As I know it is possible to boot up some bootable images (like Linux, Clonezilla, management applications and others) over a PXE (Preboot Execution Environment) server with an Ethernet device (802.3).

Can the same thing be done with an Ethernet WiFi (802.11) device? I tested with my notebook but my BIOS appears to not enable booting from WiFi devices. Is it possible with some specific WiFi cards and/or a specific BIOS?

  • I never heard of it, but its theoretically possible... – soandos Jul 15 '11 at 13:04
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    One of the main challenges is going to be convincing the bios to activate the wireless NIC and getting it to join your WLAN, before broadcasting the "I'm ready to boot!" signal. I'm unaware of any bios that supports that kind of wireless NIC control. – Babu Jul 15 '11 at 13:29

At least one vendor has solved netbooting over Wi-Fi, but you're not likely to be able to do with with mix-and-match motherboards and Wi-Fi adaptors at this time.

You can boot MacBook Airs via Wi-Fi, as long as another machine on the network is sharing a Mac OS X install DVD via Mac OS X's DVD sharing feature. Since MBA's don't necessarily come with an optical drive or Ethernet adaptor, this can be the only way for some users to do a clean OS install.

Apple has built drivers for those Wi-Fi chipsets, as well as a UI for joining a Wi-Fi network, into the EFI bootROM on those models. As far as I know this is an Apple proprietary scheme, not PXE-based.

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    Really nice, good answear, thank you very much for explain. – Diogo Jul 15 '11 at 17:34
  • Would some other PXE image work? Or is there some OS X-only check somewhere? – WhyNotHugo Aug 8 '12 at 20:54
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    @Hugo I wasn't answering the PXE part of it specifically. I don't believe Apple's solution for Wi-Fi netbooting uses PXE at all. I'll update my Answer to make that more clear. The main thing I was trying to convey is that your bootROM (motherboard firmware) has to have a driver for your Wi-Fi device, if you want to be able to netboot over Wi-Fi. Apple has solved that problem their own way. – Spiff Aug 8 '12 at 21:14
  • Oh, right. I should have realized this anyway. :P – WhyNotHugo Aug 9 '12 at 18:41

If your WLAN adapter doesn't support PXE, then no, you can't do PXE over wireless.

If your laptop has an Ethernet adapter, however, you can connect it to a wireless access point that can function as a bridge (or a dedicated wireless bridge). I've tried it myself, but it was too slow, I'd rather just move the laptop near an Ethernet switch/router.

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  • I enjoyed your solution, liking or not, its a way to boot over Wifi. +1 – Diogo Jul 15 '11 at 17:18
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    One of our robots boots over long-range 900Mhz WLAN using this exact technique. – Tim Williscroft Jul 20 '11 at 6:16

Google for "iPXE". they claim to have support for booting off of a wireless network and even a web address. Also you might be able to flash their ROM over your wireless card's ROM instead of booting from the test iso you can download

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It looks like the guys over at Etherboot have provisional support for booting off a Wifi card. only a couple of cards supported, but you may be lucky...

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iPXE has development support for ath5k, and apparently now ath9k wireless chips, and I'm assuming also the 818x RALINK chips that gPXE was developing.

Note that you'll be doing a lot of compiling and there won't be any handy guides to help you.

Note also that you won't be able to burn a PXE image onto a wireless card itself, but you should be able to do so with a wired LAN or a motherboard.

Also note - this doesn't apply to USB.

It's hard to get a handle on where to start, but you should probably download the source from ipxe.org, and try https://www.google.com.au/search?q=site%3Aipxe.org+ath5k

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There are some wireless network cards that recieve power even in an "off" state which can use "Wake-on-WLAN" but as for PXE boot over wireless I think, while interesting, would be a) very slow (compared to ethernet) and b) only preferable for very small distro enviroments.

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I would say that, no, you cannot 'technically' PXE boot from wireless with consumer-class equipment because the wireless has not been loaded at the time PXE loads. 2 options I can think of:

  1. Pay to buy a "wake-on-lan" wireless device for each machine.
  2. Go low-tech and hardwire the PXE machines to wireless access points... then you're hardwired to a device that does have wireless loaded!
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As per my experience, I have some computers having a wireless antenna. They had a very small ssd hard disk of 512M. I installed on that small hard disk iPXE. Unfortunately the specific computers may not boot normally via pxe ( neither via external storage for security reasons).

So at boot the iPXE console appears. So I am able by hand to get an ip for the wired or wireless adapter. I am also able via commands to download an initrd.img and vmlinuz images and boot. Probably iPXE uses bios calls that allow for that ( it may not be true on an other platform). The image that I loaded was from an ltsp server. I you arrive to that point you may also load any remote image as e.g. The problem afterwards was that the kernel loaded hadn't the drivers for the specific card. So I had to add them to the initrd and do some mangling in order to finaly be able to arrive to the final connection. So yes under conditions wireless PXE boot works if the mother boards supports it. So I was finally able to have a complete wireless LTSP client.

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My guess is that for 10-12 users the wifi should be ok.
If you needed more then you'd need to setup separate access points using different channels/frequencies.

Industry testing has shown that enterprise 802.11n APs can achieve 150+ Mbps aggregate throughput under real world test conditions (see Cisco/Intel test and Network World test). However, it is not uncommon for 15 or more users to associate with the same AP. Therefore the average throughput per user will vary as the number of users per AP varies.

So a wireless N boot given some forethought and understanding of limits of users etc. should at least equal or beat 10Mbps ethernet up until the number of users sharing the wifi access point are enough to reduce throughput, increase latency etc.

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