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Live CD

Live CDs are a very popular way to distribute operating systems.

How Live CDs work

In order to make a PureDarwin Live CD, we essentially need to do two things:
  1. Hardware detection. Linux Live CDs configure themselves to use the correct drivers. While this is a major breaktrough for Linux distributions, Darwin has been working like this all the time. What this means for PureDarwin is that we essentially have to ensure that we ship a broad range of kexts, and the system does the rest "for free".
  2. Compressed main filesystem. Linux Live CDs contain, besides the kernel, an initrd (a small filesystem) which loads the necessary drivers (roughly comparable to Extensions.mkext), mounts a 700 MB compressed filesystem (roughly comparable to a .dmg) that contains around 2GB of compressed software, switches over ("chroot") to that filesystem, and continues to boot from there. For PureDarwin, we can probably achieve this by using NetBoot disk images locally. 
  3. Union filesystem. Because the main compressed filesystem is read-only, write accesses must be redirected to an overlay/union filesystem. Most Linux Live CDs use unionfs/aufs for this purpose. Darwin can use shadow volumes for the same purpose. A PureDarwin Live CD would attach a shadow volume that is stored in a local ramdisk to the root disk image. Mac OS X does this using the nbdst tool.
If anyone knows more about how to use NetBoot images locally, please join work on the Live CD.

How Mac OS X Installation DVDs work

Mac OS X Installation DVDs are capable of running Mac OS X from a read-only medium. Maybe we can learn from that, hence we are looking at the procedure in this paragraph.

As of Snow Leopard, Mac OS X Installation DVDs contain the launchd LaunchDaemon plist file /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/ with the following content:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple Computer//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "">
<plist version="1.0">

Hence, when the system is booted, the script /etc/rc.install is executed. This script mainly launches the Installer. However, there is also a script /etc/rc.cdrom which does the main magic of mounting ramdisks to 

# (...)

# Disable prebinding-on-the-fly while we're CD booted

# mount root_device to update vnode information
mount -u -o ro /

# (...)

# Create a RAM disk with same perms as mountpoint
  echo "Creating RAM Disk for $mntpt"
  dev=`hdik -drivekey system-image=yes -nomount ram://$rdsize`
  if [ $? -eq 0 ] ; then
    newfs_hfs $dev
    # save & restore fs permissions covered by the mount
    eval `/usr/bin/stat -s $mntpt`
    mount -t hfs -o union -o nobrowse $dev $mntpt
    chown $st_uid:$st_gid $mntpt
    chmod $st_mode $mntpt

RAMDisk /Volumes 1024
RAMDisk /var/tmp 1024
RAMDisk /var/run 1024

RAMDisk /var/db 1024
mkdir -m 1777 /var/db/mds

# language prefs, colorsync need to be able to write some preferences (5424449)
RAMDisk /Library/Preferences 1024
RAMDisk /Library/ColorSync/Profiles/Displays 2048

# use or create the boot cache playlist, and allow B&I to force 32-bit playlist generation
if nvram boot-args | grep "no64exec" ; then

SIXTYFOURBIT=`sysctl -n hw.cpu64bit_capable`

if [ $SIXTYFOURBIT = "0" -o $FORCETHIRTYTWO = "true" ] ; then
echo "using 32-bit bootcache playlist"
BootCacheControl -f /var/db/BootCache.playlist32 start
elif [ $SIXTYFOURBIT = "1" ] ; then
echo "using 64-bit bootcache playlist"
BootCacheControl -f /var/db/BootCache.playlist start

# tell launchd to commence with loading the system.
# for the OS Install environment only, /etc/rc.install is included in this process.
launchctl load -D system

# this script sleeps forever; the installer or startup disk will always reboot the system. 
sleep 9999999

How does this script get called? How can hdik be replaced with what is in Darwin? Please let us know. Perhaps we could use a MacFUSE based ramdisk from

So far, when replacing the above RAMDisk function with one based on MacFUSE's mount_ramdisk, we get
launchctl error: launch_msg(): Socket is not connected
Please let us know if you know how to solve this.

How a PureDarwin Live CD might work

Alternative 1: Uncompressed from disc 

Run the system uncompressed from the CD medium (like PureDarwin nano or like the Mac OS X Install DVD). 

This is not a workable option for two reasons: It's slow (since more data needs to be read from the slow optical disc) and it's too small (700 MB is not much space).

Alternative 2: Using imageboot

The XNU kernel contains some references to "imageboot", e.g., here:

Apparently, one should be able to boot using a boot argument like -v rp=file:///some.dmg
then the system would mount /some.dmg as the root device and continue booting from there.

How this works is largely undocumented. Below is a proof-of-concept for imagebooting PureDarwin nano on a Mac host.

What follows are proof-of-concept instructions that show how to boot into puredarwin.iso (from the PureDarwin nano image on the download page) that is located at / on a Mac running Mac OS X 10.5.4. Please do not try this on a production machine. Only try this if you have a spare Mac.
  • Download PureDarwin nano, it contains puredarwin.iso which we will use as the imageboot image
  • On the Mac running Mac OS X (tested with 10.5.4), copy puredarwin.iso to /
  • Change IOHDIXController.kext and its plug-ins so that they are loaded at boot time
    (normally, this is only the case for NetBoot):
    • cd /System/Library/Extensions/IOHDIXController.kext/
    • find . -type f | xargs perl -i -p -e 'print STDERR \
          "changed $val values on line $. of $ARGV\n" if($val = s@Network-Root@Root@g)'
    • touch /System/Library/Extensions
  • Edit /Library/Preferences/SystemConfiguration/ so that it contains:
    <key>Kernel Flags</key>
    <string>-v rp=file:///puredarwin.iso</string>
  • Reboot the Mac. It should now boot into PureDarwin, running from puredarwin.iso
You have now performed an ImageBoot of PureDarwin nano on a Mac OS X host. 

To undo, remove the extra Kernel Flags from your Boot.plist.

There are (unverified) news reports that cite "ImageBoot" as an official feature in the not-yet-released Snow Leopard:

However, all attempts to make this work on a Darwin host so far resulted in di_root_image failed as it appears that IOHDIXController.kext (a kernel extension from Mac OS X that deals with disk images) and its respective plug-ins must be present and loaded for imageboot to work. Unfortunately, this kext seems not to be available for Darwin at this time (even though this posting suggests that it might be available as a binary root under the Driver License).

According to Singh, the kernel can be forced to use the BSD vndevice instead of hdix by specifying vndevice=1 as a boot argument. In this case, the function netboot_setup() from netboot.c is supposed to mount the file system contained in the vndevice node. But we can't get it to work yet (and it would only work for uncompressed images).

Please let us know if you know if you are aware of a working solution that does not involve IOHDIXController.kext, or where  a recent version of IOHDIXController.kext can be downloaded under a suitable license. (It used to be available under the Apple Binary License, but it made its last appearance in Darwin 6...)

As a totally desperate worst-case fallback scenario: The source code for mounting filesystem images is available, and there is source code for uncompressing compressed DMGs available. Maybe it would be feasible to write a minimal IOHDIXController.kext replacement that is able to mount compressed DMGs. Volunteers?

A set of NetBoot files created by System Image Utility looks like this:


file NetBoot.dmg 
NetBoot.dmg: Apple Partition data block size: 2048, first type: Apple_partition_map, name: Apple, number of blocks: 63, second type: Apple_Driver43, name: Macintosh, number of blocks: 56, third type: Apple_Free, name: , number of blocks: 0, fourth type: Apple_Driver_ATAPI, name: Macintosh, number of blocks: 56

file i386/booter
i386/booter: Universal EFI binary with 2 architectures, i386, x86_64

(to be continued)

Alternative 3: Using a ZFS file

Maybe using a compressed ZFS file and manual trickery...

Shadow files

This is a work in progress.

#!/bin/bash -e -x

mount -uw /

touch /shadowfile

/usr/libexec/vndevice attach /dev/vn0 /uncompressed.dmg
/usr/libexec/vndevice shadow /dev/vn0 /shadowfile

mount -t hfs /dev/vn0 /live/

# /usr/libexec/vndevice detach /dev/vn0