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v-i README

v-i README

v-i—a Debian installer using vmdb2

WARNING: Running v-i is like waking up after an alien invasion, in a post-apocalyptic world, with everything you knew or owned gone forever. When you run v-i, it will wipe away everything on that computer. All volume groups will be deleted, all storage drives emptied. Any existing partitions will be lost. Forget any data you used to have, and operating systems you used to have installed. If you don’t know what you’re doing, leave.

v-i installs enough of Debian installed so that the system can be configured with a configuration management system once it’s up an running. v-i isn’t meant to install a full desktop stack or service suite: it’s meant to provide a base on which such can be installed. However, v-i can probably do that, but the author thinks such setup and configuration is better done post-install.

v-i installs a very basic system that is only really suitable as a target for provisioning using your configuration management system of choice (the author uses Ansible). The basic system allows you to log in as root with SSH using the key you provide to v-i. The installer removes all partitions on all drives on the system, and sets up LUKS and LVM2 on all the drives you specify. It sets up the time zone and console keyboard layout you specify. The installed system is fairly basic, but functional. Anything else you’ll have to install and configure yourself.

v-i installs a very basic Debian onto a PC. It’s entirely non-interactive and unhelpful. The author wrote it so that repeated installations would be less of a chore than using the official Debian installer. (Actually, the author thought it’d be a quick, easy hack, and was too stubborn to give up, when it turned out to be a bit tricky. What was meant to be a weekend hack turned into a multi-year project, on and off.)

v-i uses vmdb2 to install onto bare metal hardware. vmdb2 is a program to create a disk image virtual machines with Debian, by the same author. It “installs Debian” to a file representing a hard drive. It’s basically debootstrap, except the target is a disk image instead of a directory. It’s used to create Debian images for Raspberry Pis.

To use v-i to install Debian on a PC:

Example target specification file:

hostname: exolobe5
drive: /dev/nvme0n1

See spec.md for a full description of the target specification file.

With all this configuration in a file, which you can keep in git, you can install a base system repeatedly to a specific computer, and do it the same way every time. If that’s not something you do, then you may want to use the official Debian installer instead.

(Caveat: v-i does nothing to configure your BIOS/UEFI. It can’t. You have to manually configure it the way you want it to be. For example, one of the author’s machines needs to have its boot order adjusted after every operating system installation. It’s quite tedious.)

Motivation

The official Debian installer is often referred to as d-i. It works quite well, for almost any hardware Debian can run on, and supports a lot of languages, and it’s flexible enough to be acceptable for nearly every use case. Millions upon millions of people are satisfied users of it. It is a great achievement of Debian, and the people of the debian-boot team.

However, the v-i author felt it was lacking for their needs:

If v-i isn’t suitable for your uses, that’s OK. The author is happy with his toy.

Architecture

vmdb2 is given a sequence of steps to execute: create this partition, make that file system, install those packages, etc. vmdb2 runs the steps against a disk image or physical hard drive, with a chroot of the file systems, to do things like installing a package in the system being installed.

v-i defines a fairly minimal standard install, whose goal is to get the target system into a state where it boots from its own, internal storage, and where the rest of the system configuration can be finished using your configuration management system of choice. The standard system looks like this:

While vmdb2 can, and does, run Ansible to configure the system being installed, in practice some things work better if most configuration is done to a running system; if nothing else, some Ansible modules don’t work well in a chroot. The goal of v-i is to get a system into that state as quickly and easily as possible. For example, the Ansible module to set a hostname on a system with systemd requires systemd to be running. That’s awkward while the system is still being installed in a chroot.

Thus, v-i does the following:

v-i uses the vmdb2 caching feature, where the results of debootstrap and some other steps get stored in a compressed tar archive. On subsequent runs, if the cache file exists, it’s unpacked, instead of running the commands. This speeds things up a bit: running v-i without the cache file takes the author about 5 minutes; with the cache file it takes about 1.5 minutes. This matters if there is a need to do many installations. It also matters if you’re developing an installer and need to run it tens of times a day.

Hacking

The main files of v-i are:

Also, to build an image to boot off for running the installer:

See the tutorial about ways to add your SSH public key to the image so that you can log into the installer via SSH.

You probably mostly only need to modify v-i and std.yml. The rest is to get you and your target machine into a state where you can run the installer. If you have a working installer image, you can update those two files by copying new versions into place: this is much faster than building a whole new installer image.

Building the installer image

To build the installer image, run the following on a Debian system with the required dependencies installed and access to the Internet:

sudo ./build-installer.sh ~/installer.tar.gz

The file name argument, ~/installer.tar.gz, specifies what file to use to cache the output of debootstrap between runs of the script. The cache is created if it doesn’t exist, and is used to speed up repeated builds significantly. You need to use different cache if you change the deboottrap or apt steps in the installer.vmdb file.

FAQ

This section is prescient: the author hasn’t been asked any questions yet, but expects the following to be asked.

What version of Debian does v-i install?

v-i installs the Debian stable release, by default. That’s version 12 (bookworm) at the time of writing this. You can install other versions by setting the debian_release field in the target specification file. Any version from Debian 11 onward should work.

What about other releases of Debian?

The Debian 11 (bullseye) release is the earliest release the author has gotten to work with v-i.

Is only UEFI supported?

Yes.

Why is BIOS (without UEFI) not supported?

All of the author’s PCs have UEFI, and the author doesn’t care to do the work to add support for BIOS.

What about multi-boot?

v-i doesn’t support installing more than one operating system on one computer. The author has no need for this.

What about installing something else than Debian?

The author only cares about Debian, but in principle, fairly little of vmdb2 and v-i are specific to Debian. It should be possible to add support for other operating systems to be installed, at least ones based on Linux. If you’re interested, you need to change or replace at least the following steps in vmdb2 code, and then change the v-i script to generate a specification using those steps:

What about other kinds of computers than PCs?

The author only uses 64-bit PC computers (amd64 arhitecture in Debian; also known as x86-64). v-i may well work for other kinds of computers, as long as they can boot off an installer image (“live image”), and use GRUB for booting. The author would be interested to hear if that is the case.

Why is the LUKS password in cleartext?

It would be ideal if v-i (or vmdb2) got the LUKS password for full disk encryption in a secure way from a secure source, but that turned out to be tricky to do. The author felt it was too tricky to do well in the installer environment, while it’s pretty easy to do in a running system. Thus, the cleartext password in the installer is a compromise. You’re expected to change the password after the installation is done.

It would be possible to ask the person doing the installation to enter the password manually, but this would mean the installation would not be fully automated. The author didn’t want that.

Do I have to use Ansible?

No. Use whatever you like once you’ve installed a system with v-i and booted it. v-i itself uses Ansible, because that was easy for the author to use.

Can I use wifi?

The installer image has all the wifi firmware packages in Debian and iwd installed, but does not automatically connect to a wifi network. To connect:

iwctl station wlan0 get-networks
iwctl stations wlan0 connect Valkama

The first command lists available networks. The second one connects to a specific one. WPA2 with pre-shared keys (passwords) is supported.

iwctl and iwd remember the network you’ve connected to, and will connect to one automatically in the future after booting.

To avoid having to connect manually even once, you can add the following lines to the configure-installer (or write-config.sh) configuration file:

wifi_name: Valkama
wifi_password: notopen

The installed system is plain Debian, and you can configure it to support wifi as you would any other Debian system. The v-i installer does copy over the wifi credentials to the installed system.

I’d like to use v-i, but I need changes

If you can make the changes yourself, go ahead: this is free and open source software, have at it. If you don’t have the skill or time to make changes yourself, you’ll need to find someone else to make them. This might require paying them.

The author is, unfortunately, probably not willing to spend their free time to make changes that don’t benefit them directly, for free. Sorry. They are willing to review and merge changes that would make the software better. (Also, the author is willing to be paid for such work, for corporate customers. Unfortunately, invoicing private people is too complicated.)

Why write v-i, when X, Y, and Z already exist?

The author likes writing software, and dislikes evaluating software.

Legalese

Copyright 2018-2022 Lars Wirzenius

This program is free software: you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation, either version 3 of the License, or (at your option) any later version.

This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the GNU General Public License for more details.

You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License along with this program. If not, see http://www.gnu.org/licenses/.