distri: 20x faster initramfs (initrd) from scratch

published 2020-01-21, last modified 2020-02-03 in tags distri debian golang
Table of contents

In case you are not yet familiar with why an initramfs (or initrd, or initial ramdisk) is typically used when starting Linux, let me quote the wikipedia definition:

“[…] initrd is a scheme for loading a temporary root file system into memory, which may be used as part of the Linux startup process […] to make preparations before the real root file system can be mounted.”

Many Linux distributions do not compile all file system drivers into the kernel, but instead load them on-demand from an initramfs, which saves memory.

Another common scenario, in which an initramfs is required, is full-disk encryption: the disk must be unlocked from userspace, but since userspace is encrypted, an initramfs is used.


Thus far, building a distri disk image was quite slow:

This is on an AMD Ryzen 3900X 12-core processor (2019):

distri % time make cryptimage serial=1
80.29s user 13.56s system 186% cpu 50.419 total # 19s image, 31s initrd

Of these 50 seconds, dracut’s initramfs generation accounts for 31 seconds (62%)!

Initramfs generation time drops to 8.7 seconds once dracut no longer needs to use the single-threaded gzip(1) , but the multi-threaded replacement pigz(1) :

This brings the total time to build a distri disk image down to:

distri % time make cryptimage serial=1
76.85s user 13.23s system 327% cpu 27.509 total # 19s image, 8.7s initrd

Clearly, when you use dracut on any modern computer, you should make pigz available. dracut should fail to compile unless one explicitly opts into the known-slower gzip. For more thoughts on optional dependencies, see “Optional dependencies don’t work”.

But why does it take 8.7 seconds still? Can we go faster?

The answer is Yes! I recently built a distri-specific initramfs I’m calling minitrd. I wrote both big parts from scratch:

  1. the initramfs generator program (distri initrd)
  2. a custom Go userland (cmd/minitrd), running as /init in the initramfs.

minitrd generates the initramfs image in ≈400ms, bringing the total time down to:

distri % time make cryptimage serial=1
50.09s user 8.80s system 314% cpu 18.739 total # 18s image, 400ms initrd

(The remaining time is spent in preparing the file system, then installing and configuring the distri system, i.e. preparing a disk image you can run on real hardware.)

How can minitrd be 20 times faster than dracut?

dracut is mainly written in shell, with a C helper program. It drives the generation process by spawning lots of external dependencies (e.g. ldd or the dracut-install helper program). I assume that the combination of using an interpreted language (shell) that spawns lots of processes and precludes a concurrent architecture is to blame for the poor performance.

minitrd is written in Go, with speed as a goal. It leverages concurrency and uses no external dependencies; everything happens within a single process (but with enough threads to saturate modern hardware).

Measuring early boot time using qemu, I measured the dracut-generated initramfs taking 588ms to display the full disk encryption passphrase prompt, whereas minitrd took only 195ms.

The rest of this article dives deeper into how minitrd works.

What does an initramfs do?

Ultimately, the job of an initramfs is to make the root file system available and continue booting the system from there. Depending on the system setup, this involves the following 5 steps:

1. Load kernel modules to access the block devices with the root file system

Depending on the system, the block devices with the root file system might already be present when the initramfs runs, or some kernel modules might need to be loaded first. On my Dell XPS 9360 laptop, the NVMe system disk is already present when the initramfs starts, whereas in qemu, we need to load the virtio_pci module, followed by the virtio_scsi module.

How will our userland program know which kernel modules to load? Linux kernel modules declare patterns for their supported hardware as an alias, e.g.:

initrd# grep virtio_pci lib/modules/5.4.6/modules.alias
alias pci:v00001AF4d*sv*sd*bc*sc*i* virtio_pci

Devices in sysfs have a modalias file whose content can be matched against these declarations to identify the module to load:

initrd# cat /sys/devices/pci0000:00/*/modalias

Hence, for the initial round of module loading, it is sufficient to locate all modalias files within sysfs and load the responsible modules.

Loading a kernel module can result in new devices appearing. When that happens, the kernel sends a uevent, which the uevent consumer in userspace receives via a netlink socket. Typically, this consumer is udev(7) , but in our case, it’s minitrd.

For each uevent messages that comes with a MODALIAS variable, minitrd will load the relevant kernel module(s).

When loading a kernel module, its dependencies need to be loaded first. Dependency information is stored in the modules.dep file in a Makefile-like syntax:

initrd# grep virtio_pci lib/modules/5.4.6/modules.dep
kernel/drivers/virtio/virtio_pci.ko: kernel/drivers/virtio/virtio_ring.ko kernel/drivers/virtio/virtio.ko

To load a module, we can open its file and then call the Linux-specific finit_module(2) system call. Some modules are expected to return an error code, e.g. ENODEV or ENOENT when some hardware device is not actually present.

Side note: next to the textual versions, there are also binary versions of the modules.alias and modules.dep files. Presumably, those can be queried more quickly, but for simplicitly, I have not (yet?) implemented support in minitrd.

2. Console settings: font, keyboard layout

Setting a legible font is necessary for hi-dpi displays. On my Dell XPS 9360 (3200 x 1800 QHD+ display), the following works well:

initrd# setfont latarcyrheb-sun32

Setting the user’s keyboard layout is necessary for entering the LUKS full-disk encryption passphrase in their preferred keyboard layout. I use the NEO layout:

initrd# loadkeys neo

3. Block device identification

In the Linux kernel, block device enumeration order is not necessarily the same on each boot. Even if it was deterministic, device order could still be changed when users modify their computer’s device topology (e.g. connect a new disk to a formerly unused port).

Hence, it is good style to refer to disks and their partitions with stable identifiers. This also applies to boot loader configuration, and so most distributions will set a kernel parameter such as root=UUID=1fa04de7-30a9-4183-93e9-1b0061567121.

Identifying the block device or partition with the specified UUID is the initramfs’s job.

Depending on what the device contains, the UUID comes from a different place. For example, ext4 file systems have a UUID field in their file system superblock, whereas LUKS volumes have a UUID in their LUKS header.

Canonically, probing a device to extract the UUID is done by libblkid from the util-linux package, but the logic can easily be re-implemented in other languages and changes rarely. minitrd comes with its own implementation to avoid cgo or running the blkid(8) program.

4. LUKS full-disk encryption unlocking (only on encrypted systems)

Unlocking a LUKS-encrypted volume is done in userspace. The kernel handles the crypto, but reading the metadata, obtaining the passphrase (or e.g. key material from a file) and setting up the device mapper table entries are done in user space.

initrd# modprobe algif_skcipher
initrd# cryptsetup luksOpen /dev/sda4 cryptroot1

After the user entered their passphrase, the root file system can be mounted:

initrd# mount /dev/dm-0 /mnt

5. Continuing the boot process (switch_root)

Now that everything is set up, we need to pass execution to the init program on the root file system with a careful sequence of chdir(2) , mount(2) , chroot(2) , chdir(2) and execve(2) system calls that is explained in this busybox switch_root comment.

initrd# mount -t devtmpfs dev /mnt/dev
initrd# exec switch_root -c /dev/console /mnt /init

To conserve RAM, the files in the temporary file system to which the initramfs archive is extracted are typically deleted.

How is an initramfs generated?

An initramfs “image” (more accurately: archive) is a compressed cpio archive. Typically, gzip compression is used, but the kernel supports a bunch of different algorithms and distributions such as Ubuntu are switching to lz4.

Generators typically prepare a temporary directory and feed it to the cpio(1) program. In minitrd, we read the files into memory and generate the cpio archive using the go-cpio package. We use the pgzip package for parallel gzip compression.

The following files need to go into the cpio archive:

minitrd Go userland

The minitrd binary is copied into the cpio archive as /init and will be run by the kernel after extracting the archive.

Like the rest of distri, minitrd is built statically without cgo, which means it can be copied as-is into the cpio archive.

Linux kernel modules

Aside from the modules.alias and modules.dep metadata files, the kernel modules themselves reside in e.g. /lib/modules/5.4.6/kernel and need to be copied into the cpio archive.

Copying all modules results in a ≈80 MiB archive, so it is common to only copy modules that are relevant to the initramfs’s features. This reduces archive size to ≈24 MiB.

The filtering relies on hard-coded patterns and module names. For example, disk encryption related modules are all kernel modules underneath kernel/crypto, plus kernel/drivers/md/dm-crypt.ko.

When generating a host-only initramfs (works on precisely the computer that generated it), some initramfs generators look at the currently loaded modules and just copy those.

Console Fonts and Keymaps

The kbd package’s setfont(8) and loadkeys(1) programs load console fonts and keymaps from /usr/share/consolefonts and /usr/share/keymaps, respectively.

Hence, these directories need to be copied into the cpio archive. Depending on whether the initramfs should be generic (work on many computers) or host-only (works on precisely the computer/settings that generated it), the entire directories are copied, or only the required font/keymap.

cryptsetup, setfont, loadkeys

These programs are (currently) required because minitrd does not implement their functionality.

As they are dynamically linked, not only the programs themselves need to be copied, but also the ELF dynamic linking loader (path stored in the .interp ELF section) and any ELF library dependencies.

For example, cryptsetup in distri declares the ELF interpreter /ro/glibc-amd64-2.27-3/out/lib/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 and declares dependencies on shared libraries libcryptsetup.so.12, libblkid.so.1 and others. Luckily, in distri, packages contain a lib subdirectory containing symbolic links to the resolved shared library paths (hermetic packaging), so it is sufficient to mirror the lib directory into the cpio archive, recursing into shared library dependencies of shared libraries.

cryptsetup also requires the GCC runtime library libgcc_s.so.1 to be present at runtime, and will abort with an error message about not being able to call pthread_cancel(3) if it is unavailable.

time zone data

To print log messages in the correct time zone, we copy /etc/localtime from the host into the cpio archive.

minitrd outside of distri?

I currently have no desire to make minitrd available outside of distri. While the technical challenges (such as extending the generator to not rely on distri’s hermetic packages) are surmountable, I don’t want to support people’s initramfs remotely.

Also, I think that people’s efforts should in general be spent on rallying behind dracut and making it work faster, thereby benefiting all Linux distributions that use dracut (increasingly more). With minitrd, I have demonstrated that significant speed-ups are achievable.


It was interesting to dive into how an initramfs really works. I had been working with the concept for many years, from small tasks such as “debug why the encrypted root file system is not unlocked” to more complicated tasks such as “set up a root file system on DRBD for a high-availability setup”. But even with that sort of experience, I didn’t know all the details, until I was forced to implement every little thing.

As I suspected going into this exercise, dracut is much slower than it needs to be. Re-implementing its generation stage in a modern language instead of shell helps a lot.

Of course, my minitrd does a bit less than dracut, but not drastically so. The overall architecture is the same.

I hope my effort helps with two things:

  1. As a teaching implementation: instead of wading through the various components that make up a modern initramfs (udev, systemd, various shell scripts, …), people can learn about how an initramfs works in a single place.

  2. I hope the significant time difference motivates people to improve dracut.

Appendix: qemu development environment

Before writing any Go code, I did some manual prototyping. Learning how other people prototype is often immensely useful to me, so I’m sharing my notes here.

First, I copied all kernel modules and a statically built busybox binary:

% mkdir -p lib/modules/5.4.6
% cp -Lr /ro/lib/modules/5.4.6/* lib/modules/5.4.6/
% cp ~/busybox-1.22.0-amd64/busybox sh

To generate an initramfs from the current directory, I used:

% find . | cpio -o -H newc | pigz > /tmp/initrd

In distri’s Makefile, I append these flags to the QEMU invocation:

-kernel /tmp/kernel \
-initrd /tmp/initrd \
-append "root=/dev/mapper/cryptroot1 rdinit=/sh ro console=ttyS0,115200 rd.luks=1 rd.luks.uuid=63051f8a-54b9-4996-b94f-3cf105af2900 rd.luks.name=63051f8a-54b9-4996-b94f-3cf105af2900=cryptroot1 rd.vconsole.keymap=neo rd.vconsole.font=latarcyrheb-sun32 init=/init systemd.setenv=PATH=/bin rw vga=836"

The vga= mode parameter is required for loading font latarcyrheb-sun32.

Once in the busybox shell, I manually prepared the required mount points and kernel modules:

ln -s sh mount
ln -s sh lsmod
mkdir /proc /sys /run /mnt
mount -t proc proc /proc
mount -t sysfs sys /sys
mount -t devtmpfs dev /dev
modprobe virtio_pci
modprobe virtio_scsi

As a next step, I copied cryptsetup and dependencies into the initramfs directory:

% for f in /ro/cryptsetup-amd64-2.0.4-6/lib/*; do full=$(readlink -f $f); rel=$(echo $full | sed 's,^/,,g'); mkdir -p $(dirname $rel); install $full $rel; done
% ln -s ld-2.27.so ro/glibc-amd64-2.27-3/out/lib/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2
% cp /ro/glibc-amd64-2.27-3/out/lib/ld-2.27.so ro/glibc-amd64-2.27-3/out/lib/ld-2.27.so
% cp -r /ro/cryptsetup-amd64-2.0.4-6/lib ro/cryptsetup-amd64-2.0.4-6/
% mkdir -p ro/gcc-libs-amd64-8.2.0-3/out/lib64/
% cp /ro/gcc-libs-amd64-8.2.0-3/out/lib64/libgcc_s.so.1 ro/gcc-libs-amd64-8.2.0-3/out/lib64/libgcc_s.so.1
% ln -s /ro/gcc-libs-amd64-8.2.0-3/out/lib64/libgcc_s.so.1 ro/cryptsetup-amd64-2.0.4-6/lib
% cp -r /ro/lvm2-amd64-2.03.00-6/lib ro/lvm2-amd64-2.03.00-6/

In busybox, I used the following commands to unlock the root file system:

modprobe algif_skcipher
./cryptsetup luksOpen /dev/sda4 cryptroot1
mount /dev/dm-0 /mnt