all of the computers in the company -- odious, because most of the users wreak havoc on the computers' set-up. This is from where most of the "my computer's cup holder is broken" stories [rinkworks.com] have spawned from.

        In order to decrease their work load, they typically standardize on a few specific PC models and set-ups, and when a user blows it to hell they restore from a standard drive image. Ordering a special piece of hardware with a non-standard set-up usually requires a note from upper management saying "take care of this guy, he's cool", and a contract signed in blood, in triplicate, saying "I will never bring this machine to you".
        • It sucks, but that really is the only way to handdle more than a handful of desktops. The best situation had different rules for the data center staff. IT handled everything for both the ordinary users, and the developers. Those of us that built and maintained the data center were allowed more lattitude in what we could use, in exchange for never bothering the MCSE's. That was a sacrifice I could live with.
  • by Splork (13498) on Thursday December 12, 2002 @08:18PM (#4876906) Homepage
    tried booting Knoppix [knoppix.com] off of a cd-rom and mounting your external storage from there?

    Knoppix is a full featured linux system on a bootable cd-rom that does not require any writable storage (but can use it if you've got it).
    • I have to amplify, not re-itereate.

      This was exactly my suggestion, but a couple of others already seem to be suggesting it. Let's not mince words: "Knoppix Rocks!"

      You get REAL desktop/user Linux, including StarOffice. On ThinkPad t20's and 600X's and recent Dell Inspirons I have had full video/audio support, and instant 802.11b with zero configuration effort!

      USB drives work great for data, and are detected on boot. The Inspiron has FireWire and works too.

      I have graduated to a slightly more complex setup - I use a 48MB PCMCIA "FlashDisk" to store rsa keys and persistant scripts. I can add my local user, and mount shares via AFS and ssh-tunnel after the desktop comes up - or not!

      Here's a good question for Knoppix fans: Knoppix is obviously a great forensics and security tool, with all the bundled utilities and default ro mounting of all discovered local partitions. Net security is cool too. There is tcpdump, netcat, ethereal, iptraf, even nessus/nessusd! But why no snort!

      It's not hard to build your own customized Knoppix [gnu.org] (heck, it's Debian.) My next step is doing this, to ditch the scirpts on flash - move 'em into a local rc and include snort!

  • by MBCook (132727) <foobarsoft@foobarsoft.com> on Thursday December 12, 2002 @08:21PM (#4876928) Homepage
    Two suggestions. First of all, many laptops make it easy to swap drives, or at swap a second one in and out, so you could use that or a external drive.

    So how do you boot the drive? Well, you have a few options. If the drive is internal (like the second drive, since booting the 1st is easy) you could put a bootloader (GRUB, LILO, etc) on the main drive. Your second option is that you can use programs (I think that one is called loadlin) that let you load Linux from windows. You just pass it a kernel and initrd if needed, etc and you can boot. So if you just built firewire, firewire HDs, and such into the kernel, you should be able to use a firewire drive as your Linux drive (initrd should make this easier). This way even if the BIOS won't let you boot a firewire drive, you can still do it.

    • Dell does this (at least they do on the inspiron 8200 I have). And you can specify in the bios which drive to boot from. So buy a 40 gig laptop drive and a drive sled from them and just plug it into the extra bay. If you are going to do this though, you will probably want to get a combo cd-rw/dvd drive in the fixed slot since you won't be able to use the swapable slot if you have your root drive in it.
    • This way even if the BIOS won't let you boot a firewire drive, you can still do it.

      Unlikely. If the BIOS can't see and boot the disk, than grub or lilo won't be able to read the disk to boot from it.
  • Try Compaq M700 (Score:4, Informative)

    by stonebeat.org (562495) on Thursday December 12, 2002 @08:34PM (#4877018) Homepage
    I use Compaq M700 for this purpose. It supports swapable drives, plus booting from secondary HD, which can placed in the CD ROM bay. M700 works out very nicely. I even bought a M700 for home, so now I just need to take the HD with me, and not lug the whole laptop with me.
  • interesting fact... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Polo (30659) on Thursday December 12, 2002 @08:43PM (#4877083) Homepage
    By the way, did you know that your apple laptop can be turned into a dumb firewire drive by holding down the 'T' key when booting?

    It will boot up and show a big firewire logo on the screen, and then if you plug it into a second apple, the other system will mount the first machine's hard disk. (kind of a security problem actually)

    I wonder if you could put a windows partition on the apple's hard disk and access it with the intel laptop...
  • Dell Is the Way (Score:3, Informative)

    by gwynnebaer (319816) <slashdotNO@SPAMgroenquist.com> on Thursday December 12, 2002 @09:10PM (#4877232) Homepage
    Love their hardware. I bring a mod-bay drive with me that belongs to me, and hit F12 at boot time. It pulls up a boot menu, and I am home free.
  • Getting Linux to run on a laptop-somebody-else-bought is easier said than done. I have been wrestling with a Compaq Presario 1200 for months now, the thing has a bridged Tulip network card that has reverse-IRQ priorities, the experimental kernels will run on the box but a distro e.g. Redhat 8 hangs on kudzu the 2nd time the sucker tries to boot. And I can't get the experimental kernel to compile properly under Redhat 8. Back to drawing board Natasha.
  • My bonehead solution (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 12, 2002 @10:03PM (#4877492)
    I'm a contractor too. My old solution to your problem was to lug my laptop to work every day. Ugh. Eventually I gave up on this, formatted my desktop and installed my own copy of win2k at work. Now all I carry back and forth is a Pockey 20gig USB2.0 HD. This works for me. Keep in mind that some places will fire you for messing with their hardware, but they are just going to re-image my desktop when I move on anyway.

    FYI - I use SSH to tunnel to a personal linux box from the work desktop and tunnel all my POP, SMTP, HTTP, and IM communications to keep everything private.
  • Can it be done? (Score:2, Informative)

    by RevAaron (125240)
    A lot of people so far have answered:

    1. Buy a laptop with a swappable drive bay; or
    2. You shouldn't want to boot from an external drive. Nothing to see here folks, move on.

    Someone else mentioned using a CD based Linux distro like Knoppix or DemoLinux and then mounting the external storage after that. That would work, but would be a huge pain in the ass if you wanted to do much more than experiment superficially.

    Need to upgrade the kernel? Figure out what kinds of changes throughout the CD you'd have to make (special cases due to being on a CD) and then put the kernel on there. Upgrade a package that's on the CD? Have to get another machine to copy the image of the CD to, install the RPM/DEB/TGZ then figure out how to make a new CD. Not incredibly impossible for a Linux guru, but definately not something approachable for a relative newbie whenever she wants to install a package that already exists on the CD.

    Again- not impossible, but a bit daunting. Sure would be a lot easier if the PC hardware was as well designed as the Mac counterparts.

    About the booting via a bootloader like lilo or
    GRUB:

    How possible is that? Do any of these bootloaders have drivers for USB, USB2 or FireWire? One of the really cool things about Mac hardware is OpenFirmware, which makes possible booting off of the network (no matter if your card explicitly supports it in its own ROM or not), USBx, FireWire or SCSI.
    • GRUB:

      How possible is that? Do any of these bootloaders have drivers for USB, USB2 or FireWire? One of the really cool things about Mac hardware is OpenFirmware, which makes possible booting off of the network (no matter if your card explicitly supports it in its own ROM or not), USBx, FireWire or SCSI.


      Using grub, it *might* be possible using a firewire drive, assuming the BIOS recognizes it as such at boot time. i.e. grub-install /dev/hda hd0=/dev/hda, hd1=/dev/sda

      But, as I said, you'd have to recognize it as such at boot time. The only way I could really see this working would be with a cardbus scsi controller that's bootable.
  • I once booted a Toshiba Tecra laptop from a UW disk in an external enclosure (Pizzabox Sun workstation style) via a CardBus SCSI adapter.

    Also, many higher-end "business" laptops allow you to boot from
    If you are running Windows 2000 or XP on the laptop, consider running a VMWare virtual machine on an encrypted directory. It would be probaly be slow, but an admin would have to actually log in as your user to do anything with the virtual machine.
    • vmWare runs on Linux.

      Why run the vmWare from a encrypted disk? Have your own stuff on the encrypted disk. Run vmWare from the fastest disk (setup) on your system.

  • This is such an easy one, I'm astonished nobody else suggested a good solution.

    Just run User-mode Linux or VMWare, according to what OSes you want to boot natively and from the removable drive. They will happily boot off any medium you can plug in.

    Or, better, just put your private data in an encrypted file system, and unmount it when your employer might get to it. It doesn't even need its own partition, it can be in a regular file. Of course this assumes you're running Linux or a BSD, but you can run VMWare under that to load any cheesy employer-favored OS.

  • IBM Laptops, specifically the T-Series, have a removeable side bay that holds any standard laptop Hard Drive. I use that with 2 spare drives in my bag to boot between my 3 OSes - Win2k System Image for work, WinXP System for Fun on the Road, and Linux for whatever.
  • What about just installing and booting a Linux Dist. for the PPC arch?
  • Anyone know how the PC bios normally handles its discussions with a firewire drive that it is booting? I don't know about firewire, this machine didn't come with it, but it says it'll boot from USB. I haven't got around to making a bootable zip disk to test that yet.
    • Are there any PC BIOSes that support Firewire boot? I haven't been able to find a single one (Dell says they are considering it, but haven't done anything yet), not even Sony...
      • Well now that I look, I don't see any. I guess it's just USB for now? For that matter, how do USB devices handle booting? Is there a standard class for rotating media storage devices in USB? (It would be dumb not to have one but you know, that's how the history of computing goes for the most part.)

        I guess you could do firewire booting with linuxbios on one of the supported platforms. At least, I hope you could :P

        • I think the BIOS needs to provide Int13 hooks to the boot device. i've got a pc at work that boots from USB - i'll try to remember to bring my usb Zip drive and see if it'll boot from that.
          good point about LinuxBIOS!

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