How do I do a bare-metal install (Debian) without a monitor+keyboard?

submitted by MigratingtoLemmy

I don't have spare peripherals like a monitor and a keyboard. How do you suggest I do a bare-metal install of Debian on a computer (meant to be a server)?

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Onno (VK6FLAB)

Also, the word you're looking for is: "headless", as in, "headless install"


You'll waste more time trying to figure out how to do this than it would take to move a monitor and keyboard to the server, do the install, and plug the monitor and keyboard back into your main computer. Once the server is up, you can administer it over the network via ssh.


Definitely agree for a single install. If OP has a bunch of these installs to do, then editing an install USB to configure networking and enable sshd might be worth the effort. Do the install over ssh and hope the machine starts up as desired, but even then, if it doesn't just magically appear on the network, he's going to need a monitor to see where the startup failed.

Raspberry Pi's disk imager will let you pre-configure networking, accounts, and ssh, so you just write the image to an SD card, plug it in, and go. That's a great solutions for systems usually meant to be headless and removable media. If OP's client hardware allows, he could plug in the M2 or SATA drive meant to be the server's startup, install Deb there, and. transfer to the server hardware. That's definitely more work that just swapping the keyboard & monitor, but it accomplishes OP's stated goal. (Otherwise, a lot of this thread follows the linux meme of "How do I [X]?" "[X] is dumb, do [Y] instead.")


Agreed on all counts.

My reply initially had a "if you had a fleet of these things..." addendum, but OP's post read (to me) as though he was converting commodity hardware into a makeshift home server, so I removed it because it was almost certainly not relevant.

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

True, it's just that I'd like to avoid purchasing more useless stuff. I might move in a few months and maybe carry these computers but I definitely won't be able to take my monitor. Just going to be a waste of money, and I'm trying to be frugal.

I am planning to build a small cheap DIY KVM using PiKVM and cheap Aliexpress parts (Raxda's Zero 3W or the Banana Pi Zero, not sure if they are supported though) in about $25 which I can probably carry around


While I agree with most people here that finding a keyboard and screen would be the easiest option, you do have a couple of other options:

  • Use a preseed file A preseed lets the installer run completely automatically, without user intervention. Get it to install a basic system with SSH and take it from there. You'll want to test the install in a VM, where you can see what's going on before letting it run on the real server. More information here:

  • Boot from a live image with SSH Take a look at in particular 'Debian Live'. It looks like ssh is included, but you'd want to check the service comes up on boot. You can then SSH to the machine and install to the harddrive that way. Again, test on a VM until you know you have the image working, and know how to run the install, then write it to a USB key and boot the tsrget server from that.

This all assumes the target server has USB or CD at the top of its boot order. If it doesn't you'll have to change that first, either with a keyboard and screen, or via a remote management interface sych as IPMI.


Once upon a time you could use a thing called debootstrap to install Debian on the hard disk in a chroot on another machine, then switch the hdd to the target machine. Not sure if that thing is still around.


Yes, that'll work too, it does involve adding the disk to your machine temporarily though, so just be carefully which disk you format to do it. Please don't ask why I say that, it brings back painful memories...

Possibly linux

You could just use the installer

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

I did look at Preseed and it's probably a good idea if I'm doing many installs at once. I will still look at it but I'll likely have to purchase a monitor anyway. It is unfortunate because I don't have any thrift stores nearby


It's going to be a balance between your time getting an automated approach to work and the cost/effort of getting a monitor. Getting preseed working can be a bit fiddly, but it does mean you've learnt a new skill, getting a monitor sounds like it'll be a pain, and you might only need it once.

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

Exactly. It's junk after that


Putting a simple preseed file on a debian install image is probably going to be your best bet. Assuming you can run a VM on your current machine it shouldn't be too difficult to test it until you're happy with it.

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

I'll have to try that. Thanks!


When i was doing a headless install, i spend a hour or two trying to figure out how to pre setup configs for the debian installer or how to do it over network or what before i finally lugged the new machine to the other room and plugged it into the monitor and keyboard of the main rig, installed it all (and set up ssh so i can later get into from the main rig), and unplugged it.

My point is, even if it isnt trivial to have the keyboard and monitor, it may be much easier to get them than to really do an install without them.

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

I guess so. It's just going to be junk that I can't take with me when I move though


It is possible but I wouldn’t do it. Too much effort for too little result.

Just plug your main monitor / keyboard into the server, run the setup and don’t install a DE. Afterwards login, enable SSH, unplug the monitor and do whatever you need over SSH.

Let’s face it, you’ll have to do this procedure once every xyz years, there’s no point in complicating this stuff. Also depending on your motherboard you may or may not be able to boot into the installer without a screen / keyboard attached. Another option is to install the OS in another computer and the move the hard drive to the target server - this is all fine until you run into UEFI security or another detail and it doesn’t boot your OS.

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

All I have is a laptop. I'm getting these machines for free from a friend


I picked up a second hand monitor from a goodwill shop for like $7USD. It would be worth having a display of some sort for troubleshooting.


Yeah at those price points it isn't worth it at all to attempt a headless install.


You're going to want a monitor and keyboard anyway. It's going to be pretty hard to troubleshoot a boot issue in the future without them.


yep, a tiny boot error and suddenly you need to punch commands into initramfs. good luck with that headlessly.


Take out the hard drive out of your laptop and put the drive for the server in it, install Debian using the built in monitor and keyboard of your laptop.

TCB13 , edited

Well I see your problem, but you're going to have a bad time without a screen. Maybe you can get something second hand / cheap or even ask a friend to borrow one for a few days?


PXE boot? It must be enable in the bios already. Then you could prep a image and deploy it that way.

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

I don't think it's enabled, but I guess I can't check

Onno (VK6FLAB)

The traditional way is to use a serial console from another device.


Plug drive in main computer, install Debian on it along with network config and SSH access, put drive back into server and power on.

I guess technically you can also make an ISO that will just auto wipe the drive and install upon booting it but you still need a keyboard to get into the boot menu.

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

Yes that's an option I'm looking at. Thanks


Usually I want to see the BIOS settings at least once. So that's enough reason to carry a keyboard + monitor there.

Otherwise that network boot option with a TFTP server comes to my mind. But I have never tried it on a new, empty machine.


My go-to solution is to use a vm and pass it raw access to the os disk on my normal desktop. Then I just put the disk into the server.


Ipmi interface?

tal , edited

I would suggest, unless you have a very unusual situation, that you're going to have an easier time of it with a keyboard and display.

If your computer can do HDMI out, you can use a television as display.

In all seriousness, unless this is some kind of super-exotic situation (like, you're on a sailboat in the middle of the Pacific and are suddenly needing to set up a Debian server) I would probably get an inexpensive USB keyboard to keep around. Even if you don't normally need it (like, you use a laptop or something) there are a number of situations that it solves, like "one of my laptop keys has just stopped working" or "I actually need to work on some kind of computer that doesn't have an integrated keyboard".


That's not gonna be a very pleasant typing experience, but it's under $4 for two, if you're determined to spend as little as possible.

If you can't get access to a television, here's a small, 640x480 USB/HDMI display under $50:

I'd probably get a larger display, maybe used -- I mean, *maybe* you think that you're never gonna need to look at a computer's output again, but you might find yourself troubleshooting a machine like this one, and 640x480 is a kind of significant limitation -- but that's at least a baseline.

If you specifically don't want a keyboard, and if you have some *other* device with a display and text input and USB (well, or serial) support, I'd bet that the Debian installer can probably handle an RS-232 serial console install.



But I'm guessing that you don't have the serial hardware. Having a USB-to-serial adapter is another thing that I keep one of around because *every now and then* I need to work on headless devices that have a serial interface, but I'll concede that the serial port is getting pretty elderly.

I'd probably get a USB-to-serial male and USB-to-serial female adapter if neither end has an existing serial port (which these days, with desktop hardware, may be very possible). Something like this:


But then you have to be sure that you can get your machine to boot into the Debian install media. On machines that are designed to be run headless, routers and such, it's common for the BIOS to support a serial interface. On desktop machines...not so much. So if it's already configured to boot off USB, that may be fine, but if it's not, well....

Debian also has a fully-automated installer, as long as you can set your machine up to boot into it without a keyboard or display:

That kind of thing is normally more used to set up VMs or manufacture hardware.

I would be very careful with that thing and probably wipe it after you use it, since it's gonna be a USB key that wipes computers if you reboot and they're set to boot off USB.

It almost certainly isn't a great fit for your use case -- like, the time you're probably going to expend setting it up isn't going to be worth whatever you'd save spending on hardware -- but mentioning it for completeness.

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

Thank you, having a serial port would be amazing but unfortunately, unlike UART on microcontrollers I'm using x86. Sometimes I think I should just have stuck to a laptop as a server with some SSDs in it and the other machines being ARM/RISC-V. Definitely would have been more fun

Possibly linux

Can you remove the boot disk?

Possibly linux

Do you have a second computer running Linux? If you do install virtual manager and then pass though the disk. (LUN passthough)

Next boot the VM with the Debian installer and install. Finally shutdown the VM and plug it into the physical device.

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]



Connect it to your PC or laptop and do a netinstall. Configure SSHD and a static ip. Plugin the disk to your server and then connect via ssh to admin it.

You could also set your laptop or PC to boot from the attached disk in the bios to test the services you want to start are starting

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

Planning to do that yes


Buy a keyboard and monitor


If OP has a thrift store nearby it's pretty likely they can get both for under $30.


I bought a 21 inch 1080p Viewsonic monitor from a thrift store just the other day for $6. I got it just for this use case.

I had a spare for this purpose up until about a month ago when the backlight went out on one of my daily drivers.

Also, a couple of days ago I got a pretty nice steelcase apex 3 keyboard with RGB lights for $5.

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

No thrift stores nearby though

changeableface , edited

I use a KVM over IP.

I made my own tiny pilot device for less than £100 and it has worked flawlessly for a few years.

This assumes your server has a hdmi output, if not you will need a VGA to hdmi or similar converter, danger of it becoming a bit of a hodge-podge of adapters, but hey, if it works, it works!

vividspecter , edited

There's a bunch of other variants like PiKVM and BIiKVM as well. Even some cheap knockoffs on Aliexpress that may do the job.

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

I'm planning to use a Raxda Zero 3W/Banana Pi Zero for this. Do you think this will suffice? I don't need speed or power, it just needs to be usable.


I've no experience with either of those devices. So long as they're comparable in terms of USBC features (otg) to emulate the keyboard and mouse then you should be good as the overhead of running the software seems to be minimal from my usage.

Without that, you'll get video without keyboard and mouse support.

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

Thanks, I'll take a look!

Deckweiss , edited

Not sure about debian, but the archlinux iso has ssh on per default, so if you have no other bootable drives in your server other than the usb with the iso, just fire it up and try to connect to it via ssh.

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

Arch linux install wouldn't be a problem really because the way the install is done. Pretty sure I could it all over SSH. Unfortunately, Debian isn't exactly that..

rtxn , edited

If you really, *really, really* don't want to buy a keyboard and monitor, you can buy a USB KVM console, but it'll likely cost more. Something like this:

MigratingtoLemmy [OP]

Wow that's expensive. But thanks something to keep in mind. I'm planning to build my own $25 KVM with Chinese parts off of Aliexpress and PiKVM (if that's possible)


A Debian preseed I guess

Decronym , edited

Acronyms, initialisms, abbreviations, contractions, and other phrases which expand to something larger, that I've seen in this thread:

Fewer Letters More Letters
IP Internet Protocol
SATA Serial AT Attachment interface for mass storage
SSD Solid State Drive mass storage
SSH Secure Shell for remote terminal access

4 acronyms in this thread; the most compressed thread commented on today has 3 acronyms.

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