Few problems that you may encounter when booting Linux

Table of contents

IntroductionBACK TO TOC

I thought I’d write a few things that I do with kernel when administrating my Linux machines. There are plenty of “how to compile your kernel” guides out there and I won’t write another one. Instead I want to mention few things that often neglected in those guides.

Let me give you an example. One very common situation is when you are trying to boot with your newly compiled kernel and it won’t boot. Or something got wrong and your network card isn’t working anymore. Are you familiar with these problems? If so, this article is for you.

Understanding the kernel installationBACK TO TOC

Lets start with simple understanding of the structure of the Linux kernel. In this section we’re not going to dig into kernel source tree. Instead we’ll talk a bit about kernel in its binary form.

Kernel binaryBACK TO TOC

No matter what Linux distribution you have, Linux kernel installed on your machine can be divided into two parts. First comes kernel binary. It is a single file that usually resides in /boot/ directory. The name of the file is usually vmlinuz followed by version number. For instance, vmlinuz- Some distributions have symbolic link /boot/vmlinuz pointing to real kernel file (still somewhere in /boot/). This however is not a necessity.

When I am thinking about why kernel file is compressed, I can’t think of a reasonable explanation. Today disk space is so cheap that we can safely spare few megabytes for uncompressed version of the kernel. I guess its a backward compatibility thing. Anyway, face it. Kernel binary file is compressed.

In case you’re wondering if you can decompress it, the answer is no. The problem is that the compressed portion of the kernel prepended with some uncompressed data. The size of the uncompressed portion varies. I’ve seen few people managing to extract uncompressed kernel image out of compressed one, but its fairly complex process.

Instead, it is a common practice to place an uncompressed version of the kernel in /boot/ directory. Common practice is to place file named vmlinux followed by the kernel version name and set /boot/vmlinux symbolic link to point to the uncompressed kernel (usually residing in the same directory).

Kernel version numberBACK TO TOC

You can have several kernels on one system. Each kernel has a version number. It might be a little long – version numbers like 2.6.21-8-default are common. Modern kernels start with 2.6. You can find the later version of kernel at the moment on kernel.org web-site. 2.6 actually is a major version of the latest stable kernel. Kernel developers use odd numbers to indicate development versions of the kernel and even numbers to indicate stable versions. Hence, 2.6 is stable and 2.5 is a development version.

In case you’re wondering what version of the kernel you have, you can always check this with uname -r command. Like this:

# uname -r

Kernel modulesBACK TO TOC

Other part of kernel resides in many smaller files under /lib/modules/ directory. These are kernel modules.

Under /lib/modules/ there is a directory per kernel installed on your system. Each sub-directory named as kernel version. I.e if you’re running kernel 2.6.21-8-default, you’ll find directory named 2.6.21-8-default in /lib/modules/.

Every kernel directory under /lib/modules/ contains several files and directories. Few of them are important to remember. For instance, build is a symbolic pointing for directory where the kernel has been built (usually somewhere in /usr/src although it can be anywhere). kernel directory contains several sub-directories that contain actual modules (or directories that contain modules – anyway no module reside outside of kernel). Finally, it contains several files that start with modules. These files used by different utilities such as modprobe to locate right modules and resolve dependencies between them.

Linux boot process explainedBACK TO TOC

Now I would like to say few words about how Linux boots. The overall boot process involves several complicated steps, eventually leading to the kernel.

First, kernel being loaded into memory, decompressed and started. One of the first things kernel does when it starts is loading something called initrd. You may’ve met this name before. I would like to explain what it is.

Initial ram-diskBACK TO TOC

In case you didn’t know, you can create a small virtual hard drive in your RAM. Eventually it does not matter what medium sits beneath the file-system. As long as you can read and write it, you can create a file-system on it, thus you can mount it and work with it as if it was a real hard disk.

RAM disk is exactly this – virtual hard disk that resides in the memory. You can format it and you can mount it.

When you create one, you usually create it empty. However, ram-disks are not necessarily empty. You can create a ram-disk, write some data to it, save the ram-disk image into a file and then mount it again. This is exactly what Linux developers did with initial ram-disk.

Initial ram-disk or shorter initrd is a file-system in a file. When system boots kernel loads it from hard drive into RAM. In case you want to know more about initrd, read my article about internal structure of initrd. You can find it here.

Mounting root file-systemBACK TO TOC

This is where most of the fresh kernel compilations fail. Next thing kernel does after loading initrd and running the script is trying to mount the real root file-system. At this moment it should have a file-system driver, disk driver and proper device file configuration.

You need a file-system driver because kernel has to understand the structure of the data on the disk. File-systems usually implemented in one or several kernel modules – mostly one. One very common exception is ext3 file-system. It’s built of two modules, ext3.ko and jbd.ko.

Having right disk driver can be more complicated. Generic IDE controller support is now built into the kernel in vast majority of distributions. Yet SCSI controllers support may be a bit of a problem. With SCSI disks you need three modules:

  1. scsi_mod.ko – This module contains generic SCSI support.
  2. sd_mod.ko – This module contains SCSI disks driver.
  3. Kernel module with driver for you SCSI controller.

Missing any of these will cause your system to fail to boot.

Finally, last thing that required for your system to boot are device files. Each represent a device, as you know. In particular, SCSI disks should have device files. Each partition on the device should have a device files and most important device files should point to right locations.

A common problem occurs when you introduce a new SCSI disk into your system. Deciding how to present a new SCSI disk to your system is up to SCSI controller and the controller driver. You may find yourself in a situation when before the change in RAID configuration your root file-system was on /dev/sda, but after the change it is on /dev/sdb. This often occurs when you have RAID with sparse LUNs and you fill in the gaps between SCSI LUNs.

Different distributions use different ways to create required device files. In some Linux distributions, mkinitrd itself creates all needed device files. In others initrd carries udev daemon that creates needed files on the go.

In any case, lack of appropriate device files can definitely be a good reason for the system to stop operating properly.

init and servicesBACK TO TOC

Next thing kernel does after mounting real root file-system is running a program named init. This program becomes first process that runs in your system. The executable file usually resides in /sbin/ directory. The way this program works differs from distribution to distribution. Actually this is one of the major differences between different distributions.

One thing that remains unchanged is the fact that there’s a manual page for init that tells how it works. On some systems it runs scripts located in /etc/init.d. On other systems it will run scripts from /etc/event.d directory. Yet it will always run some scripts.

init levelsBACK TO TOC

The scripts divided into several categories. Such division is merely a compatibility issue – older Unix system had them, so Linux has them too. Categories don’t have names. Instead they are numbered from 0 to 6. Each category responsible for certain stage of the session. By session I mean everything that happens from the moment machine boots, until the moment it’s being shut down. During this period, machine is always in one of the init levels, meaning it has executed scripts belonging to all categories from 0 up to the current one.

For instance, normally you work in either init level 3 or level 5. 3 stands for multi-user environment that supports networking – meaning that at level 3 system has ran all scripts needed to allow several users to login and do some networking stuff. Level 5 includes everything that is in level 3 and also support for X windows. Hence when you work in graphical environment, you are at level 5 and if you are working with console, you are in level 3. On the contrary, level 1 stands for single-user no-network environment. Level 6 is a reboot level, switched to when system shuts down.

Some levels are not in use. Different distributions use level 2 and 4 in different manner, but most of the time they do nothing meaningful.


By the way, in nearly all Linux distributions, init scripts start so called services. Services are programs that run in the background and so some useful stuff, e.g SSH server usually runs as a service. Each service has a script that starts and stops it.

One of the things that may go wrong when booting your system is one of the service scripts (or script that runs service scripts). Perhaps you’ve changed something yourself. Or one of the system variables that affect one of the scripts can get wrong and cause the script to misbehave.

Booting Linux with broken init scriptsBACK TO TOC

Luckily, there’s a simple way to boot the system even if you don’t have a rescue disk or don’t have an option to stop boot process at level 1, before most of the init scripts are executed (in RedHat Linux descendants you can press I to stop boot process on level 1). You can pass init=/bin/bash argument to the kernel, when booting the system. This will cause the system to execute /bin/bash instead of init. If you do that, instead of regular boot process you will find youself in a shell. In this environment you probably won’t have PATH variable set properly so don’t be surprised when it cannot find vi – help it by providing full path to the executable you would like to run. You can use this limited shell to fix whatever got wrong with scripts that being involved in the boot process.

Passing arguments to kernel is easy. You can do this via GRUB boot menu. Usually you select configuration you would like to boot with from the list and then press ‘e’ key to edit it. Then you select line starting with kernel, press ‘e’ again to edit it and append init=/bin/bash to the end. Then you just press enter few times to boot the system.

ConclusionBACK TO TOC

There’s always a place for surprise of course. Also, there’re so many different types of Linux, so it is nearly impossible to describe how to boot a faulty system. Yet I think I’ve covered most of the important and common stuff. In case you have problems, suggestions or just things to say about this article, please fill free to leave a comment or email me at alexander.sandler@gmail.com.

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  1. Directory says:

    Very informative article, which I found quite useful. Cheers ,Jay

  2. @Directory
    Thanks Jay. Please visit again for even more informative articles.

  3. Andre Goddard Rosa says:

    Really nice article again!

    I’d like to complement saying that one of the main motivations for having initrd is to allow distributions shipping very simple kernels (with generic part that everybody needs) and adding more features (modules to load etc.) dynamically, after hardware probe during distribution installation.

  4. Charlene Mendez says:

    interesting. myself I have just found this cool CD for booting and repairing Windows at windowsbootcd.com, trying it out right now

  5. Jaroslaw Kubik says:

    I already know this init=/bin/bash trick – I was experimenting with it a while ago, and I was wondering how is the init process different from any other. I tried following approach: boot with init=/bin/bash -> do what needs to be done to system -> call exec /bin/init to run system as it normally would. This however caused only some error message to pop-up. How init knows that I am trying to trick it , and it’s not being run directly from kernel?

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