Archive for February, 2012

Boot disks

February 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Sooner or later in the life of a network administrator, a time will come when you need to fix a broken computer. Hardware faults aside, the more common problems are malware infested Windows systems or Windows that won’t boot. Sometimes you need to run diagnostics on the computer but can’t do it inside Windows for various reasons. Enter the boot disk.

The boot disk has come a long way from the humble floppy you could make with Windows 95/98. Now with a USB flash drive, you can do anything from scan a computer to cloning it or preparing to deploy Windows. I’ve been playing with boot disks lately, and I’ve found a couple of tools I really like so far.

1) Windows 7 Recovery Disk

Windows 7 recovery

You can make this boot disk inside Windows 7 by going to Control Panel, Backup and Restore. Click the link on the left to make a system repair disk. Insert a blank CD and follow the steps. This disk is perfect for basic to moderate troubleshooting, and lets you restore your computer from a backup which is very handy. As far as I know, this is available in all editions of Windows 7.

2) Ultimate Boot CD


Freely downloadable from, this is a tool that is part DOS based, part Linux based. I like the inclusion of Parted Magic, a small and lightweight Linux distro that can do many useful tasks. Resizing partitions, running hardware diagnostics, resetting forgotten Windows user passwords and more, it is a Swiss Army Knife in any technicians toolkit. The disk can also be transferred to a USB stick, as well as further customised with additional tools.

There are other boots disks I’ve played with as well, including the ESET System Rescue CD and the Ultimate Boot CD for Windows (a project inspired by the above project). The ESET System Rescue CD basically boots up into a Windows PE environment and launches a copy of NOD32 anti-virus, which can be used to scan the local computer for infections from outside Windows. This is sometimes the only way to get rid of certain nasties that bury themselves deeply into Windows.

I suggest keeping a few boot cd’s/USB drives around, as you never know when you’ll need the disk to rescue or repair a computer. These tools are a vital part of any admin’s toolkit, as essential as a set of screwdrivers.

USB boot in VirtualBox

February 5, 2012 Leave a comment

VirtualBox is a great piece of free virtualization software. I’ve been using it for years to tinker with various operating systems and software products. Lately I’ve been playing with boot disks. This isn’t a problem if you intend to use an ISO file or a physical disk in VBox, but if you want to use an USB flash drive to test things out, you can’t do so. Or, I should rather say that you can’t easily do so.

In order to get VBox to boot off an USB flash drive, you will need to do the following:

  1. Open up a command prompt. Under Windows Vista/7, right click on it and run it as an Administrator.
  2. Type in Diskpart. Once Diskpart has loaded, type in list disk. Your flash drive should appear near the bottom of the list. Make a note of which Disk number it is. Exit Diskpart.
  3. Back in the command prompt, change to the C:\Program Files\Oracle\VirtualBox folder.
  4. Type in the following code: VBoxManage internalcommands createrawvmdk -filename path\to\usb.vmdk -rawdisk \\.\PhysicalDrive1
  5. Change the number at the end of PhysicalDrive 1 to match that of step 2.
  6. Right click your VBox shortcut and run it as an Administrator if you are on Windows Vista/7. Create or modify a virtual machine to use the VMDK file created above. The file is located in the root of your user profile. Make sure that the file is set for IDE Primary Master.

You should now be able to start your virtual machine using the USB flash drive as the boot device. Very useful if you need to test out recovery software etc…

Hopefully one day VirtualBox will be able to boot from USB without needing to go through these hoops.