How to install Debian Lenny on a Dell Mini 9 via a USB flash drive

by krisrowland

Feeling I’ve grown out of my Ubuntu training wheels (or daiper – as you prefer) I thought I’d give Debian a try. I could have just installed it on my desktop or an external HDD, but I thought I’d be overly masochistic and try it first on my Dell Mini 9. The main issue here, as with installing any Linux distro an the Mini, is actually getting a bootable installation medium to work.

I first tried to load Debian Lenny on my 1GB Kingston USB flash stick using UNetBootin. This worked for me a while ago when trying to install Fedora core 9. Alas, it appears the Debian install CD menu only allows the mounting of CD/DVD drives, not images – I may be wrong, but I was too impatient to find out. A better option turned out to be discussed explicitly on the wonderful DebianOn site – a site that aims to discuss how to get Debian working on various hardware. In my case, how to get Debian Lenny working on a Dell Mini 9! The documentation, however, was very difficult for a semi-novice like me to follow; particularly the part:

To install Debian Lenny use the USB-Stick Image from and replace the initrd.gz and linux file with the normal NetBoot kernel

Sorry… wha? Loosely translated, this means you have to take the initrd.gz archive and the file named linux from the NetBoot Debian installation image and put it in the custom made Asus EeePC install image.

It turns out that this isn’t too hard to do. The only way I managed to actually do it was by attempting to read an Italian forum discussing this very problem. In particular, not the post from Aki, demonstrating the precise commands required to extract and then package these files (I’ve done my best to translate to English):

#Create a working directory
mkdir workdir
cd workdir

# Download the customised EeePC and
# NetBoot installation images/archives

# Unpack the NetBoot archive
tar xf netboot.tar.gz

# Copy the original EeePC image to another
# name – the copy will be altered soon
cp debian-eeepc.img debian-dellmini9.img

# Make a directory to mount the copied image to,
# then mount the image (cool, hey?)
mkdir dellmini9_mount
mount debian-dellmini9.img dellmini9_mount/ -t msdos -o loop

# copy the aforementioned files from the
# unpacked NetBoot archive into the mounted image
cp -v debian-installer/i386/initrd.gz dellmini9_mount/initrd.gz
cp -v debian-installer/i386/linux dellmini9_mount/linux

# Verify that the files copied correctly
# (by checking that the files differ
# – not necessary but nice for completeness)
cmp debian-installer/i386/initrd.gz dellmini9_mount/initrd.gz; [ $? -eq “0” ] || echo “initrd.gz wasn’t copied”
cmp debian-installer/i386/linux dellmini9_mount/linux; [ $? -eq “0” ] || echo ” the linux file wasn’t copied”

# Unmount the altered image
umount dellmini9_mount

# Check to see the copied image has been stuffed with
# the new files by comparing with the original
# (again, not required but will explicitly show that the files differ)
cmp debian-eeepc.img debian-dellmini9.img

Now you can write this image directly to your (bootable) USB stick via

dd if=debian-dellmini9.img of=/dev/sdb

where /dev/sdb is the device path of your USB stick (make sure you use the correct device path – get it wrong and you could destroy another perfectly healthy drive). After ensuring the Dell Mini could boot from USB (checking the boot drive and priority settings in the BIOS), the modified Debian install worked PERFECTLY!

Now, there is one major pain in this. The latest stable Lenny kernel doesn’t like to have a card in the card reader during boot – it’ll hang. I’m willing to forego my SDHC card for now just to try out Debian. I hope this will be fixed in the future… then again, this is Debian we’re talking about. Maybe some hacking will be required.

As for setting up the system post-install, particularly for wireless, the original DebianOn page for the Dell Mini 9 was extremely useful! Provided you use the standard Broadcom card, this method worked perfectly for me (just be sure to reboot after installing network manager – see the Configure link in step 10).

It seems the webcam works out of the box, at least in Cheese, and most other things seem to work straight away, too. I’ll install Skype soon to see exactly how well…

And that’s it for now… Hope this helps someone wanting to try out this great distro on their Dell Mini 9!