Home / Linux / Build a Custom Minimal Linux Distribution from Source, Part II

Build a Custom Minimal Linux Distribution from Source, Part II

Follow along with this step-by-step guide to creating your own

In an article
in the June 2018 issue of LJ, I introduced a basic recipe for building your
own minimal Linux-based distribution from source code packages. The guide
started with the compilation of a cross-compiler toolchain that ran on
your host system. Using that cross-compiler, I explained how to build a
generic x86-64 target image,
and the Linux Journal Operating System (LJOS) was born.

This guide builds on what you learned from Part
I, so if you haven’t already, be sure to go through those
original steps up to the point where you are about to package the target
image for distribution.


Here’s a quick review the
terminology from the first part of this series:

  • Host: the host signifies the very machine on
    which you’ll
    be doing the vast majority of work, including cross-compiling and
    installing the target image.
  • Target: the target is the final cross-compiled operating
    system that you’ll be building from source packages. You’ll build it
    using the cross-compiler on the host machine.
  • Cross-Compiler:
    you’ll be building and using a cross-compiler to
    create the target image on the host
    machine. A cross-compiler is built to run on a host machine, but it’s used
    to compile for an architecture or microprocessor that isn’t compatible
    with the target machine.

Gathering the Packages

To follow along, you’ll need the following:

  • busybox-1.28.3.tar.bz2 (the same package used in Part
  • clfs-embedded-bootscripts-1.0-pre5.tar.bz2 (the same package used in Part
  • Dropbear-2018.76.tar.bz2.
  • Iana-etc-2.30.tar.bz2.
  • netplug-
  • sysstat-12.1.1.tar.gz.

Note: I ended up rebuilding this distribution
with the 4.19.1 Linux kernel. If you want to do the same, be sure
to install the development package of the OpenSSL libraries on your host
machine or else the build will fail. On distributions like Debian or
Ubuntu, this package is named libssl-dev.

Fixing Some Boot-Time Errors

After following along with Part I, you will have noticed that during boot time, a couple
errors are generated (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Errors generated
during the init process of a system boot.

Let’s clear out some of those errors. The
first one relates to a script not included in BusyBox:
usbdisk_link. For the purpose of this exercise (and because
it isn’t important for this example), remove the references to
both usbdisk_link and ide_link in the
${LJOS}/etc/mdev.conf file. Refer to the following
diff output to see what I mean (focus
closely on the lines that begin with both sd and

--- mdev.conf.orig      2018-11-10 18:10:14.561278714 +0000
+++ mdev.conf   2018-11-10 18:11:07.277759662 +0000
@@ -26,8 +26,8 @@ ptmx    root:tty 0666
 # ram.*
 ram([0-9]*)     root:disk 0660 >rd/%1
 loop([0-9]+)    root:disk 0660 >loop/%1
-sd[a-z].*       root:disk 0660 */lib/mdev/usbdisk_link
-hd[a-z][0-9]*   root:disk 0660 */lib/mdev/ide_links
+sd[a-z].*       root:disk 0660
+hd[a-z][0-9]*   root:disk 0660

 tty             root:tty 0666
 tty[0-9]        root:root 0600

Now, let’s address the networking-related errors. Create the
${LJOS}/etc/network/interfaces file:

$ cat > ${LJOS}/etc/network/interfaces << "EOF"
> auto eth0
> iface eth0 inet dhcp

Now create the ${LJOS}/etc/network.conf file with the following contents:

# /etc/network.conf
# Global Networking Configuration
# interface configuration is in /etc/network.d/


# set to yes to enable networking

# set to yes to set default route to gateway

# set to gateway IP address

Finally, create the udhcpc script. udhcpc is a small DHCP client
primarily written for minimal or embedded Linux system. It was (or should
have been) built with your BusyBox installation if you followed the steps
in Part I
of this series. Create the following directories:

$ mkdir -pv ${LJOS}/etc/network/if-{post-{up,down},
$ mkdir -pv ${LJOS}/usr/share/udhcpc

Now, create the ${LJOS}/usr/share/udhcpc/default.script file with the
following contents:

# udhcpc Interface Configuration
# Based on http://lists.debian.org/debian-boot/2002/11/
# udhcpc script edited by Tim Riker <[email protected]>

[ -z "$1" ] && echo "Error: should be called from udhcpc"
 ↪&& exit 1

[ -n "$broadcast" ] && BROADCAST="broadcast $broadcast"
[ -n "$subnet" ] && NETMASK="netmask $subnet"

case "$1" in
            /sbin/ifconfig $interface

            /sbin/ifconfig $interface $ip $BROADCAST $NETMASK

            if [ -n "$router" ] ; then
                    while route del default gw dev
                     ↪$interface ; do

                    for i in $router ; do
                            route add default gw $i dev

            echo -n > $RESOLV_CONF
            [ -n "$domain" ] && echo search $domain >>
            for i in $dns ; do
                    echo nameserver $i >> $RESOLV_CONF

exit 0

Change the file’s permission to enable the execution bit for all users:

$ chmod +x ${LJOS}/usr/share/udhcpc/default.script

The next time you boot up the target image (after re-preparing it),
those boot errors will have disappeared.


Figure 2. A Cleaned-Up System Boot

One last thing I want to address is the root user’s
default shell. In my instructions from Part I, I had you set the shell to
ash. For some odd reason, this will give you issues when
attempting to ssh in to the distribution (via Dropbear). To avoid this,
modify the entry in the ${LJOS}/etc/passwd file so that
it reads:


Notice the substitution of ash with
sh. Ultimately, it’s the same shell, as sh
is a softlink to ash.

Re-Configuring the Environment

The cross-compilation build directory and the headers from the previous
article should not have been deleted. Export the following variables (which
you probably can throw into a script file):

set +h
umask 022
export LJOS=~/lj-os
export PATH=${LJOS}/cross-tools/bin:/bin:/usr/bin
unset CFLAGS
export LJOS_HOST=$(echo ${MACHTYPE} | sed "s/-[^-]*/-cross/")
export LJOS_TARGET=x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu
export LJOS_CPU=k8
export LJOS_ARCH=$(echo ${LJOS_TARGET} | sed -e 's/-.*//'
 ↪-e 's/i.86/i386/')
export LJOS_ENDIAN=little
export CC="${LJOS_TARGET}-gcc"
export CXX="${LJOS_TARGET}-g++"
export CPP="${LJOS_TARGET}-gcc -E"
export AR="${LJOS_TARGET}-ar"
export AS="${LJOS_TARGET}-as"
export LD="${LJOS_TARGET}-ld"
export RANLIB="${LJOS_TARGET}-ranlib"
export READELF="${LJOS_TARGET}-readelf"
export STRIP="${LJOS_TARGET}-strip"


Dropbear is a lightweight SSH server and client. It’s especially
useful in minimal or embedded Linux distributions, and that’s why you’ll
be installing it here. But before doing so, change into
the CLFS bootscripts directory (clfs-embedded-bootscripts-1.0-pre5) from the previous part and install
the customized init scripts:

$ make DESTDIR=${LJOS}/ install-dropbear

Now that you’ve installed the init scripts for Dropbear,
install the SSH server and client package. Change into the package
directory, and run the following configure command:

CC="${CC} -Os" ./configure --prefix=/usr --host=${LJOS_TARGET}

Compile the package:

$ make MULTI=1 PROGRAMS="dropbear dbclient dropbearkey
 ↪dropbearconvert scp"

Install the package:

$ make MULTI=1 PROGRAMS="dropbear dbclient dropbearkey
 ↪dropbearconvert scp" DESTDIR=${LJOS}/ install

Make sure the following directories are created:

$ mkdir -pv ${LJOS}/{etc,usr/sbin}
$ install -dv ${LJOS}/etc/dropbear

And, softlink the following binary:

ln -svf /usr/bin/dropbearmulti ${LJOS}/usr/sbin/dropbear
ln -svf /usr/bin/dropbearmulti ${LJOS}/usr/bin/dbclient
ln -svf /usr/bin/dropbearmulti ${LJOS}/usr/bin/dropbearkey
ln -svf /usr/bin/dropbearmulti ${LJOS}/usr/bin/dropbearconvert
ln -svf /usr/bin/dropbearmulti ${LJOS}/usr/bin/scp
ln -svf /usr/bin/dropbearmulti ${LJOS}/usr/bin/ssh

BusyBox (Revisited)

Later in this tutorial, I take a look at the HTTP dæmon
included in the BusyBox package. If you haven’t already, customize the
package’s config file to make sure that httpd is selected
and built:

$ make CROSS_COMPILE="${LJOS_TARGET}-" menuconfig


Figure 3. The Busybox Configuration Menu

Compile and install the package:



The Iana-Etc package provides your distribution with the data for
the various network services and protocols as it relates to the files:
/etc/services and /etc/protocols. The
package itself most likely will come with outdated data and IANA
(Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), which is why you’ll
need to apply a patch
written by Andrew Bradford to adjust the
download location for the data update.

into the package directory and apply the patch:

$ patch -Np1 -i ../iana-etc-2.30-update-2.patch

Update the package’s data:

$ make get

Convert the raw data and IANA into their proper formats:

$ make STRIP=yes

Install the newly created /etc/services and
/etc/protocols files:

make DESTDIR=${LJOS} install


The Netplug dæmon detects the insertion and removal of
network cables and will react by bringing up or taking
down the respective network interface. Similar to the
Iana-Etc package, the same Andrew Bradford wrote a patch to
address some issues with Netplug.

into the package directory and apply the patch:

$ patch -Np1 -i ../netplug-

Compile and install the package:

$ make && make DESTDIR=${LJOS}/ install


This is a simple one, and although you don’t necessarily need this package,
let’s install it anyway, because it provides a nice example of how
other packages are to be installed (should you choose to install more on
your own). Sysstat provides a collection of monitoring utilities, which
include sar, sadf, mpstat, iostat, tapestat, pidstat, cifsiostat and
sa tools.

Change into the package directory and configure/compile/install the package:

$ ./configure --prefix=/usr --disable-documentation
$ make
$ make DESTDIR=${LJOS}/ install

Installing the Target Image (Again)

You’ll need to create a staging area to remove
unnecessary files and strip your binaries of any and all debugging symbols,
but in order to do so, you’ll need to copy your entire target build
environment to a new location:

$ cp -rf ${LJOS}/ ${LJOS}-copy

Remove the cross-compiler toolchain and source/header files from the copy:

$ rm -rfv ${LJOS}-copy/cross-tools
$ rm -rfv ${LJOS}-copy/usr/src/*

Generate a list of all static libraries and remove them:

$ FILES="$(ls ${LJOS}-copy/usr/lib64/*.a)"
$ for file in $FILES; do
> rm -f $file
> done

Strip all debugging symbols from every binary:

$ find ${LJOS}-copy/{,usr/}{bin,lib,sbin} -type f -exec
 ↪sudo strip --strip-debug '{}' ';'
$ find ${LJOS}-copy/{,usr/}lib64 -type f -exec sudo
 ↪strip --strip-debug '{}' ';'

Change ownership of every file to root:

$ sudo chown -R root:root ${LJOS}-copy

And change the group and permissions of the following three files:

$ sudo chgrp 13 ${LJOS}-copy/var/run/utmp
$ sudo chmod 4755 ${LJOS}-copy/bin/busybox

Create the following character device nodes:

$ sudo mknod -m 0666 ${LJOS}-copy/dev/null c 1 3
$ sudo mknod -m 0600 ${LJOS}-copy/dev/console c 5 1

You’ll need to change into the directory of your copy and compress
everything into a tarball:

cd ${LJOS}-copy/
sudo tar cfJ ../ljos-build-10Nov2018.tar.xz *

Now that you have your entire distribution archived into a single file,
need to move your attention to the disk volume on which it will be
For the rest of this tutorial, you’ll need a free disk drive, and it
will need to enumerate as a traditional block device (in my case, it’s

$ cat /proc/partitions |grep sdd
   8       48     256000 sdd

That block device needs to be partitioned. A single partition should
suffice, and you can use any one of a number of partition utilities,
including fdisk or parted. Once that partition
is created and detected by the host system, format the partition with
an Ext4 filesystem, mount it to a staging area and change
into that directory:

$ sudo mkfs.ext4 /dev/sdd1
$ sudo mkdir tmp
$ sudo mount /dev/sdd1 tmp/
$ cd tmp/

Uncompress the operating system tarball of the entire target operating
system into the root of the staging directory:

$ sudo tar xJf ../ljos-build-10Nov2018.tar.xz

Now run grub-install to install all the necessary modules
and boot records to the volume:

$ sudo grub-install --root-directory=/mnt/tmp/ /dev/sdd

The --root-directory parameter defines the absolute path
of the staging directory, and the last parameter is the block device
without the partition’s label.

Once complete, install the HDD to the physical or virtual machine, and
power it up (as the primary disk drive). Within one second, you’ll be
at the operating system’s login prompt.

Note: if you’re planning to load this into
a virtual machine, it’ll make your life much easier if the network
interface to the VM is bridged to the local Ethernet interface of your
host machine.

As was the case with Part I, you never set a root
password. Log in as root, and you’ll immediately fall into
a shell without needing to input a password. You can change this behavior
by using BusyBox’s passwd command, which should have been
built in to this image. Before proceeding, change your root

To test the SSH dæmon, you’ll need to assign an IP address to your
Ethernet port.
If you type ip addr show at the command line,
you’ll see that one does not exist for eth0. To address
that, run:

$ udhcpc

The above command will work only if the udhcpc scripts from earlier were
created and saved to the target area of your distribution. If successful,
rerunning ip addr show will show an IP address for
eth0. In my case, the address is

On a separate machine, log in to your LJOS distribution via SSH:

$ ssh [email protected]
The authenticity of host ' ('
 ↪can't be established.
RSA key fingerprint is SHA256:Jp64l+7ECw2Xm5JjTXCNtEvrh
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)? Yes
[email protected]'s password:
~ #

Violà! You’re officially remotely connected.

There is so much more you can do here. Remember earlier, when I requested
that you double-check that BusyBox is building its lightweight HTTP
dæmon? Let’s take a look at that.

Create a home directory for the dæmon:

# mkdir /var/www

And using BusyBox’s lightweight vi program, create the
/var/www/index.html file and make sure it contains the following:

<head><title>This is a test.</title></head>
<body><h1>This is a test.</h1></body>

Save and exit. Then manually bring up the HTTP dæmon with the argument
defining its home directory:

# httpd -h /var/www

Verify that the service is running:

# ps aux|grep http
 1177 root      0:00 httpd -h /var/www

On a separate machine and using your web browser, connect to the IP
address of your Linux distribution (the same address you SSH’d to). A
crude HTML webpage hosted by your distribution will appear.


Figure 4. Accessing the Web Server
Hosted from Your Custom Distribution


This article builds on the exercise from my
previous article and added more
to the minimal and custom Linux distribution. It doesn’t need to end
here though. Find a purpose for it, and using the examples highlighted here,
build more packages into it.



>> Source Link

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