Network Booting FreeBSD

Installing an operating system is easy for a computer or two.  What about installing for multiples of them?  In some situations, one wants to save money and time from buying that many boot devices and maintain the disk images separately.  Network boot comes handy.  It is relatively easy with FreeBSD, especially since we do not need whatever RAM disk image just to load whatever drivers.

The idea is, we have one computer holding the disk image, and let other computers obtain the image from there and start their journeys.  We first let these computers obtain their network information.  Together with the network configuration, these computers also get the location to download the network boot loader.  With the network boot loader, they will able to mount a network file system.

I tried to avoid GPL software.  Otherwise I would have tried something more integrated.  Anyway, that software piece got discovered huge vulnerabilities recently…


I will assume you have your cloud environment, with a network isolated from elsewhere.  For example, in Virtual Box, create a “host-only” network and plug in your computers (vtnet1,  To make dynamic IP address allocation possible, one will want to enable promiscuous mode of the interfaces.  Of course, in addition, one will need a out-going “NAT” network for internet access (vtnet0).  I leave other details as readers’ exercise.

Operating System Files

Similar to setting up a full-blown jail or installing without an installer, one needs to deploy a directory to hold the operating system files.  In this exercise, I randomly picked a directory “/compute”.

mkdir /compute
tar Jxf base.txz -C /compute
tar Jxf kernel.txz -C /compute

Dynamic Host Configuration

Typical computers nowadays can be configured to boot from the network in the BIOS.  The first thing such computers do is to of course obtain network configuration.  Therefore, the dynamic host configuration server is the first thing we need to set.  In this practice, I used the OpenBSD DHCP Daemon.  The usage is similar to that described in the handbook.

pkg install dhcpd

The file dhcpd.conf(5) “/usr/local/etc/dhcpd.conf” is as follows.  In short, it allows IP addresses be allocated for 7200 seconds per lease.  And for the subnet, the addresses to can be allocated to the computers dynamically.  The default gateway will be  More importantly, when the computer boots, it should obtain the file “/boot/pxeboot” (from the DHCP server, by default), and mount the NFS location “” as root file system.

default-lease-time 7200;
max-lease-time 7200;
subnet netmask {
  option routers;
  option rootpath "";
  filename "/boot/pxeboot";

And the rc.conf(5) file “/etc/rc.conf” appended as follows.  As you guess it right, just one statement to enable the DHCP server.


Trivial File Transfer

By no means I say the file transfer protocol is trivial.  The so-called “trivial file transfer” is yet another protocol for transferring file without complicated handshakes.  Here I used the package “tftp-hpa”.

pkg install tftp-hpa

By default, it uses the directory “/usr/local/tftp”.  But we can act lazy.  The rc.conf(5) gets appended as follows:

tftpd_flags="-s /compute"

If you concern the security, you should make a single directory (like the default /usr/local/tftp) and copy the file “/compute/boot/pxeboot” there.  Right, one file will do.

Network File System

To let the system boot, we prepare a network file system, and make the /compute accessible.  The exports(5) file “/etc/exports” look as follows:

/compute -network -alldirs -maproot=root

And the rc.conf(5) is appended as follows.  You may want to refer here if you want to run it behind a firewall.


Starting the Services

As a friendly reminder, you will need to enable and start the services – the DHCP daemon, the TFTP daemon, and the network file system.  You will need proper firewall rules to allow network traffic.  In particular, you will need UDP port 67, 68, and 69 for DHCP and TFTP to work.

How it Works

DHCP Requests: At the beginning, the computer tries to obtain network configuration by broadcasting requests.  If you are stuck here, try to fix the DHCP daemon.

螢幕快照 2017-10-20 上午12.21.16

TFTP for Boot Loader: After obtaining the network configuration, the computer tries to obtain the boot loader with TFTP.  If you are stuck here, fix the TFTP configurations.

螢幕快照 2017-10-20 上午12.23.35

Network File System: With the first stage boot loader ready, it tries to mount the network file system.  If you are stuck here, check the network file system configurations.

螢幕快照 2017-10-20 上午12.22.14

The Loader: When you see this screen, most of the services, DHCP, FTFP, and NFS, are already used.  If you are stuck beyond this point, read the error message, and good luck…

螢幕快照 2017-10-20 上午12.23.52


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