A bit of geekery – using your USB thumb drive to install multiple OSes

I recently had occasion to use GRUB (a boot loader – the thing that tells your computer what the hell it’s loading when it starts up) on a 32 GB USB drive.  I did this so I could stick it in an inert computer, boot it up and then choose from multiple operating systems to install.

Currently I’ve got all of the OSes (sans OSX of course) that I use on a daily basis ready to go.  Windows XP, Windows 7 32 bit, Windows 7 64 bit and Ubuntu 9.10.  Before you ask, yes I have licenses for all of those that need them.

It’s actually quite easy to do even if you’re not terribly technical.  Thanks to a program called MultiBootISOs.

Here’s how to do it.

You’ll need at least 10 GB of free space on your thumb drive and you’ll need to grab this .zip file.

1. Run MultiBootISOsv0.02.exe – it will install grub, set up your Master Boot Record (MBR) and the necessary files on to your flash drive.   Just follow the instructions.

2. You’ll have to edit the file menu.lst that’s placed on your hard drive.  This is set up to boot multiple Linux distros.  I’ve included a copy of mine so you can see what I’ve done.

3. Copy the appropriate ISOs to the root of your thumb drive.   ISO’s are images of CDs or DVDs.  In this case you’ll need one of each Operating System you want to be able to install from your flash drive.

4. Insert your flash drive into a USB bootable machine, reboot and you should be able to select any of the available OSes to install. This will not impact your ability to use the flash drive for storage when you plug it in to already booted computers as grub will not start.

Back to the SciFi and Zombies shortly.

[tags]geek, operating systems, install, thumb drive[/tags]

8 thoughts on “A bit of geekery – using your USB thumb drive to install multiple OSes

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  1. Nice article, pretty useful, and I have worked on Grub a multi-boot USB stuff to come up with a good working version which I can use to test out several linux distros (and some of the Windows versions), however… and that’s a big however, it skimps several serious issues listed below:
    1. for computers with limited RAM (such as 512 MB or less), there’s no way you can load the ISO of a big linux distro (600+ MB), because grub uses the ISO image as if it is a virtual CD and tries loading it to the RAM.
    2. if during the copying of iso images the iso file is fragmanted, then the ISO load fails regardless of amount of RAM – Grub requires the iso file to be contiguous, so you need to run at least defrag tools to ensure that big files (iso files) are contiguous.
    3. not all linux distros that come as an ISO file work properly when booted via Grub into the RAM. I have seen quite a few cases of Kernel Panic errors (antiX, DSL, etc.)
    I have also tried to unebootin proggy –which, by the way, is supposed to automate this procees, and in fact, improve it by extacting the content from ISO files so that you eliminate at least contiguous iso file and limited RAM issues I have listed above– but, again, I had the same mixed results, though somewhat better.
    I especially hate the fact that unebootin fails when you skip the last step, namely, BOOT step, after a distro is placed on a USB stick. Why the hell should I want to boot my PC, especially when I’m preparing USB stick for use on another computer, but doing the prep work with unetbootin on another PC? Go figure!!!

    best regards



  2. So I tried this, but the Ubuntu install is giving me a no cd found error when I try the install. I also tried FreeBSD and received the same problem. No CD detected. Anyone else had this issue?


  3. Way to raise a dead thread, but I have been looking for this for over a year now, Thanks. If you are willing pls contact me as i have some questions about the timeouts and hex entries in the menu.lst file.


  4. Can’t seem to get the OS installed. It boots from the drive and the i get a bsod. This happens with multiple win 7 iso that are known good.


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