Creating a Custom Amazon EC2 AMI from ISO (using OI Hipster)


In this post, I’ll pick up from where I left off last time, and demonstrate one potential way to convert the installation ISO media generated in that post, into an AMI that can be used to create new VMs in the Amazon EC2 environment. It’s important to note a couple things before we start:

  1. While I’ll be generating an AMI based on OI Hipster, this process should be applicable to any Linux or FreeBSD based operating system as well (and quite possibly Windows too, but I don’t know much about that platform).

  2. I make no gaurantees about whether the process that’ll be demonstrated is correct, efficient, or complete. I have little to no expertise in this area, and this is simply a write up of the notes that I took as I was teaching myself how to do this. Just because the process below worked for me, does not necessarily mean it will work for anybody else. Thus, if you’re using this as a guide to create your own custom AMI(s), be aware, YMMV.

With that out of the way, lets get started.

Step 0: Create Template for Root Volume of AMI

The first step that we need to perform, is to create a disk image that’ll be used as the template for the root volume of the AMI that we’ll be creating. If you already have a raw VM disk image that you intend to use as the AMI root volume template, than this step can be skipped. For the sake of completeness, I’m including one possible way to generate this raw disk image, that’ll then be used in later steps.

In order to generate this raw disk image, we’ll create a VM that’ll be used to execute the ISO installer, which will install our operating system (OI Hipster, in my case) onto a “disk”, that we can then upload to Amazon and use as our AMI’s root volume template.

For this guide, I’ll be using a Debian server that’s configured as a Xen host to create the VM and disk image. First, lets create a sparse file that’ll be attached as the VM’s only virtual disk; after the ISO installation completes, this file will be our raw disk image that’ll be converted into the AMI’s root volume.

$ truncate -s 64G ami-template.img

Now, to create the VM, I need to specify the hardware configuration to use. I do this using the following Xen VM configuration:

$ cat <<EOF > ami-template.cfg
> builder='hvm'
> name='ami-template'
> vcpus=4
> memory=4096
> vif=['bridge=xenbr0, type=ioemu']
> disk=[  'file:/root/OpenIndiana_Text_X86.iso,hdb:cdrom,r',
>         'file:/root/ami-template.img,xvda,w' ]
> boot='d'
> vnc=1
> vnclisten=''
> vncconsole=1
> on_crash='preserve'
> xen_platform_pci=1
> serial='pty'
> on_reboot='destroy'

For those unfamilar with Xen’s configuration files, this states that the VM will be given:

With that configuration file generated, we can go ahead and create/start the VM with the following command:

$ xm create ami-template.cfg

With the VM running and it’s console being displayed over VNC, I can then connect to the console and manually walk through the installer’s instructions. After the installer completes, we’ll have a disk image (the ami-template.img file) that’ll be uploaded to Amazon and used to generate the AMI in later steps.

Step 1: Convert Raw Disk Image into Stream Optimized VMDK Format

Now that we’ve run the OI Hipster installer to completion, we should have a ami-template.img file that contains a complete installation of our operating system. While we could upload directly to Amazon as-is, we won’t do this as it’d be an inefficient use of space (and time).

Remember that when we generated the file that we attached to the VM in the previous step, we used a sparse file; we can use ls to see how much space was saved by doing so (as opposed to a non-sparse file):

$ ls -lsh ami-template.img
3.6G -rw-r--r-- 1 root root 64G Feb  5 22:10 ami-template.img

From this output, we can see that while the file is 64G in size, it’s only taking up 3.6G of space. Thus, it’d be great if we could upload only 3.6G (or less) worth of data to Amazon, rather than the full 64G (most of which would be zeros).

That’s what this step is about; rather than uploading the ami-template.img file as-is, which would result in 64G of data being transferred over the network, we’ll convert the file into a “stream optimized” VMDK and upload this converted file. As a result, we’ll only have to send a small fraction (of the original file’s size) of data over the network, when compared to if we hadn’t done this conversion; which is a huge benefit in terms of the latency required to perform the upload.

We’ll use the utility to do the conversion, so first we need to download this tool:

$ wget -O VMDK-stream-converter-0.2.tar.gz \

$ tar -xf VMDK-stream-converter-0.2.tar.gz

$ ls VMDK-stream-converter-0.2
root@kvmserver1:~/psurya# ls -l VMDK-stream-converter-0.2
total 40
-rw-rw-r-- 1 root root 18092 Jun 29  2011 COPYING
-rw-rw-r-- 1 root root   576 Jun 29  2011 README
-rw-rw-r-- 1 root root   120 Jun 29  2011
-rwxrwxr-x 1 root root 11454 Jun 29  2011

And now we can use it to read the original raw disk image, and convert it into the stream optimized vmdk that we want:

$ ./VMDK-stream-converter-0.2/ ami-template.img ami-template.vmdk

After this completes, we can use ls again to see just how much less data will be needed to transfer the disk image using this new format:

$ ls -lsh ami-template.img ami-template.vmdk
 3.6G -rw-r--r-- 1 root root   64G Feb  5 22:10 ami-template.img
1022M -rw-r--r-- 1 root root 1022M Feb  5 22:35 ami-template.vmdk

As one can see, the converted file is much smaller than even the sparse file that we started with; rather than sending 64G over the network, we’ll only have to send about 1G.

Now with our stream optimized VMDK file generated, we can move on to actually performing the upload of this file to Amazon.

Step 2: Download EC2 Tools and Initialize Environment

To perform the upload of the VMDK file that we had just generated, as well as the various other steps involved in creating the AMI, we’ll use the EC2 API Tools provided by Amazon. Thus, the first thing we need to do, is to download these tools (assuming they aren’t already installed).

Step 2.1: Download EC2 API Tools

This is simple, using wget and unzip:

$ wget
$ unzip

The tools will be extracted into a directory named ec2-api-tools, and postfixed with the version of the tools downloaded. In this example, version was downloaded, so the directory containing the tools will be ec2-api-tools-, and we can verify this using ls:

$ ls -l ec2-api-tools-
total 100
drwxr-xr-x 2 root root 36864 Sep  7  2015 bin
drwxr-xr-x 2 root root  4096 Sep  7  2015 lib
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root  4852 Sep  7  2015 license.txt
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root   539 Sep  7  2015 notice.txt
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 46468 Sep  7  2015 THIRDPARTYLICENSE.TXT

Step 2.2: Initialize Necessary Environment Variables

In conjunction with the EC2 API Tools, we’ll also make use of the following environment variables to configure the invocation of the tools. The following is a list of the environment variables that we’ll use in the following sections, as well as a brief description of each:

The following is intended to serve as an example of the values that could be used for these various environment variables:


$ export EC2_URL=
$ export AWS_REGION=us-east-1
$ export AWS_ZONE=us-east-1a

$ export AWS_S3_BUCKET=ivol-openindiana-hipster
$ export AWS_AMI_NAME="OpenIndiana Hipster Testing 2017.02.06 (HVM)"
$ export AWS_AMI_DESC="Hipster is a codename for rapidly moving \
> development branch of OpenIndiana and the development branch from \
> which major releases are made."

Step 3: Import the Stream Optimized VMDK to Amazon S3

Now that we have the EC2 API Tools installed, and the necessary environment variables initialized, we can start the process of uploading our disk image to Amazon, and converting that into an AMI.

The first step of this proces is to upload our stream optimized VMDK (generated in step 1) to our Amazon S3 bucket; to do this, we’ll use the ec2ivol utility:

$ ./ec2-api-tools- -o $AWS_ACCESS_KEY \
> -d "$AWS_AMI_DESCRIPTION" -f vmdk ami-template.vmdk
Requesting volume size: 64 GB
TaskType        IMPORTVOLUME    TaskId  import-vol-fghpxu3l     ExpirationTime  2017-02-13T20:39:29Z    Status  active  StatusMessage   Pending
DISKIMAGE       DiskImageFormat VMDK    DiskImageSize   1070948352      VolumeSize      64      AvailabilityZone        us-west-1a      ApproximateBytesConverted       0
Creating new manifest at ivol-openindiana-hipster/0af50aa3-ee80-492d-96a5-bab6ab63bda4/ami-template.vmdkmanifest.xml
Uploading the manifest file
Uploading 1070948352 bytes across 103 parts
   Upload progress              Estimated time      Estimated speed
 / 100% [====================>]                     56.056 MBps
********************* All 1070948352 Bytes uploaded in 19s  *********************
Done uploading.
Average speed was 56.053 MBps
The disk image for import-vol-fghpxu3l has been uploaded to Amazon S3
where it is being converted into an EBS volume.  You may monitor the
progress of this task by running ec2-describe-conversion-tasks.  When
the task is completed, you may use ec2-delete-disk-image to remove the
image from S3.

We can then use the TaskId value provided by the output of ec2ivol (i.e. import-vol-fghpxu3l in this instance), and feed that into ec2dct to retreive the status for the upload’s conversion.

$ ./ec2-api-tools- import-vol-fghpxu3l
TaskType        IMPORTVOLUME    TaskId  import-vol-fghpxu3l     ExpirationTime  2017-02-13T20:39:29Z    Status  completed
DISKIMAGE       DiskImageFormat VMDK    DiskImageSize   1070948352      VolumeId        vol-041fd3aa8c9435e7d   VolumeSize      64      AvailabilityZone        us-west-1a      ApproximateBytesConverted       1070945104

As can be seen from the Status section, this conversion has completed, so we can move on to the next step. If the conversion hadn’t completed yet, e.g. it was still active, then we would need to wait (and poll using ec2dct) until it completed.

Step 4: Create a Snapshot of Imported Volume

The next step that we need to perform, is to create a snapshot from the volume that we just created. Looking at the prior output from ec2dct, we can see from the VolumeId field, that a volume was generated and it’s ID is vol-041fd3aa8c9435e7d. We will use the ec2addsnap utility to create a snapshot of that volume:

$ ./ec2-api-tools- vol-041fd3aa8c9435e7d
SNAPSHOT        snap-01b80a642ef5f1f51  vol-041fd3aa8c9435e7d   pending 2017-02-06T20:49:11+0000                239688353806    64              Not Encrypted

Just like when importing the volume, we can check the status of the snapshot generation process using ec2dsnap (the parameter passed to it comes from the the output of ec2addsnap above):

$ while true; do
> ./ec2-api-tools- snap-01b80a642ef5f1f51
> sleep 60
> done
SNAPSHOT        snap-01b80a642ef5f1f51  vol-041fd3aa8c9435e7d   pending 2017-02-06T20:49:11+0000        0%      239688353806    64              Not Encrypted
SNAPSHOT        snap-01b80a642ef5f1f51  vol-041fd3aa8c9435e7d   pending 2017-02-06T20:49:11+0000        0%      239688353806    64              Not Encrypted
SNAPSHOT        snap-01b80a642ef5f1f51  vol-041fd3aa8c9435e7d   completed       2017-02-06T20:49:11+0000        100%    239688353806    64              Not Encrypted

Step 5: Register AMI Using Previously Created Volume Snapshot

Finally, now that we have the volume snapshot generated, we can use this to register our new custom AMI using ec2reg:

$ ./ec2-api-tools- -s snap-01b80a642ef5f1f51 \
> -d "$AWS_AMI_DESC" -n "$AWS_AMI_NAME" -a x86_64 \
> --root-device-name /dev/xvda --virtualization-type hvm
IMAGE   ami-5b065a3b

Success! The new custom built AMI is ami-5b065a3b.

It should now be possible to use this AMI to create new Amazon EC2 instances.