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Remote operating system installation

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Netstarting - How Kickstart/Jumpstart works:

Kickstart (Linux) or JumpStart (Sun/Solaris) (which I will refer to generically from now on in this article as simply "netstarting") is a method of installing and configure systems remotely. In the process the configuration and customization of the client being installed is accomplished automatically via a series of rules you define in advance based on the clients unique system attributes. By using netstarting it is possible to install groups of identical systems easily. This provides system administrators with a tool for configuration and change management and helps provide continuity in a disaster recovery situation. In a best case scenario let's say you have racks of hosts connected to network or SAN attached storage. And let's say a host has failed or you need to scale an application up horizontally by adding a new host. You simply configure the rules or profile for the replacement or new host (usually just a file copy and changing the MAC, IP address and host name information) and away you go. In a lights out operation you don't even have to visit the physical host at all once it's physically installed and racked. In a worst case scenario at the very least you now have a ready recipe for system replacement without locating a bunch of install discs or remembering how to install an application.

While setting up a kick/jumpstart server requires some initial work up front (and lots of testing), the long term benefits of being able to install an operating system quickly (and more importantly in a repeatable prescribed configuration) makes the time investment worthwhile. How this is accomplished is completed slightly differently for Kickstart and Jumpstart and the details I will go into else where (see bottom).

Upon power-up, the client being installed can contact a bootp server on the local network and download a small boot kernel that subsequently brings the machine to a functional state. While this process is very similar to the way disk-less clients function, the netstart-ed client then requests a file or profile on the netstart profile server to determine what to install and configure on the client. A rules file or profile can be viewed as a table that contains one or more rules that define how clients are installed. These rules are based on the client system attributes usually the Media Access Control address (MAC address) of the target system.

There are three unique server functions: the DHCP or name server, the boot/install/bootp server and the net install profiles or rules file server. Normally one host performs all three functions however they can be separate as long as they are on the same physical or logical network. It is possible for these server functions to be on different networks through network router functions however I will leave that as an exercise for the reader. Suffice to say it is is difficult to get right and I highly recommend these three server functions remain local.

The following overall steps outline the procedure to install a client using netstarting (see Figure 1):

1. The install client is turned on and booted

(Intel/Alpha/RS-6000) using PXE boot

(Sun Sparc) with the following command at the boot prom:

   ok boot net - install

In the case of a PXE boot this causes the client to send out a DHCPDISCOVER packet which is picked up by a local DHCP server. The DHCP server then replies by broadcasting a DHCPOFFER packet extended with PXE-specific options (extended DHCPOFFER) to port 68/UDP (DHCP client port). This packet has to be broadcast, since most PXE clients will configure themselves by DHCP and cannot provide their IP address in the extended DHCPDISCOVER. Therefore the client is identified by its GUID/UUID pair. In the case of a Sun Sparc or RS/6000 the client issues a RARP broadcast to determine its IP address. The RARP packet contains the client's Ethernet hardware address. The bootp server responds by providing the client an IP address and other information necessary to function on the network. This is the older classic model. Most modern host hardware now work using the PXE boot method.

2. Once the client has determined its network information, it continues the boot process, loading the install kernel and operating system from the boot/install server using TFTP (old model) newer operating systems can now access the kernel image using NFS or even HTTP. Provisions the operating system and installs it.

Netstarting details:

Now that I have identified the concepts and components needed you are ready to proceed with an actual installation: Kickstart (Linux) or JumpStart (Sun/Solaris).

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Page last modified on December 07, 2009, at 11:26 PM EST