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Linux boot sequence after GRUB

Version History
Date Description
Jan 6, 2021 minor update
Dec 23, 2020 initial version

This note is aboue the linux/grub boot protocol and a walk through of the low-level booting code.

This is adopted from my previous note. I was looking into this while I was building the LegoOS boot process. I was trying to find out how GRUB2 loads the kernel image and how it prepares all the boot environment.

Linux Boot Protocol and Code Sequence

Linux (x86) has a boot protocol between the bootloader and kernel image itself, described here.

Essentially, there is a contiguous memory region passing information between these two entities. This big region just like a big C struct: some fields are filled by kernel duing compile time (arch/x86/boot/tools/build.c and some in code), some fields are filled by GRUB2 during boot time to tell kernel some important addresses, e.g., kernel parameters, ramdisk locations etc.

GRUB2 code follows the protocol, and you can partially tell from the grub_cmd_linux() function.

Last time I working on this was late 2016, I truly spent a lot investigating how GRUB and linux boot works. I will try to document a bit, if my memory serves:

  1. In the Linux kernel, file arch/x86/boot/header.S is the first file got run after GRUB2. This file is a bit complicated but not hard to understand! It has 3 parts. For the first part, it detects if it was loaded by a bootloader, if not, just by printing an error message and reboot. It the kernel was loaded by a bootloader like GRUB2, the first part will never execute. The bootload will directly jump to the second part. This is part of the boot protocol. For the second part, it lists all the fields described by the boot protocol. And finally the third part is real-mode instructions that got run after the GRUB2 jumo. The starting function is called start_of_setup, which will do some stack checking, and then jump to C code in arch/x86/boot/main.c.

  2. arch/x86/boot/main.c runs on real-mode, it will do some setup and jump to protected-mode (32-bit). It is running after BIOS but before the actual Linux kernel. Thus this piece of code must rely on BIOS to do stuff, which makes it very unique. The major task of the setup code is to prepare the struct boot_params, which has all the boot information, some of them were extracted from the header.S. The struct boot_params will be passed down and used by many kernel subsystems later on. The final jump happens in arch/x86/boot/pmjump.S

            # Jump to protected-mode kernel, 0x100000
            # which is the compressed/head_$(BITS).o
            jmp     *%eax

  3. Then, we are in arch/x86/boot/compressed/head_64.S. Above pmjump jumps to startup_32, it will enable paging, tweak GDT table etc, setup pagetable, and transition to 64-bit entry point startup_64. And finally, we are in 64-bit. The final jump will go to arch/x86/kernel/head_64.S. We are close!

  4. Now we are in arch/x86/kernel/head_64.S. We are in 64-bit. But some further setup is needed. This part is really low-level and engaging. I would never know I how managed to understand and port all this shit. It setup a lot GDT, IDT stuff, and some pgfault handlers. It turns out those early pgfault handlers are NECESSARY and I remember they played an very interesting role! Finally, this assembly will jump to arch/x86/kernel/head64.c, the C code!

    • I guess an interesting part is secondary_startup_64. This code is actually run by non-booting CPUs, or secondary CPUs. After the major boot CPU is up and running (already within start_kernel()), I believe its the smp_init() that will send IPI wakeup interrupts to all present secondary CPUs. The secondary CPUs will start from real-mode, obviously. Then they will transition from 16bit to 32bit, from 32bit to 64bit. That code is in arch/x86/realmode/rm/trampoline.S!
    • arch/x86/realmode is interesting. It uses piggyback technique. All the real-mode and 32bit code are in arch/x86/realmode/rm/*, a special linker script is used to construct the code in a specific way! Think about mix 16bit, 32bit, 64bit code together, nasty!
  5. Hooray, C world. We are in arch/x86/kernel/head64.c. The starting function is x86_64_start_kernel! And the end is the start_kernel, the one in init/main.c.

In all, there are a lot jumps after GRUB2 loads the kernel image, and it’s really a long road before we can reach start_kernel(). It probably should not be this complex, but the x86 architecture is just making it worse.

GRUB2: linux v.s. linux16

An interesting thing is that there are two ways to load an kernel image in /boot/grub2/grub.cfg, either using linux vmlinuz-3.10.0 or linux16 vmlinuz-3.10.0. They have different effects. I remember only the linux16 one works for me, but not remembering why. At least on CentOS 7, it’s all linux16. Different distro may have different preferences?

The linux16 and initrd16 in grub-core/loader/i386/pc/linux.c:

  cmd_linux =
    grub_register_command ("linux16", grub_cmd_linux,
               0, N_("Load Linux."));
  cmd_initrd =
    grub_register_command ("initrd16", grub_cmd_initrd,
               0, N_("Load initrd."));
  my_mod = mod;

The linux and initrd in grub-core/loader/i386/linux.c:

static grub_command_t cmd_linux, cmd_initrd;

  cmd_linux = grub_register_command ("linux", grub_cmd_linux,
                     0, N_("Load Linux."));
  cmd_initrd = grub_register_command ("initrd", grub_cmd_initrd,
                      0, N_("Load initrd."));
  my_mod = mod;

Last update: January 7, 2021