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Is there a way to boot from an external hard drive connected to the device through the USB port (as opposed to booting from the SD card)?

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This is only a link to the actual tutorial, so I leave it as a comment: blog.krastanov.org/2014/01/30/booting-pi-reliably-from-usb –  Krastanov Jan 30 at 21:02
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up vote 24 down vote accepted

It is not possible to boot RPi from USB directly in the true sense of the word. However there's nothing to stop someone from making a mini-distro which would contain /boot and some kind of a boot manager. This could then implement booting from USB or even a PXE style environment. This could fit on a tiny SD card - 64MB cards are now available for pennies. I'm expecting that someone will roll a distribution for this - but haven't found one to date.

In the meanwhile you can move your own root partition onto hard disk to get faster boot times, but it's somewhat involved as you'll need to get a kernel that supports USB storage. Good instructions on how to do this can be found at: http://mitchtech.net/raspberry-pi-root-fs-on-usb-drive/

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This is a good idea. –  Jivings Jun 27 '12 at 9:04
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From the Raspberry Pi FAQ:

You have to boot from SD but a USB HD can “take over” after the initial boot. You cannot boot without an SD card.

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does that mean after the hardisk takes over then there is no need for the memory car anymore ? –  Suhaib May 12 '13 at 22:02
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In raspbian, just change the root flag in /boot/cmdline.txt to root=/dev/sdaX where X is the number of the appropriate partition.

For details on how to get raspbian on your usb, etc, you can check here http://blog.krastanov.org/2014/01/30/booting-pi-reliably-from-usb/

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