Live CD

Live CD
Ubuntu 11.04 Beta 2 system running from a live CD, with the new Unity desktop environment

A live CD, live DVD, or live disc is a CD or DVD containing a bootable computer operating system. Live CDs are unique in that they have the ability to run a complete, modern operating system on a computer lacking mutable secondary storage, such as a hard disk drive. Live USB flash drives are similar to live CDs, but often have the added functionality of automatically and transparently writing changes back to their bootable medium. Also, the solid-state device pure electronic operation gives a significant speed advantage by eliminating the CD reader's intrinsic mechanical latencies. Write-locked Live SD WORM systems are the direct solid-state counterpart to live CD's and can be booted natively in a media card slot or by using a USB adapter. Write-locked Live SD systems avoid excessive write cycles or corruption by ill-conditioned software, like viruses, which can prematurely "ruin" a live USB.

The term "live" derives from the fact that these CDs each contain a complete functioning operating system on the distribution medium.

While a live CD typically does not alter any operating system or files already installed on a computer's secondary storage (such as hard disk drives), many live CDs include mechanisms and utilities for altering the host computer's data stores, including installation of an operating system. This is important for the system management aspect of live CDs, such as removing malware, drive imaging, and system recovery.

The default option, however, is to allow the user to return the computer to its previous state when the live CD is ejected and the computer is rebooted. It is able to run without permanent installation by placing the files that typically would be stored on a hard drive into RAM, typically in a RAM disk, though this does cut down on the RAM available to applications.



Prior to the wide use of compact discs in computers, floppy disks were used as boot disks, which generally had a small operating system and limited tools.

Programmers adapted the compact discs (originally developed for storing audio) for use as media for storing and distributing large amounts of computer data. This data may also include application and operating-system software, sometimes packaged and archived in compressed formats. Later, it became convenient and useful to boot the computer directly from compact disc, often with a minimal working system in order to install a full system onto a hard drive.

The first Compact Disc drives on personal computers were generally much too slow for running complex operating systems. Often, the computer could not boot from optical discs. When operating systems were distributed on compact discs, either a boot floppy or the CD itself would boot specifically, and only, in order to install onto a hard drive. The first live CD was FM Towns OS first released in 1989.[citation needed]

Origin of Linux live CDs

Although early developers and users of distributions built on top of the Linux kernel were able to take advantage of cheap optical disks and rapidly declining prices of CD drives for personal computers, the Linux distribution CDs or "distros" were generally treated as a collection of installation packages that must first be permanently installed to hard disks on the target machine.

However in the case of these distributions built on top of the Linux kernel, the free operating system was meeting resistance in the consumer market because of the perceived difficulty, effort, and risk involved in installing an additional partition on the hard disk, in parallel with an existing operating system installation.

The term "live CD" was coined because after typical PC RAM was large enough and 52x speed CD drives and CD burners were widespread among PC owners, it finally became convenient and practical to boot the kernel, run X11, a window manager and GUI applications directly from a CD without disturbing the OS on the hard disk.

This was a new and different situation for Linux than other operating systems, because the updates/upgrades were being released so quickly, different distributions and versions were being offered online, and especially because users were burning their own CDs.

The first Linux-based 'Live CD' was Yggdrasil Linux first released in beta form 1992~1993 (ceased production in 1995), though in practice its functionality was hampered due to the low throughput of contemporary CD-ROM drives. DemoLinux, released in 1998, was the first Linux distribution specially designed as a live CD. The Linuxcare bootable business card, first released in 1999, was the first Live CD to focus on system administration, and the first to be distributed in the bootable business card form factor. As of 2010, Finnix (first released in 2000) is the oldest Live CD still in production. Knoppix, a Debian-derived Linux distribution, was released in 2003, and found popularity as both a rescue disk system and as a primary distribution in its own right.

Since 2003, the popularity of live CDs has increased substantially, partly due to Linux Live scripts and remastersys which made it very easy to build customized live systems. Most of the popular Linux distributions now include a live CD variant, which in some cases is also the preferred installation medium.


While some live CDs are designed to "demo" or "test drive" a particular operating system (usually Linux or another free or open source operating system), there are live CDs made for many different uses.

Although some live CDs can load into memory in order to free the optical drive for other uses, loading the data off a CD-ROM is still slower than a typical hard drive boot, so this is rarely the default with large live CD images, but for smaller live CD images loading the filesystem directly into RAM can be highly practical. Loading the filesystem image into RAM can provide a significant performance boost as RAM is several orders of magnitude faster than a hard drive. Also, since RAM has no moving parts, a system running from a live CD loaded into RAM can run with improved power efficiency.[1] Experienced users of the operating system may also use a live CD to determine whether and to what extent a particular operating system or version is compatible with a particular hardware configuration and certain peripherals, or as a way to know beforehand which computer or peripheral will work before buying.[1] Users may also use a live CD to troubleshoot hardware, especially when a hard drive fails, and more generally as a recovery disc in case of problems. Some live CDs can save user-created files in a Windows partition, a USB drive, a network drive, or other accessible media.

A few additional uses include:

  • installing a Linux distribution to a hard drive
  • testing new versions of software
  • listing & testing hardware [2]
  • system repair and restoration
  • high security/non-invasive environment for a guest
  • cracking/stealing passwords
  • network security testing
  • being the primary or backup operating system for any computer
  • quick and simple clustering of computers [3]
  • computer forensics
  • playing video games
  • providing a secure server platform where crucial files cannot be permanently altered
  • providing a secure, reliable platform for the performance of high-vulnerability tasks such as internet banking;
  • Internet kiosks, which can be brought back to their original state by a reboot

Thematic Live CDs

Several live CDs are dedicated to specific type of applications according to the requirements of thematic user communities. These CDs are tailored to the needs of the applications in subject including general knowledge, tutorial, specifications and trial data too.

Some of these topics covers sub topics, e.g. IT administration breaks down to firewall, rescue, security, etc. type of live CDs. In some cases a particular LiveDVD covers more than one topic.

Live CD software appliances

Packaging a software appliance as an installable live CD can often be beneficial as a single image can run on real hardware in addition to most types of virtual machines.

This allows developers to avoid the complexities involved in supporting multiple incompatible virtual machine images formats and focus on the lowest common denominator instead.

Typically after booting the machine from the live CD, the appliance will either run in non-persistent demo mode or install itself, at the user's request, to an available storage device.

Mounting without burning

The files on a live CD ISO image can be accessed in Microsoft Windows with a disk image emulator such as Daemon Tools, or in Unix variants by mounting a loop device.

After mounting the live CD's filesystem, software on the live CD can be run directly (I.e., without booting) by chrooting into the live CD's mounted filesystem.

A live CD ISO image can also be mounted by Virtual Machine software such as VirtualBox and VMware Workstation or can be converted to a Live USB using SYSLINUX. Tools such as UNetbootin can automate this process.

Common traits

Some live CDs come with an installation utility launchable from a desktop icon that can optionally install the system on a hard drive or USB flash drive. Most live CDs can access the information on internal and/or external hard drives, diskettes and USB flash drives.

Generally live CDs are booted from read-only media, requiring either copying to rewriteable media (i.e. a hard drive) or complete remastering to install additional software; however, there are exceptions such as Puppy Linux which has the ability to save files to the live CD itself or other multisession media, allowing users to carry data, and more importantly, added programs and customized settings, along with them on optical disc.

Most live CDs are based on Linux, as this was the operating system that had the most to gain by offering free trials and demonstrations without regard to sales or copyright. Now others are using the term live CD for other operating systems, such as OpenSolaris, BeleniX and others based on Solaris. Other "live" operating systems include AmigaOS 4, FreeBSD, FreeDOS, Mac OS, Microsoft Windows, OS/2, ReactOS, NetBSD, OpenBSD, MINIX 3, Plan 9 from Bell Labs, and MorphOS.

The first personal computer operating system on a CD to support "live" operations might have been the AmigaOS, which could be booted from CD on an Amiga CDTV in 1990.[citation needed]. Earlier examples of live OS are of course the operating systems used from floppy, and most widely spread is DOS.

Unlike previous operating systems on optical media, though, Linux and OS/2 "live CDs" were specifically designed to run without installation onto other media like a hard disk drive. The live CD concept was meant to promote Linux and showcase the abilities of the free, open source operating system on conventional personal computers with Microsoft Windows already installed.[citation needed]

On a PC, a bootable Compact Disc generally conforms to the El Torito specification. Many Linux based live CDs use a compressed filesystem image, often with the cloop compressed loopback driver, or squashfs compressed filesystem, generally doubling effective storage capacity, although slowing application start up[citation needed].

The resulting environment can be quite rich: typical Knoppix systems include around 1,200 separate software packages. Live CDs have a reputation for supporting advanced auto-configuration and plug-and-play functionality. This came out of necessity to avoid requiring the user to configure the system each time it boots and to make it easily usable by those who are new to the operating system.


A read-only file system, such as on a CD-ROM has the drawback of being unable to save any current working data. For this reason, a read-only file system is often merged with a temporary writable file system in the form of a RAM disk. Often the default Linux directories "/home" (containing users' personal files and configuration files) and "/var" (containing variable data) are kept in ramdisk, because the system updates them frequently. Puppy linux has a savable layer so if you choose to, the next time you boot you can resume (pick right back up again) from where you left off. Each time the CD boots, it looks for the file and then uses it if it has the right name.

In modern live CDs, a read-only file system is merged with ramdisk using transparent techniques such as UnionFS, AuFS or EWF. In MS-DOS and OS/2 systems, ramdrive.sys, can be loaded at boot for this purpose. Boot loaders like syslinux can boot ISO files from USB memory devices.

Live CDs have to be able to detect and use a wide variety of hardware (including network cards, graphic cards etc.) in realtime. This is easily achieved nowadays by udev, hotplug, hal, udisk etc.. which is a common part of all distributions based on Linux kernel 2.6.

Boot code

During live CD initialization, a user typically may resort to using one or more boot codes to change the booting behavior. These vary from distribution to distribution but can most often be accessed upon first boot screen by one of the function keys.

See also


Here are some screenshots of live CDs:


  1. ^ a b Brickner, David (2005). Test Driving Linux: From Windows to Linux in 60 Seconds. O'Reilly. ISBN 059600754X. 
  2. ^ HDT - Hardware Detection Tool
  3. ^

External links

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