💽 Linux Boot Partitions and How to Set Them Up 🚀
Let’s have a look how traditional Linux distributions set up
/boot/ and the ESP, and how this could be improved.
How Linux distributions traditionally have been setting up their
“boot” file systems has been varying to some degree, but the most
common choice has been to have a separate partition mounted to
/boot/. Usually the partition is formatted as a Linux file system
such as ext2/ext3/ext4. The partition contains the kernel images, the
initrd and various boot loader resources. Some distributions, like
Debian and Ubuntu, also store ancillary files associated with the
kernel here, such as
System.map. Such a traditional
boot partition is only defined within the context of the distribution,
and typically not immediately recognizable as such when looking just
at the partition table (i.e. it uses the generic Linux partition type
With the arrival of UEFI a new partition relevant for boot appeared, the EFI System Partition (ESP). This partition is defined by the firmware environment, but typically accessed by Linux to install or update boot loaders. The choice of file system is not up to Linux, but effectively mandated by the UEFI specifications: vFAT. In theory it could be formatted as other file systems too. However, this would require the firmware to support file systems other than vFAT. This is rare and firmware specific though, as vFAT is the only file system mandated by the UEFI specification. In other words, vFAT is the only file system which is guaranteed to be universally supported.
There’s a major overlap of the type of the data typically stored in the ESP and in the traditional boot partition mentioned earlier: a variety of boot loader resources as well as kernels/initrds.
Unlike the traditional boot partition, the ESP is easily recognizable in the partition table via its GPT partition type UUID. The ESP is also a shared resource: all OSes installed on the same disk will share it and put their boot resources into them (as opposed to the traditional boot partition, of which there is one per installed Linux OS, and only that one will put resources there).
To summarize, the most common setup on typical Linux distributions is something like this:
|Type||Linux Mount Point||File System Choice|
|Linux “Boot” Partition||
||Any Linux File System, typically ext2/ext3/ext4|
As mentioned, not all distributions or local installations agree on this. For example, it’s probably worth mentioning that some distributions decided to put kernels onto the root file system of the OS itself. For this setup to work the boot loader itself [sic!] must implement a non-trivial part of the storage stack. This may have to include RAID, storage drivers, networked storage, volume management, disk encryption, and Linux file systems. Leaving aside the conceptual argument that complex storage stacks don’t belong in boot loaders there are very practical problems with this approach. Reimplementing the Linux storage stack in all its combinations is a massive amount of work. It took decades to implement what we have on Linux now, and it will take a similar amount of work to catch up in the boot loader’s reimplementation. Moreover, there’s a political complication: some Linux file system communities made clear they have no interest in supporting a second file system implementation that is not maintained as part of the Linux kernel.
What’s interesting is that the
/boot/efi/ mount point is nested
/boot/ mount point. This effectively means that to access
the ESP the Boot partition must exist and be mounted first. A system
with just an ESP and without a Boot partition hence doesn’t fit well
into the current model. The Boot partition will also have to carry an
empty “efi” directory that can be used as the inner mount point, and
serves no other purpose.
Given that the traditional boot partition and the ESP may carry similar data (i.e. boot loader resources, kernels, initrds) one may wonder why they are separate concepts. Historically, this was the easiest way to make the pre-UEFI way how Linux systems were booted compatible with UEFI: conceptually, the ESP can be seen as just a minor addition to the status quo ante that way. Today, primarily two reasons remained:
Some distributions see a benefit in support for complex Linux file system concepts such as hardlinks, symlinks, SELinux labels/extended attributes and so on when storing boot loader resources. – I personally believe that making use of features in the boot file systems that the firmware environment cannot really make sense of is very clearly not advisable. The UEFI file system APIs know no symlinks, and what is SELinux to UEFI anyway? Moreover, putting more than the absolute minimum of simple data files into such file systems immediately raises questions about how to authenticate them comprehensively (including all fancy metadata) cryptographically on use (see below).
On real-life systems that ship with non-Linux OSes the ESP often comes pre-installed with a size too small to carry multiple Linux kernels and initrds. As growing the size of an existing ESP is problematic (for example, because there’s no space available immediately after the ESP, or because some low-quality firmware reacts badly to the ESP changing size) placing the kernel in a separate, secondary partition (i.e. the boot partition) circumvents these space issues.
File System Choices
We already mentioned that the ESP effectively has to be vFAT, as that is what UEFI (more or less) guarantees. The file system choice for the boot partition is not quite as restricted, but using arbitrary Linux file systems is not really an option either. The file system must be accessible by both the boot loader and the Linux OS. Hence only file systems that are available in both can be used. Note that such secondary implementations of Linux file systems in the boot environment – limited as they may be – are not typically welcomed or supported by the maintainers of the canonical file system implementation in the upstream Linux kernel. Modern file systems are notoriously complicated and delicate and simply don’t belong in boot loaders.
In a trusted boot world, the two file systems for the ESP and the
/boot/ partition should be considered untrusted: any code or
essential data read from them must be authenticated cryptographically
before use. And even more, the file system structures themselves are
also untrusted. The file system driver reading them must be careful
not to be exploitable by a rogue file system image. Effectively this
means a simple file system (for which a driver can be more easily
validated and reviewed) is generally a better choice than a complex
file system (Linux file system communities made it pretty clear that
robustness against rogue file system images is outside of their scope
and not what is being tested for.).
Some approaches tried to address the fact that boot partitions are untrusted territory by encrypting them via a mechanism compatible to LUKS, and adding decryption capabilities to the boot loader so it can access it. This misses the point though, as encryption does not imply authentication, and only authentication is typically desired. The boot loader and kernel code are typically Open Source anyway, and hence there’s little value in attempting to keep secret what is already public knowledge. Moreover, encryption implies the existence of an encryption key. Physically typing in the decryption key on a keyboard might still be acceptable on desktop systems with a single human user in front, but outside of that scenario unlock via TPM, PKCS#11 or network services are typically required. And even on the desktop FIDO2 unlocking is probably the future. Implementing all the technologies these unlocking mechanisms require in the boot loader is not realistic, unless the boot loader shall become a full OS on its own as it would require subsystems for FIDO2, PKCS#11, USB, Bluetooth network, smart card access, and so on.
File System Access Patterns
Note that traditionally both mentioned partitions were read-only during most parts of the boot. Only later, once the OS is up, write access was required to implement OS or boot loader updates. In today’s world things have become a bit more complicated. A modern OS might want to require some limited write access already in the boot loader, to implement boot counting/boot assessment/automatic fallback (e.g., if the same kernel fails to boot 3 times, automatically revert to older kernel), or to maintain an early storage-based random seed. This means that even though the file system is mostly read-only, we need limited write access after all.
vFAT cannot compete with modern Linux file systems such as
when it comes to data safety guarantees. It’s not a journaled file
system, does not use CoW or any form of checksumming. This means when
used for the system boot process we need to be particularly careful
when accessing it, and in particular when making changes to it (i.e.,
trying to keep changes local to single sectors). It is essential to
use write patterns that minimize the chance of file system
corruption. Checking the file system (“
fsck”) before modification
(and probably also reading) is important, as is ensuring the file
system is put into a “clean” state as quickly as possible after each
Code quality of the firmware in typical systems is known to not always be great. When relying on the file system driver included in the firmware it’s hence a good idea to limit use to operations that have a better chance to be correctly implemented. For example, when writing from the UEFI environment it might be wise to avoid any operation that requires allocation algorithms, but instead focus on access patterns that only override already written data, and do not require allocation of new space for the data.
Besides write access from the boot loader code (as described above) these file systems will require write access from the OS, to facilitate boot loader and kernel/initrd updates. These types of accesses are generally not fully random accesses (i.e., never partial file updates) but usually mean adding new files as whole, and removing old files as a whole. Existing files are typically not modified once created, though they might be replaced wholly by newer versions.
Boot Loader Updates
Note that the update cycle frequencies for boot loaders and for kernels/initrds are probably similar these days. While kernels are still vastly more complex than boot loaders, security issues are regularly found in both. In particular, as boot loaders (through “shim” and similar components) carry certificate/keyring and denylist information, which typically require frequent updates. Update cycles hence have to be expected regularly.
Boot Partition Discovery
The traditional boot partition was not recognizable by looking just at the partition table. On MBR systems it was directly referenced from the boot sector of the disk, and on EFI systems from information stored in the ESP. This is less than ideal since by losing this entrypoint information the system becomes unbootable. It’s typically a better, more robust idea to make boot partitions recognizable as such in the partition table directly. This is done for the ESP via the GPT partition type UUID. For traditional boot partitions this was not done though.
Current Situation Summary
Let’s try to summarize the above:
Currently, typical deployments use two distinct boot partitions, often using two distinct file system implementations
Firmware effectively dictates existence of the ESP, and the use of vFAT
In userspace view: the ESP mount is nested below the general Boot partition mount
Resources stored in both partitions are primarily kernel/initrd, and boot loader resources
The mandatory use of vFAT brings certain data safety challenges, as does quality of firmware file system driver code
During boot limited write access is needed, during OS runtime more comprehensive write access is needed (though still not fully random).
Less restricted but still limited write patterns from OS environment (only full file additions/updates/removals, during OS/boot loader updates)
Boot loaders should not implement complex storage stacks.
ESP can be auto-discovered from the partition table, traditional boot partition cannot.
ESP and the traditional boot partition are not protected cryptographically neither in structure nor contents. It is expected that loaded files are individually authenticated after being read.
The ESP is a shared resource — the traditional boot partition a resource specific to each installed Linux OS on the same disk.
How to Do it Better
Now that we have discussed many of the issues with the status quo ante, let’s see how we can do things better:
Two partitions for essentially the same data is a bad idea. Given they carry data very similar or identical in nature, the common case should be to have only one (but see below).
Two file system implementations are worse than one. Given that vFAT is more or less mandated by UEFI and the only format universally understood by all players, and thus has to be used anyway, it might as well be the only file system that is used.
Data safety is unnecessarily bad so far: both ESP and boot partition are continuously mounted from the OS, even though access is pretty restricted: outside of update cycles access is typically not required.
All partitions should be auto-discoverable/self-descriptive
The two partitions should not be exposed as nested mounts to userspace
To be more specific, here’s how I think a better way to set this all up would look like:
Whenever possible, only have one boot partition, not two. On EFI systems, make it the ESP. On non-EFI systems use an XBOOTLDR partition instead (see below). Only have both in the case where a Linux OS is installed on a system that already contains an OS with an ESP that is too small to carry sufficient kernels/initrds. When a system contains a XBOOTLDR partition put kernels/initrd on that, otherwise the ESP.
Instead of the vaguely defined, traditional Linux “boot” partition use the XBOOTLDR partition type as defined by the Discoverable Partitions Specification. This ensures the partition is discoverable, and can be automatically mounted by things like
systemd-gpt-auto-generator. Use XBOOTLDR only if you have to, i.e., when dealing with systems that lack UEFI (and where the ESP hence has no value) or to address the mentioned size issues with the ESP. Note that unlike the traditional boot partition the XBOOTLDR partition is a shared resource, i.e., shared between multiple parallel Linux OS installations on the same disk. Because of this it is typically wise to place a per-OS directory at the top of the XBOOTLDR file system to avoid conflicts.
Use vFAT for both partitions, it’s the only thing universally understood among relevant firmwares and Linux. It’s simple enough to be useful for untrusted storage. Or to say this differently: writing a file system driver that is not easily vulnerable to rogue disk images is much easier for vFAT than for let’s say btrfs. – But the choice of vFAT implies some care needs to be taken to address the data safety issues it brings, see below.
Mount the two partitions via the “automount” logic. For example, via systemd’s automount units, with a very short idle time-out (one second or so). This improves data safety immensely, as the file systems will remain mounted (and thus possibly in a “dirty” state) only for very short periods of time, when they are actually accessed – and all that while the fact that they are not mounted continuously is mostly not noticeable for applications as the file system paths remain continuously around. Given that the backing file system (vFAT) has poor data safety properties, it is essential to shorten the access for unclean file system state as much as possible. In fact, this is what the aforementioned
systemd-gpt-auto-generatorlogic actually does by default.
Whenever mounting one of the two partitions, do a file system check (fsck; in fact this is also what
systemd-gpt-auto-generatordoes by default, hooked into the automount logic, to run on first access). This ensures that even if the file system is in an unclean state it is restored to be clean when needed, i.e., on first access.
Do not mount the two partitions nested, i.e., no more
/boot/efi/. First of all, as mentioned above, it should be possible (and is desirable) to only have one of the two. Hence it is simply a bad idea to require the other as well, just to be able to mount it. More importantly though, by nesting them, automounting is complicated, as it is necessary to trigger the first automount to establish the second automount, which defeats the point of automounting them in the first place. Use the two distinct mount points
/efi/(for the ESP) and
/boot/(for XBOOTLDR) instead. You might have guessed, but that too is what
systemd-gpt-auto-generatordoes by default.
When making additions or updates to ESP/XBOOTLDR from the OS make sure to create a file and write it in full, then
syncfs()the whole file system, then rename to give it its final name, and
syncfs()again. Similar when removing files.
When writing from the boot loader environment/UEFI to ESP/XBOOTLDR, do not append to files or create new files. Instead overwrite already allocated file contents (for example to maintain a random seed file) or rename already allocated files to include information in the file name (and ideally do not increase the file name in length; for example to maintain boot counters).
Consider adopting UKIs, which minimize the number of files that need to be updated on the ESP/XBOOTLDR during OS/kernel updates (ideally down to 1)
systemd-boot, which minimizes the number of files that need to be updated on boot loader updates (ideally down to 1)
Consider removing any mention of ESP/XBOOTLDR from
/etc/fstab, and just let
systemd-gpt-auto-generatordo its thing.
Stop implementing file systems, complex storage, disk encryption, … in your boot loader.
Implementing things like that you gain:
Simplicity: only one file system implementation, typically only one partition and mount point
Robust auto-discovery of all partitions, no need to even configure
Data safety guarantees as good as possible, given the circumstances
To summarize this in a table:
|Type||Linux Mount Point||File System Choice||Automount|
A note regarding modern boot loaders that implement the Boot Loader Specification: both partitions are explicitly listed in the specification as sources for both Type #1 and Type #2 boot menu entries. Hence, if you use such a modern boot loader (e.g. systemd-boot) these two partitions are the preferred location for boot loader resources, kernels and initrds anyway.
Addendum: You got RAID?
You might wonder, what about RAID setups and the ESP? This comes up regularly in discussions: how to set up the ESP so that (software) RAID1 (mirroring) can be done on the ESP. Long story short: I’d strongly advise against using RAID on the ESP. Firmware typically doesn’t have native RAID support, and given that firmware and boot loader can write to the file systems involved, any attempt to use software RAID on them will mean that a boot cycle might corrupt the RAID sync, and immediately requires a re-synchronization after boot. If RAID1 backing for the ESP is really necessary, the only way to implement that safely would be to implement this as a driver for UEFI – but that creates certain bootstrapping issues (i.e., where to place the driver if not the ESP, a file system the driver is supposed to be used for), and also reimplements a considerable component of the OS storage stack in firmware mode, which seems problematic.
So what to do instead? My recommendation would be to solve this via userspace tooling. If redundant disk support shall be implemented for the ESP, then create separate ESPs on all disks, and synchronize them on the file system level instead of the block level. Or in other words, the tools that install/update/manage kernels or boot loaders should be taught to maintain multiple ESPs instead of one. Copy the kernels/boot loader files to all of them, and remove them from all of them. Under the assumption that the goal of RAID is a more reliable system this should be the best way to achieve that, as it doesn’t pretend the firmware could do things it actually cannot do. Moreover it minimizes the complexity of the boot loader, shifting the syncing logic to userspace, where it’s typically easier to get right.
Addendum: Networked Boot
The discussion above focuses on booting up from a local disk. When thinking about networked boot I think two scenarios are particularly relevant:
PXE-style network booting. I think in this mode of operation focus should be on directly booting a single UKI image instead of a boot loader. This sidesteps the whole issue of maintaining any boot partition at all, and simplifies the boot process greatly. In scenarios where this is not sufficient, and an interactive boot menu or other boot loader features are desired, it might be a good idea to take inspiration from the UKI concept, and build a single boot loader EFI binary (such as systemd-boot), and include the UKIs for the boot menu items and other resources inside it via PE sections. Or in other words, build a single boot loader binary that is “supercharged” and contains all auxiliary resources in its own PE sections. (Note: this does not exist, it’s an idea I intend to explore with systemd-boot). Benefit: a single file has to be downloaded via PXE/TFTP, not more. Disadvantage: unused resources are downloaded unnecessarily. Either way: in this context there is no local storage, and the ESP/XBOOTLDR discussion above is without relevance.
Initrd-style network booting. In this scenario the boot loader and kernel/initrd (better: UKI) are available on a local disk. The initrd then configures the network and transitions to a network share or file system on a network block device for the root file system. In this case the discussion above applies, and in fact the ESP or XBOOTLDR partition would be the only partition available locally on disk.
And this is all I have for today.