Remote Linux Explained

The basics in booting a workstation remotely, the requirements on the network boot kernel and how to configure remote Linux for various applications.
What Is My IP Information? (RARP, BOOTP and DHCP)

When the client boots over the network, whether using PXE or from diskette, it will broadcast its MAC address over the LAN, looking for a server that is conditioned to provide the client's IP information. This is so the client can configure its Ethernet adaptor with the correct IP information and continue the rest of the boot conversation using TCP/IP. There are several methods of providing the IP information to a broadcasting node: RARP, BOOTP and DHCP.


RARP (Reverse Address Resolution Protocol) is the method by which an adaptor's unique 48-bit Ethernet address (its MAC) is associated with an IP address. When a client attempts to boot remotely, it will broadcast its MAC address to all workstations on the physical network. One or more of the workstations will be running the RARPD dæmon, which reads /etc/ethers to make the association between the 48-bit Ethernet address and an IP address and responds to the broadcasting client with its shiny new IP address. After receiving an IP address, the client should initiate a TFTP (Trivial File Transfer Protocol) request to get its image (more about that later). The biggest drawbacks to RARP are that it works only on the local physical network (it's not rebroadcast), and it supplies only a small bit of information, the client's IP address.


BOOTP (Bootstrap Protocol) is a distinct improvement over RARP in that it provides gateway support (booting over a router) and provides far more information to the booting client. In addition to the client's IP address, BOOTP provides the address of the gateway (router), the address of the server, the subnet mask and the boot file (the bootable image for the client). Note that there can be one, and only one, IP address assigned to a particular hardware address.

The biggest drawback to BOOTP is that it assigns IP addresses to MAC addresses in a one-to-one relationship—a specific MAC address always will be assigned the same IP address. If you think about the requirements presented by a mobile office and traveling laptops, this one-to-one relationship proves to be somewhat limiting. In the mobile office scenario, users travel with their laptops and need to log in to a central server only occasionally, to pick up mail or whatever. The rest of the time, their IP address remains unassigned, which is a terrible waste of an IP address. The problem of underused IP addresses is addressed nicely by DHCP.


DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) is a logical successor to BOOTP. In fact, BOOTP is considered somewhat obsolete and has been largely replaced by DHCP. One reason DHCP has surpassed BOOTP in popularity is that DHCP supports dynamic address range assignment, while BOOTP only supports static IP assignment (a single MAC is always assigned the same IP address). The dynamic IP assignment facility of DHCP allows IP addresses to be reused among many nodes. In the mobile office scenario, a node connects to its network and broadcasts its MAC. The server, running the dhcpd dæmon, has allocated a range of IP addresses for mobile nodes and simply assigns the next IP address in the range to the broadcasting node. DHCP also manages the longevity of the IP-address assignment via a DHCP leases file.

The options to DHCP are myriad and beyond the scope of this article. For further investigation, consult The DHCP Handbook by Ralph Droms and Ted Lemon (Pearson Higher Education, 1999).

Transferring the Kernel and Network Loader

After getting its IP information and configuring the adaptor for TCP/IP, the node BIOS typically requests an image over the network. This clear division of IP assignment and image serving is deliberate; it allows for IP assignment and image serving to be potentially served by different machines. TFTP (Trivial File Transfer Protocol) is just the right tool to transfer the image from server to client, since TFTP, unlike its heavier-weight cousin FTP (File Transfer Protocol), does not require a user to log in to get a file. The primitive security built into TFTP is that, by default, TFTP only permits transfer of files from the server's /tftpboot directory. Since this security scheme is fairly well known among system administrators, only public files are put in /tftpboot. In the latest version of tftp-hpa, file-access security was added as well.

Notice that we've been talking about transferring an image—this is because the image can be either a tagged kernel (Etherboot) or a network loader (PXE). If you use Etherboot, the diskette boot method, then BOOTP or DHCP should point to a tagged kernel. If you use true PXE, then BOOTP or DHCP should point to a network loader. In the PXE case, the network loader is loaded into memory and then brings over an untagged kernel via TFTP. To use PXE, the TFTP server must support the “tsize” TFTP option (RFC 1784, RFC 2349). tftp-hpa, by H. Peter Anvin, supports this option and can be obtained at