Linux Serial Consoles for Servers and Clusters

The more Linux servers you're responsible for, the more that serial consoles can save you money, space and headaches by easing remote administration duties.
Bootloader Configuration: SYSLINUX

SYSLINUX is a bootloader designed for use with DOS/FAT formatted bootable floppies. Red Hat/Fedora Core Linux uses SYSLINUX for both the install boot and rescue floppies. In order to install or recover from boot floppies over serial console, the floppies need to be modified. We have added the console= and text directive to the append line, and we have removed the extra boot selections present in Red Hat's original file. The first line initializes and directs SYSLINUX to use serial port 0 (aka /dev/ttyS0) and defaults to 9600n8. Using this modified boot floppy, we can install the OS over the serial console. Red Hat's text installation option works quite nicely this way. Using the above modifications, you can convert any SYSLINUX boot floppy to use serial consoles. This procedure also works for ISOLINUX, which is a spinoff of SYSLINUX used on bootable CD-ROMs.

Enabling Logins and Tuning

As stated before, the console can become a login terminal after the system is up. For this to happen, the getty entries in /etc/inittab must be modified. The standard /etc/inittab starts mingetty on virtual consoles only. Because mingetty is not suitable for serial terminals, we must use something else. Many getty-type programs are available, but agetty is included with almost every Linux distribution, so we use it. Also, make sure the system boots to nongraphical mode, normally runlevel 3. Some Linux distributions default to an X login, usually at runlevel 5, if any X packages were installed. The default runlevel is determined on the initdefault line. To enable agetty on serial lines, you can modify the initdefault line in /etc/inittab:


and add a line for agetty:

co:2345:respawn:/sbin/agetty ttyS0 9600 vt100

This tells agetty to start waiting for logins on /dev/ttyS0 at 9,600bps, using vt100 terminal emulation. You may want to keep the original mingetty entries to allow a directly attached keyboard and monitor to be used for logins. If not, simply comment them out. Where root can log in from is controlled strictly; in order for root to log in from ttyS0, you must add the device to the /etc/securetty file.

Finally, if your system has created a /etc/ file, delete or rename it. This file is used to save console settings between reboots. If the system was booted using a directly attached keyboard and monitor, this file attempts to restore improper settings. A new one is created when you reboot using the serial console.

Tweaking for Red Hat/Fedora Core

Red Hat's bootup scripts use escape sequences, so the OK, PASS and FAIL messages show up in color. This can confuse serial consoles, so it is best to disable it. Simply modify /etc/sysconfig/init, and change the BOOTUP= line to say BOOTUP=serial. This will prevent the use of color messages.


Serial cabling can cause some confusion. Basically, there are two kinds of serial ports, DCE (Data Communication Equipment) and DTE (Data Terminal Equipment). The ports differ in how specific signals are connected to pins on the connector. Data communication with serial ports uses separate transmit and receive wires, so when connecting two pieces of equipment together, one must make sure the transmit wire on one side connects to the receive wire on the other side. As long as you are connecting a DCE device to a DTE device you can use a regular straight-through cable, where each pin is connected to the same pin on the other side of the cable. If you are connecting devices of the same type, however, you must use a special cable or adapter, called a null modem, so the signals are swapped properly. DTE devices usually are terminals, computers and printers. DCE devices are designed to connect directly to computers, such as modems and serial mice.

In addition to the data transmit and receive wires, a number of handshaking signals are used to control the flow of data, so one side is not talking too fast for the other to understand. These signals also must be swapped by the null modem. To add to the confusion, two popular connectors are in use for serial ports, the 9-pin DB9 and the 25-pin DB25. These can come in both male and female varieties. In almost every case, the devices used for serial consoles (terminals, computers and console servers) are all DTE, which means you need a null modem of some sort. These are available in the form of adapters and cables. Most off-the-shelf units work fine, but if you want to solder your own, check the on-line Resources section for links to pinouts and cable diagrams.



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Very helpful

Gong Cheng's picture

Even though it was written 3 years ago, still want to say thank you for this helpful article.