1. Introduction

In the world of Linux, the root filesystem (rootfs) holds paramount importance. As Linux enthusiasts and system administrators, we must understand how Linux identifies the location of rootfs during the boot process.

In this tutorial, we’ll explore the intricacies of rootfs and delve into the mechanisms that Linux employs to find it.

2. Understanding the Linux Boot Process

Before we dive into rootfs, let’s properly understand the Linux boot process and establish a solid foundation. The Linux boot process, while complex, is a well-orchestrated sequence of events that seamlessly leads to the system’s startup. The kernel, bootloader, and initial RAM filesystem (initramfs) contribute distinctively to the successful bootup of a Linux system.

We begin with the kernel, the first program to load into memory when we power up a Linux system. Tasked with initializing the system and kickstarting essential processes, the kernel is fundamental to the Linux operating system. Yet, the kernel alone cannot perform all the functions necessary for a successful boot. This is where the initramfs and bootloader step in.

2.1. initramfs

The initramfs serves as a temporary bridge between the kernel and the actual root filesystem. Residing in the Random Access Memory (RAM) during the boot process, this temporary filesystem is pivotal to successfully booting modern Linux systems because it equips the kernel with access to vital drivers and tools required to mount the root filesystem.

Instead of having all these drivers and tools built directly into the kernel (which could make it large and less flexible), they’re packaged into initramfs. This temporary filesystem is loaded by the bootloader and unpacked into RAM, providing the necessary resources to the kernel.

2.2. The Bootloader

Conversely, the bootloader has a different yet equally crucial role. As the initial software program that springs into action upon system power-up, the bootloader’s primary duty is to locate and load the Linux kernel and initramfs into memory. Once it accomplishes this task, the bootloader transfers control to the kernel, taking over the rest of the boot process.

To sum it up, the bootloader ensures a seamless and successful bootup of the Linux system by precisely orchestrating the loading of the kernel and initramfs into memory. Although various bootloaders are available, such as GRUB or U-Boot, they all share the critical role of setting the stage for the boot sequence.

3. Role of rootfs in the Boot Process

In Linux, rootfs is a special kind of RAM-based filesystem that the kernel uses at the very beginning of the boot process. It’s the first filesystem the kernel has access to and plays a significant role in enabling further system operations. However, this rootfs version is temporary and will be replaced by the actual root filesystem from the physical storage or network, as defined by the system configuration.

Notably, not all systems employ initramfs or rootfs. Some systems may use an initial RAM disk (initrd), while others might directly mount the final root filesystem, skipping these intermediate steps. Also, rootfs is similar to tmpfs filesystems, which are typically mounted on directories like /run, /dev/shm, or /tmp, but rootfs has a distinct feature. The differentiation stems from rootfs being a minimalistic, empty filesystem residing in the page cache, whereas tmpfs could be backed by swap space if available.

However, there are scenarios when the root filesystem is not designed to reside in RAM, but is intended to be situated on physical storage devices such as eMMC, flash drives, or others. In these instances, the kernel must access necessary information regarding the location of the root filesystem as part of the boot process.

4. Setting Up rootfs

Configuring the root filesystem correctly is vital for a successful boot. Linux provides mechanisms to define the root filesystem, whether it’s in RAM or physical storage.


The kernel’s build process is critical in configuring rootfs within RAM. A pivotal element of this setup is a gzipped, cpio-format initramfs archive. The kernel relies on the CONFIG_INITRAMFS_SOURCE configuration option to specify this archive’s location and contents. As the boot process begins, this archive unpacks into rootfs, thus equipping the kernel with the vital resources necessary for further progression.

Furthermore, the configuration parameter CONFIG_INITRAMFS_SOURCE is instrumental at the outset of the boot process. This parameter, contained within the Linux kernel configuration file, delineates the location and the content of initramfs. As the boot process begins, the kernel mounts initramfs to serve as the initial root filesystem. Typically, initramfs houses the necessary utilities and drivers to mount rootfs.

4.2. Role of U-Boot and Environment Variables

When the bootloader in question is U-Boot, environment variables transfer crucial information to the kernel at boot time. These variables can specify the rootfs location, offering clear directions as to whether it’s present in RAM or on physical storage.

Furthermore, these environment variables could be set in U-Boot’s configuration file or provided interactively during a U-Boot session at startup. For example, we might set the bootargs environment variable to contain the kernel command line, including the root= parameter to indicate the root filesystem’s location.

Ultimately, the precise setup of the root filesystem, aided by CONFIG_INITRAMFS_SOURCE and U-Boot’s environment variables, lays the groundwork for a successful Linux boot process.

5. Handling rootfs

Handling the root filesystem involves various methods, including rootfs on physical storage and using initrd and initramfs. Understanding these mechanisms is vital for effective root filesystem configuration.

5.1. rootfs on Physical Storage vs. RAM

If the root filesystem is on physical storage, the kernel must locate and mount it during the boot process. Typically, a boot argument relays rootfs location to the kernel, providing the kernel with vital information about where to find the root filesystem.

Notably, when rootfs resides in RAM, it offers fast read/write speeds, contributing to quick system boot times. However, its size is limited by the available RAM, and its contents are temporary. On the other hand, having rootfs on physical storage such as hard disk drives (HDDs) or solid-state drives (SSDs) offers larger storage capacity and persistence across reboots, but it generally has slower read/write speeds than RAM.

5.2. The Use of initrd and initramfs

Historically, initrd (an older mechanism) was preferred over contemporary initramfs. initrd constituted a RAM-based block device equipped with a real filesystem, with its image supplied akin to the present-day cpio archive in initramfs.

On the other hand, initramfs is an archive (usually compressed cpio format) that the kernel unpacks into rootfs in RAM. It can either be embedded in the kernel image during build time or supplied by the bootloader.

However, most systems today lean towards the modern initramfs due to its superior efficiency and flexibility. This is because initrd requires a separate filesystem driver, while initramfs uses the existing VFS and page cache mechanisms. This makes initramfs a more lightweight solution.

5.3. Benefits of initramfs as a Separate File

When we configure the bootloader to load the kernel and the initramfs as distinct files, there’s no need to use CONFIG_INITRAMFS_SOURCE during the kernel build. Instead, the bootloader loads the initramfs file and shares information about its memory location and size with the kernel. This method allows more straightforward modifications to the initramfs file without rebuilding the kernel.

Additionally, the flexibility of using a customized initramfs file comes in handy when creating tailored configurations or troubleshooting boot issues. If needed, it empowers us to specify a different initramfs file at boot time.

6. Mechanisms to Locate rootfs

The Linux kernel uses various mechanisms to locate the root filesystem during the boot process. Understanding these mechanisms provides insights into how Linux identifies rootfs.

6.1. How the Kernel Locates rootfs

When the kernel initializes during boot, it must determine the root filesystem’s location to proceed with the boot process. The root filesystem serves as the starting point for the entire Linux system.

One common way to specify the root filesystem’s location to the kernel is through the root= command-line argument. The bootloader passes this argument to the kernel and provides crucial information about where the root filesystem is located.

For example, the bootloader might pass a boot argument like root=/dev/sda1, indicating that the root filesystem is on the disk’s first partition with the identifier /dev/sda. The kernel interprets this information and mounts the specified partition as the root filesystem.

6.2. Device Tree

In certain architectures, such as ARM, the bootloader can provide information about the root filesystem’s location using the device tree mechanism. The device tree provides a hierarchical description of the hardware configuration, including storage devices and their locations.

6.3. Network Boot

In scenarios where we serve the root filesystem over a network using technologies like Network File System (NFS) or Internet Small Computer System Interface (iSCSI), the kernel must know the network location to mount the root filesystem. Typically, the root filesystem loads into memory before boot via Preboot Execution Environment (PXE) and Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP) and then is mounted via NFS or iSCSI.

However, for network boot, technologies like Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) provide network parameters to the client system. Additionally, TFTP helps fetch the necessary files (like the kernel and initrd) from the server. Once these files load into memory, the system can mount the root filesystem over the network protocol, which effectively streams the filesystem over the network to the client system.

7. Conclusion

Comprehending how Linux identifies the root filesystem’s location is vital for efficient configuration and troubleshooting of the boot process. Furthermore, rootfs, whether in RAM or physical storage, plays a crucial role in kickstarting the Linux system.

However, with mechanisms like the root= command-line argument and bootloader environment variables, we can dictate the root filesystem’s location during boot. The flexibility of using initramfs as a separate file provides opportunities for customization and tailored configurations. By mastering these concepts as Linux enthusiasts, we can navigate the intricacies of rootfs and ensure a smooth boot experience for our Linux systems.

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