DIY: Build a Custom Minimal Linux Distribution from Source

Follow along with this step-by-step guide to build your own distribution from source and learn how it installs, loads and runs.

When working with Linux, you easily can download any of the most common distributions to install and configure—be it Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, OpenSUSE or something entirely different. And although you should give several distributions a spin, building your own custom, minimal Linux distribution is also a beneficial and wonderful learning exercise.

When I say "build a custom and minimal Linux distribution", I mean from source packages—that is, start with a cross-compiling toolchain and then build a target image to install on a physical or virtual hard disk drive (HDD).

So, when I think of the ultimate Do-It-Yourself (DIY) guide related to Linux, it's got to be exactly this: building a Linux distribution from source. The entire process will take at least a couple hours on a decently powered host machine.

If you follow along with this exercise, you'll learn what it takes to build a custom distribution, and you'll also learn how that distribution installs, loads and runs. You can run this exercise on either a physical or virtual machine.

I'd be lying if I said that this process wasn't partly inspired by the wonderful Linux From Scratch (LSF) project. The LSF project proved to be an essential tool in my understanding of how a standard Linux operating system is built and functions. Using a similar philosophy, I hope to instill some of the same wisdom to you, the reader, if you'd like to follow along.

Terms

  • Host: the host signifies the very machine on which you'll be doing the vast majority of the work, including cross compilation and installation of the target image.
  • Target: the target is the final cross-compiled operating system that you'll be building from source packages. It'll be built 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 a target architecture or microprocessor that isn't compatible with the host machine.

Prerequisites and Tools

To continue with this tutorial, you'll need to have GCC, make, ncurses, Perl and grub tools (specifically grub-install) installed on the host machine.

In order to build anything, you'll also need to download and build all the packages for the cross compiler and the target image. I'm using the following open-source packages and versions for this tutorial: