Posted on Mo 24 Oktober 2022

Brave New Trusted Boot World

🔐 Brave New Trusted Boot World 🚀

This document looks at the boot process of general purpose Linux distributions. It covers the status quo and how we envision Linux boot to work in the future with a focus on robustness and simplicity.

This document will assume that the reader has comprehensive familiarity with TPM 2.0 security chips and their capabilities (e.g., PCRs, measurements, SRK), boot loaders, the shim binary, Linux, initrds, UEFI Firmware, PE binaries, and SecureBoot.

Problem Description

Status quo ante of the boot logic on typical Linux distributions:

  • Most popular Linux distributions generate initrds locally, and they are unsigned, thus not protected through SecureBoot (since that would require local SecureBoot key enrollment, which is generally not done), nor TPM PCRs.

  • Boot chain is typically Firmware → shimgrub → Linux kernel → initrd (dracut or similar) → root file system

  • Firmware’s UEFI SecureBoot protects shim, shim’s key management protects grub and kernel. No code signing protects initrd. initrd acquires the key for encrypted root fs from the user (or TPM/FIDO2/PKCS11).

  • shim/grub/kernel is measured into TPM PCR 4, among other stuff

  • EFI TPM event log reports measured data into TPM PCRs, and can be used to reconstruct and validate state of TPM PCRs from the used resources.

  • No userspace components are typically measured, except for what IMA measures

  • New kernels require locally generating new boot loader scripts and generating a new initrd each time. OS updates thus mean fragile generation of multiple resources and copying multiple files into the boot partition.

Problems with the status quo ante:

  • initrd typically unlocks root file system encryption, but is not protected whatsoever, and trivial to attack and modify offline

  • OS updates are brittle: PCR values of grub are very hard to pre-calculate, as grub measures chosen control flow path, not just code images. PCR values vary wildly, and OS provided resources are not measured into separate PCRs. Grub’s PCR measurements might be useful up to a point to reason about the boot after the fact, for the most basic remote attestation purposes, but useless for calculating them ahead of time during the OS build process (which would be desirable to be able to bind secrets to future expected PCR state, for example to bind secrets to an OS in a way that it remain accessible even after that OS is updated).

  • Updates of a boot loader are not robust, require multi-file updates of ESP and boot partition, and regeneration of boot scripts

  • No rollback protection (no way to cryptographically invalidate access to TPM-bound secrets on OS updates)

  • Remote attestation of running software is needlessly complex since initrds are generated locally and thus basically are guaranteed to vary on each system.

  • Locking resources maintained by arbitrary user apps to TPM state (PCRs) is not realistic for general purpose systems, since PCRs will change on every OS update, and there’s no mechanism to re-enroll each such resource before every OS update, and remove the old enrollment after the update.

  • There is no concept to cryptographically invalidate/revoke secrets for an older OS version once updated to a new OS version. An attacker thus can always access the secrets generated on old OSes if they manage to exploit an old version of the OS — even if a newer version already has been deployed.

Goals of the new design:

  • Provide a fully signed execution path from firmware to userspace, no exceptions

  • Provide a fully measured execution path from firmware to userspace, no exceptions

  • Separate out TPM PCRs assignments, by “owner” of measured resources, so that resources can be bound to them in a fine-grained fashion.

  • Allow easy pre-calculation of expected PCR values based on booted kernel/initrd, configuration, local identity of the system

  • Rollback protection

  • Simple & robust updates: one updated file per concept

  • Updates without requiring re-enrollment/local preparation of the TPM-protected resources (no more “brittle” PCR hashes that must be propagated into every TPM-protected resource on each OS update)

  • System ready for easy remote attestation, to prove validity of booted OS, configuration and local identity

  • Ability to bind secrets to specific phases of the boot, e.g. the root fs encryption key should be retrievable from the TPM only in the initrd, but not after the host transitioned into the root fs.

  • Reasonably secure, automatic, unattended unlocking of disk encryption secrets should be possible.

  • “Democratize” use of PCR policies by defining PCR register meanings, and making binding to them robust against updates, so that external projects can safely and securely bind their own data to them (or use them for remote attestation) without risking breakage whenever the OS is updated.

  • Build around TPM 2.0 (with graceful fallback for TPM-less systems if desired, but TPM 1.2 support is out of scope)

Considered attack scenarios and considerations:

  • Evil Maid: neither online nor offline (i.e. “at rest”), physical access to a storage device should enable an attacker to read the user’s plaintext data on disk (confidentiality); neither online nor offline, physical access to a storage device should allow undetected modification/backdooring of user data or OS (integrity), or exfiltration of secrets.

  • TPMs are assumed to be reasonably “secure”, i.e. can securely store/encrypt secrets. Communication to TPM is not “secure” though and must be protected on the wire.

  • Similar, the CPU is assumed to be reasonably “secure”

  • SecureBoot is assumed to be reasonably “secure” to permit validated boot up to and including shim+boot loader+kernel (but see discussion below)

  • All user data must be encrypted and authenticated. All vendor and administrator data must be authenticated.

  • It is assumed all software involved regularly contains vulnerabilities and requires frequent updates to address them, plus regular revocation of old versions.

  • It is further assumed that key material used for signing code by the OS vendor can reasonably be kept secure (via use of HSM, and similar, where secret key information never leaves the signing hardware) and does not require frequent roll-over.

Proposed Construction

Central to the proposed design is the concept of a Unified Kernel Image (UKI). These UKIs are the combination of a Linux kernel image, and initrd, a UEFI boot stub program (and further resources, see below) into one single UEFI PE file that can either be directly invoked by the UEFI firmware (which is useful in particular in some cloud/Confidential Computing environments) or through a boot loader (which is generally useful to implement support for multiple kernel versions, with interactive or automatic selection of image to boot into, potentially with automatic fallback management to increase robustness).

UKI Components

Specifically, UKIs typically consist of the following resources:

  1. An UEFI boot stub that is a small piece of code still running in UEFI mode and that transitions into the Linux kernel included in the UKI (e.g., as implemented in sd-stub, see below)

  2. The Linux kernel to boot in the .linux PE section

  3. The initrd that the kernel shall unpack and invoke in the .initrd PE section

  4. A kernel command line string, in the .cmdline PE section

  5. Optionally, information describing the OS this kernel is intended for, in the .osrel PE section (derived from /etc/os-release of the booted OS). This is useful for presentation of the UKI in the boot loader menu, and ordering it against other entries, using the included version information.

  6. Optionally, information describing kernel release information (i.e. uname -r output) in the .uname PE section. This is also useful for presentation of the UKI in the boot loader menu, and ordering it against other entries.

  7. Optionally, a boot splash to bring to screen before transitioning into the Linux kernel in the .splash PE section

  8. Optionally, a compiled Devicetree database file, for systems which need it, in the .dtb PE section

  9. Optionally, the public key in PEM format that matches the signatures of the .pcrsig PE section (see below), in a .pcrpkey PE section.

  10. Optionally, a JSON file encoding expected PCR 11 hash values seen from userspace once the UKI has booted up, along with signatures of these expected PCR 11 hash values, matching a specific public key in the .pcrsig PE section. (Note: we use plural for “values” and “signatures” here, as this JSON file will typically carry a separate value and signature for each PCR bank for PCR 11, i.e. one pair of value and signature for the SHA1 bank, and another pair for the SHA256 bank, and so on. This ensures when enrolling or unlocking a TPM-bound secret we’ll always have a signature around matching the banks available locally (after all, which banks the local hardware supports is up to the hardware). For the sake of simplifying this already overly complex topic, we’ll pretend in the rest of the text there was only one PCR signature per UKI we have to care about, even if this is not actually the case.)

Given UKIs are regular UEFI PE files, they can thus be signed as one for SecureBoot, protecting all of the individual resources listed above at once, and their combination. Standard Linux tools such as sbsigntool and pesign can be used to sign UKI files.

UKIs wrap all of the above data in a single file, hence all of the above components can be updated in one go through single file atomic updates, which is useful given that the primary expected storage place for these UKIs is the UEFI System Partition (ESP), which is a vFAT file system, with its limited data safety guarantees.

UKIs can be generated via a single, relatively simple objcopy invocation, that glues the listed components together, generating one PE binary that then can be signed for SecureBoot. (For details on building these, see below.)

Note that the primary location to place UKIs in is the EFI System Partition (or an otherwise firmware accessible file system). This typically means a VFAT file system of some form. Hence an effective UKI size limit of 4GiB is in place, as that’s the largest file size a FAT32 file system supports.

Basic UEFI Stub Execution Flow

The mentioned UEFI stub program will execute the following operations in UEFI mode before transitioning into the Linux kernel that is included in its .linux PE section:

  1. The PE sections listed are searched for in the invoked UKI the stub is part of, and superficially validated (i.e. general file format is in order).

  2. All PE sections listed above of the invoked UKI are measured into TPM PCR 11. This TPM PCR is expected to be all zeroes before the UKI initializes. Pre-calculation is thus very straight-forward if the resources included in the PE image are known. (Note: as a single exception the .pcrsig PE section is excluded from this measurement, as it is supposed to carry the expected result of the measurement, and thus cannot also be input to it, see below for further details about this section.)

  3. If the .splash PE section is included in the UKI it is brought onto the screen

  4. If the .dtb PE section is included in the UKI it is activated using the Devicetree UEFI “fix-up” protocol

  5. If a command line was passed from the boot loader to the UKI executable it is discarded if SecureBoot is enabled and the command line from the .cmdline used. If SecureBoot is disabled and a command line was passed it is used in place of the one from .cmdline. Either way the used command line is measured into TPM PCR 12. (This of course removes any flexibility of control of the kernel command line of the local user. In many scenarios this is probably considered beneficial, but in others it is not, and some flexibility might be desired. Thus, this concept probably needs to be extended sooner or later, to allow more flexible kernel command line policies to be enforced via definitions embedded into the UKI. For example: allowing definition of multiple kernel command lines the user/boot menu can select one from; allowing additional allowlisted parameters to be specified; or even optionally allowing any verification of the kernel command line to be turned off even in SecureBoot mode. It would then be up to the builder of the UKI to decide on the policy of the kernel command line.)

  6. It will set a couple of volatile EFI variables to inform userspace about executed TPM PCR measurements (and which PCR registers were used), and other execution properties. (For example: the EFI variable StubPcrKernelImage in the 4a67b082-0a4c-41cf-b6c7-440b29bb8c4f vendor namespace indicates the PCR register used for the UKI measurement, i.e. the value “11”).

  7. An initrd cpio archive is dynamically synthesized from the .pcrsig and .pcrpkey PE section data (this is later passed to the invoked Linux kernel as additional initrd, to be overlaid with the main initrd from the .initrd section). These files are later available in the /.extra/ directory in the initrd context.

  8. The Linux kernel from the .linux PE section is invoked with with a combined initrd that is composed from the blob from the .initrd PE section, the dynamically generated initrd containing the .pcrsig and .pcrpkey PE sections, and possibly some additional components like sysexts or syscfgs.

TPM PCR Assignments

In the construction above we take possession of two PCR registers previously unused on generic Linux distributions:

  • TPM PCR 11 shall contain measurements of all components of the UKI (with exception of the .pcrsig PE section, see above). This PCR will also contain measurements of the boot phase once userspace takes over (see below).

  • TPM PCR 12 shall contain measurements of the used kernel command line. (Plus potentially other forms of parameterization/configuration passed into the UKI, not discussed in this document)

On top of that we intend to define two more PCR registers like this:

  • TPM PCR 15 shall contain measurements of the volume encryption key of the root file system of the OS.

  • [TPM PCR 13 shall contain measurements of additional extension images for the initrd, to enable a modularized initrd – not covered by this document]

(See the Linux TPM PCR Registry for an overview how these four PCRs fit into the list of Linux PCR assignments.)

For all four PCRs the assumption is that they are zero before the UKI initializes, and only the data that the UKI and the OS measure into them is included. This makes pre-calculating them straightforward: given a specific set of UKI components, it is immediately clear what PCR values can be expected in PCR 11 once the UKI booted up. Given a kernel command line (and other parameterization/configuration) it is clear what PCR values are expected in PCR 12.

Note that these four PCRs are defined by the conceptual “owner” of the resources measured into them. PCR 11 only contains resources the OS vendor controls. Thus it is straight-forward for the OS vendor to pre-calculate and then cryptographically sign the expected values for PCR 11. The PCR 11 values will be identical on all systems that run the same version of the UKI. PCR 12 only contains resources the administrator controls, thus the administrator can pre-calculate PCR values, and they will be correct on all instances of the OS that use the same parameters/configuration. PCR 15 only contains resources inherently local to the local system, i.e. the cryptographic key material that encrypts the root file system of the OS.

Separating out these three roles does not imply these actually need to be separate when used. However the assumption is that in many popular environments these three roles should be separate.

By separating out these PCRs by the owner’s role, it becomes straightforward to remotely attest, individually, on the software that runs on a node (PCR 11), the configuration it uses (PCR 12) or the identity of the system (PCR 15). Moreover, it becomes straightforward to robustly and securely encrypt data so that it can only be unlocked on a specific set of systems that share the same OS, or the same configuration, or have a specific identity – or a combination thereof.

Note that the mentioned PCRs are so far not typically used on generic Linux-based operating systems, to our knowledge. Windows uses them, but given that Windows and Linux should typically not be included in the same boot process this should be unproblematic, as Windows’ use of these PCRs should thus not conflict with ours.

To summarize:

PCR Purpose Owner Expected Value before UKI boot Pre-Calculable
11 Measurement of UKI components and boot phases OS Vendor Zero Yes
(at UKI build time)
12 Measurement of kernel command line, additional kernel runtime configuration such as systemd credentials, systemd syscfg images Administrator Zero Yes
(when system configuration is assembled)
13 System Extension Images of initrd
(and possibly more)
(Administrator) Zero Yes
15 Measurement of root file system volume key
(Possibly later more: measurement of root file system UUIDs and labels and of the machine ID /etc/machine-id)
Local System Zero Yes
(after first boot once ll such IDs are determined)

Signature Keys

In the model above in particular two sets of private/public key pairs are relevant:

  • The SecureBoot key to sign the UKI PE executable with. This controls permissible choices of OS/kernel

  • The key to sign the expected PCR 11 values with. Signatures made with this key will end up in the .pcrsig PE section. The public key part will end up in the .pcrpkey PE section.

Typically the key pair for the PCR 11 signatures should be chosen with a narrow focus, reused for exactly one specific OS (e.g. “Fedora Desktop Edition”) and the series of UKIs that belong to it (all the way through all the versions of the OS). The SecureBoot signature key can be used with a broader focus, if desired. By keeping the PCR 11 signature key narrow in focus one can ensure that secrets bound to the signature key can only be unlocked on the narrow set of UKIs desired.

TPM Policy Use

Depending on the intended access policy to a resource protected by the TPM, one or more of the PCRs described above should be selected to bind TPM policy to.

For example, the root file system encryption key should likely be bound to TPM PCR 11, so that it can only be unlocked if a specific set of UKIs is booted (it should then, once acquired, be measured into PCR 15, as discussed above, so that later TPM objects can be bound to it, further down the chain). With the model described above this is reasonably straight-forward to do:

  • When userspace wants to bind disk encryption to a specific series of UKIs (“enrollment”), it looks for the public key passed to the initrd in the /.extra/ directory (which as discussed above originates in the .pcrpkey PE section of the UKI). The relevant userspace component (e.g. systemd) is then responsible for generating a random key to be used as symmetric encryption key for the storage volume (let’s call it disk encryption key _here, DEK_). The TPM is then used to encrypt (“seal”) the DEK with its internal Storage Root Key (TPM SRK). A TPM2 policy is bound to the encrypted DEK. The policy enforces that the DEK may only be decrypted if a valid signature is provided that matches the state of PCR 11 and the public key provided in the /.extra/ directory of the initrd. The plaintext DEK key is passed to the kernel to implement disk encryption (e.g. LUKS/dm-crypt). (Alternatively, hardware disk encryption can be used too, i.e. Intel MKTME, AMD SME or even OPAL, all of which are outside of the scope of this document.) The TPM-encrypted version of the DEK which the TPM returned is written to the encrypted volume’s superblock.

  • When userspace wants to unlock disk encryption on a specific UKI, it looks for the signature data passed to the initrd in the /.extra/ directory (which as discussed above originates in the .pcrsig PE section of the UKI). It then reads the encrypted version of the DEK from the superblock of the encrypted volume. The signature and the encrypted DEK are then passed to the TPM. The TPM then checks if the current PCR 11 state matches the supplied signature from the .pcrsig section and the public key used during enrollment. If all checks out it decrypts (“unseals”) the DEK and passes it back to the OS, where it is then passed to the kernel which implements the symmetric part of disk encryption.

Note that in this scheme the encrypted volume’s DEK is not bound to specific literal PCR hash values, but to a public key which is expected to sign PCR hash values.

Also note that the state of PCR 11 only matters during unlocking. It is not used or checked when enrolling.

In this scenario:

  • Input to the TPM part of the enrollment process are the TPM’s internal SRK, the plaintext DEK provided by the OS, and the public key later used for signing expected PCR values, also provided by the OS. – Output is the encrypted (“sealed”) DEK.

  • Input to the TPM part of the unlocking process are the TPM’s internal SRK, the current TPM PCR 11 values, the public key used during enrollment, a signature that matches both these PCR values and the public key, and the encrypted DEK. – Output is the plaintext (“unsealed”) DEK.

Note that sealing/unsealing is done entirely on the TPM chip, the host OS just provides the inputs (well, only the inputs that the TPM chip doesn’t know already on its own), and receives the outputs. With the exception of the plaintext DEK, none of the inputs/outputs are sensitive, and can safely be stored in the open. On the wire the plaintext DEK is protected via TPM parameter encryption (not discussed in detail here because though important not in scope for this document).

TPM PCR 11 is the most important of the mentioned PCRs, and its use is thus explained in detail here. The other mentioned PCRs can be used in similar ways, but signatures/public keys must be provided via other means.

This scheme builds on the functionality Linux’ LUKS2 functionality provides, i.e. key management supporting multiple slots, and the ability to embed arbitrary metadata in the encrypted volume’s superblock. Note that this means the TPM2-based logic explained here doesn’t have to be the only way to unlock an encrypted volume. For example, in many setups it is wise to enroll both this TPM-based mechanism and an additional “recovery key” (i.e. a high-entropy computer generated passphrase the user can provide manually in case they lose access to the TPM and need to access their data), of which either can be used to unlock the volume.

Boot Phases

Secrets needed during boot-up (such as the root file system encryption key) should typically not be accessible anymore afterwards, to protect them from access if a system is attacked during runtime. To implement this the scheme above is extended in one way: at certain milestones of the boot process additional fixed “words” should be measured into PCR 11. These milestones are placed at conceptual security boundaries, i.e. whenever code transitions from a higher privileged context to a less privileged context.


  • When the initrd initializes (“initrd-enter”)

  • When the initrd transitions into the root file system (“initrd-leave”)

  • When the early boot phase of the OS on the root file system has completed, i.e. all storage and file systems have been set up and mounted, immediately before regular services are started (“sysinit”)

  • When the OS on the root file system completed the boot process far enough to allow unprivileged users to log in (“complete”)

  • When the OS begins shut down (“shutdown”)

  • When the service manager is mostly finished with shutting down and is about to pass control to the final phase of the shutdown logic (“final”)

By measuring these additional words into PCR 11 the distinct phases of the boot process can be distinguished in a relatively straight-forward fashion and the expected PCR values in each phase can be determined.

The phases are measured into PCR 11 (as opposed to some other PCR) mostly because available PCRs are scarce, and the boot phases defined are typically specific to a chosen OS, and hence fit well with the other data measured into PCR 11: the UKI which is also specific to the OS. The OS vendor generates both the UKI and defines the boot phases, and thus can safely and reliably pre-calculate/sign the expected PCR values for each phase of the boot.

Revocation/Rollback Protection

In order to secure secrets stored at rest, in particular in environments where unattended decryption shall be possible, it is essential that an attacker cannot use old, known-buggy – but properly signed – versions of software to access them.

Specifically, if disk encryption is bound to an OS vendor (via UKIs that include expected PCR values, signed by the vendor’s public key) there must be a mechanism to lock out old versions of the OS or UKI from accessing TPM based secrets once it is determined that the old version is vulnerable.

To implement this we propose making use of one of the “counters” TPM 2.0 devices provide: integer registers that are persistent in the TPM and can only be increased on request of the OS, but never be decreased. When sealing resources to the TPM, a policy may be declared to the TPM that restricts how the resources can later be unlocked: here we use one that requires that along with the expected PCR values (as discussed above) a counter integer range is provided to the TPM chip, along with a suitable signature covering both, matching the public key provided during sealing. The sealing/unsealing mechanism described above is thus extended: the signature passed to the TPM during unsealing now covers both the expected PCR values and the expected counter range. To be able to use a signature associated with an UKI provided by the vendor to unseal a resource, the counter thus must be at least increased to the lower end of the range the signature is for. By doing so the ability is lost to unseal the resource for signatures associated with older versions of the UKI, because their upper end of the range disables access once the counter has been increased far enough. By carefully choosing the upper and lower end of the counter range whenever the PCR values for an UKI shall be signed it is thus possible to ensure that updates can invalidate prior versions’ access to resources. By placing some space between the upper and lower end of the range it is possible to allow a controlled level of fallback UKI support, with clearly defined milestones where fallback to older versions of an UKI is not permitted anymore.

Example: a hypothetical distribution FooOS releases a regular stream of UKI kernels 5.1, 5.2, 5.3, … It signs the expected PCR values for these kernels with a key pair it maintains in a HSM. When signing UKI 5.1 it includes information directed at the TPM in the signed data declaring that the TPM counter must be above 100, and below 120, in order for the signature to be used. Thus, when the UKI is booted up and used for unlocking an encrypted volume the unlocking code must first increase the counter to 100 if needed, as the TPM will otherwise refuse unlocking the volume. The next release of the UKI, i.e. UKI 5.2 is a feature release, i.e. reverting back to the old kernel locally is acceptable. It thus does not increase the lower bound, but it increases the upper bound for the counter in the signature payload, thus encoding a valid range 100…121 in the signed payload. Now a major security vulnerability is discovered in UKI 5.1. A new UKI 5.3 is prepared that fixes this issue. It is now essential that UKI 5.1 can no longer be used to unlock the TPM secrets. Thus UKI 5.3 will bump the lower bound to 121, and increase the upper bound by one, thus allowing a range 121…122. Or in other words: for each new UKI release the signed data shall include a counter range declaration where the upper bound is increased by one. The lower range is left as-is between releases, except when an old version shall be cut off, in which case it is bumped to one above the upper bound used in that release.

UKI Generation

As mentioned earlier, UKIs are the combination of various resources into one PE file. For most of these individual components there are pre-existing tools to generate the components. For example the included kernel image can be generated with the usual Linux kernel build system. The initrd included in the UKI can be generated with existing tools such as dracut and similar. Once the basic components (.linux, .initrd, .cmdline, .splash, .dtb, .osrel, .uname) have been acquired the combination process works roughly like this:

  1. The expected PCR 11 hashes (and signatures for them) for the UKI are calculated. The tool for that takes all basic UKI components and a signing key as input, and generates a JSON object as output that includes both the literal expected PCR hash values and a signature for them. (For all selected TPM2 banks)

  2. The EFI stub binary is now combined with the basic components, the generated JSON PCR signature object from the first step (in the .pcrsig section) and the public key for it (in the .pcrpkey section). This is done via a simple “objcopy” invocation resulting in a single UKI PE binary.

  3. The resulting EFI PE binary is then signed for SecureBoot (via a tool such as sbsign or similar).

Note that the UKI model implies pre-built initrds. How to generate these (and securely extend and parameterize them) is outside of the scope of this document, but a related document will be provided highlighting these concepts.

Protection Coverage of SecureBoot Signing and PCRs

The scheme discussed here touches both SecureBoot code signing and TPM PCR measurements. These two distinct mechanisms cover separate parts of the boot process.


  • Firmware/Shim SecureBoot signing covers bootloader and UKI

  • TPM PCR 11 covers the UKI components and boot phase

  • TPM PCR 12 covers admin configuration

  • TPM PCR 15 covers the local identity of the host

Note that this means SecureBoot coverage ends once the system transitions from the initrd into the root file system. It is assumed that trust and integrity have been established before this transition by some means, for example LUKS/dm-crypt/dm-integrity, ideally bound to PCR 11 (i.e. UKI and boot phase).

A robust and secure update scheme for PCR 11 (i.e. UKI) has been described above, which allows binding TPM-locked resources to a UKI. For PCR 12 no such scheme is currently designed, but might be added later (use case: permit access to certain secrets only if the system runs with configuration signed by a specific set of keys). Given that resources measured into PCR 15 typically aren’t updated (or if they are updated loss of access to other resources linked to them is desired) no update scheme should be necessary for it.

This document focuses on the three PCRs discussed above. Disk encryption and other userspace may choose to also bind to other PCRs. However, doing so means the PCR brittleness issue returns that this design is supposed to remove. PCRs defined by the various firmware UEFI/TPM specifications generally do not know any concept for signatures of expected PCR values.

It is known that the industry-adopted SecureBoot signing keys are too broad to act as more than a denylist for known bad code. It is thus probably a good idea to enroll vendor SecureBoot keys wherever possible (e.g. in environments where the hardware is very well known, and VM environments), to raise the bar on preparing rogue UKI-like PE binaries that will result in PCR values that match expectations but actually contain bad code. Discussion about that is however outside of the scope of this document.

Whole OS embedded in the UKI

The above is written under the assumption that the UKI embeds an initrd whose job it is to set up the root file system: find it, validate it, cryptographically unlock it and similar. Once the root file system is found, the system transitions into it.

While this is the traditional design and likely what most systems will use, it is also possible to embed a regular root file system into the UKI and avoid any transition to an on-disk root file system. In this mode the whole OS would be encapsulated in the UKI, and signed/measured as one. In such a scenario the whole of the OS must be loaded into RAM and remain there, which typically restricts the general usability of such an approach. However, for specific purposes this might be the design of choice, for example to implement self-sufficient recovery or provisioning systems.

Proposed Implementations & Current Status

The toolset for most of the above is already implemented in systemd and related projects in one way or another. Specifically:

  1. The systemd-stub (or short: sd-stub) component implements the discussed UEFI stub program

  2. The systemd-measure tool can be used to pre-calculate expected PCR 11 values given the UKI components and can sign the result, as discussed in the UKI Image Generation section above.

  3. The systemd-cryptenroll and systemd-cryptsetup tools can be used to bind a LUKS2 encrypted file system volume to a TPM and PCR 11 public key/signatures, according to the scheme described above. (The two components also implement a “recovery key” concept, as discussed above)

  4. The systemd-pcrphase component measures specific words into PCR 11 at the discussed phases of the boot process.

  5. The systemd-creds tool may be used to encrypt/decrypt data objects called “credentials” that can be passed into services and booted systems, and are automatically decrypted (if needed) immediately before service invocation. Encryption is typically bound to the local TPM, to ensure the data cannot be recovered elsewhere.

Note that systemd-stub (i.e. the UEFI code glued into the UKI) is distinct from systemd-boot (i.e. the UEFI boot loader than can manage multiple UKIs and other boot menu items and implements automatic fallback, an interactive menu and a programmatic interface for the OS among other things). One can be used without the other – both sd-stub without sd-boot and vice versa – though they integrate nicely if used in combination.

Note that the mechanisms described are relatively generic, and can be implemented and be consumed in other software too, systemd should be considered a reference implementation, though one that found comprehensive adoption across Linux distributions.

Some concepts discussed above are currently not implemented. Specifically:

  1. The rollback protection logic is currently not implemented.

  2. The mentioned measurement of the root file system volume key to PCR 15 is implemented, but not merged into the systemd main branch yet.

The UAPI Group

We recently started a new group for discussing concepts and specifications of basic OS components, including UKIs as described above. It's called the UAPI Group. Please have a look at the various documents and specifications already available there, and expect more to come. Contributions welcome!



Trusted Platform Module; a security chip found in many modern systems, both physical systems and increasingly also in virtualized environments. Traditionally a discrete chip on the mainboard but today often implemented in firmware, and lately directly in the CPU SoC.


Platform Configuration Register; a set of registers on a TPM that are initialized to zero at boot. The firmware and OS can “extend” these registers with hashes of data used during the boot process and afterwards. “Extension” means the supplied data is first cryptographically hashed. The resulting hash value is then combined with the previous value of the PCR and the combination hashed again. The result will become the new value of the PCR. By doing this iteratively for all parts of the boot process (always with the data that will be used next during the boot process) a concept of “Measured Boot” can be implemented: as long as every element in the boot chain measures (i.e. extends into the PCR) the next part of the boot like this, the resulting PCR values will prove cryptographically that only a certain set of boot components can have been used to boot up. A standards compliant TPM usually has 24 PCRs, but more than half of those are already assigned specific meanings by the firmware. Some of the others may be used by the OS, of which we use four in the concepts discussed in this document.


The act of “extending” a PCR with some data object.


Storage Root Key; a special cryptographic key generated by a TPM that never leaves the TPM, and can be used to encrypt/decrypt data passed to the TPM.


Unified Kernel Image; the concept this document is about. A combination of kernel, initrd and other resources. See above.


A mechanism where every software component involved in the boot process is cryptographically signed and checked against a set of public keys stored in the mainboard hardware, implemented in firmware, before it is used.

Measured Boot

A boot process where each component measures (i.e., hashes and extends into a TPM PCR, see above) the next component it will pass control to before doing so. This serves two purposes: it can be used to bind security policy for encrypted secrets to the resulting PCR values (or signatures thereof, see above), and it can be used to reason about used software after the fact, for example for the purpose of remote attestation.


Short for “initial RAM disk”, which – strictly speaking – is a misnomer today, because no RAM disk is anymore involved, but a tmpfs file system instance. Also known as “initramfs”, which is also misleading, given the file system is not ramfs anymore, but tmpfs (both of which are in-memory file systems on Linux, with different semantics). The initrd is passed to the Linux kernel and is basically a file system tree in cpio archive. The kernel unpacks the image into a tmpfs (i.e., into an in-memory file system), and then executes a binary from it. It thus contains the binaries for the first userspace code the kernel invokes. Typically, the initrd’s job is to find the actual root file system, unlock it (if encrypted), and transition into it.


Short for “Unified Extensible Firmware Interface”, it is a widely adopted standard for PC firmware, with native support for SecureBoot and Measured Boot.


More or less synonymous to UEFI, IRL.


A boot component originating in the Linux world, which in a way extends the public key database SecureBoot maintains (which is under control from Microsoft) with a second layer (which is under control of the Linux distributions and of the owner of the physical device).


Portable Executable; a file format for executable binaries, originally from the Windows world, but also used by UEFI firmware. PE files may contain code and data, categorized in labeled “sections”


EFI System Partition; a special partition on a storage medium that the firmware is able to look for UEFI PE binaries in to execute at boot.


Hardware Security Module; a piece of hardware that can generate and store secret cryptographic keys, and execute operations with them, without the keys leaving the hardware (though this is configurable). TPMs can act as HSMs.


Disk Encryption Key; an asymmetric cryptographic key used for unlocking disk encryption, i.e. passed to LUKS/dm-crypt for activating an encrypted storage volume.


Linux Unified Key Setup Version 2; a specification for a superblock for encrypted volumes widely used on Linux. LUKS2 is the default on-disk format for the cryptsetup suite of tools. It provides flexible key management with multiple independent key slots and allows embedding arbitrary metadata in a JSON format in the superblock.


I’d like to thank Alain Gefflaut, Anna Trikalinou, Christian Brauner, Daan de Meyer, Luca Boccassi, Zbigniew Jędrzejewski-Szmek for reviewing this text.

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