Installing LinuxBoot on an Intel S2600 mainboard

Additional Reasons for LinuxBoot

Just in case the front page did not convince you…

  • You can use any filesystem that Linux supports, not just FAT.
  • You can implement boot policies using normal Linux applications, e.g. shell scripts or binaries, rather than manipulating opaque NVRAM variables.
  • You can run Linux applications straight from the ROM.
  • You can avoid legacy partitions entirely and use LVM for flexible volume management.
  • You can build it yourself and verify that the reproducible build matches what others have built to ensure that the firmware is clean.
  • You can have the firmware attest to you via TOTP that it hasn’t been changed.
  • You can have a fully encrypted disk, with secrets sealed in the TPM and only unsealed if the firmware is unmodified.
  • You can include device drivers for things that UEFI doesn’t support.
  • You can use external hardware tokens like a Yubikey to sign the OS install and have the firmware validate the GPG signature.

LinuxBoot, NERF, HEADS? What’s What?

  • LinuxBoot is the project that replaces specific firmware functionality with a Linux kernel. LinuxBoot is agnostic to what initramfs is used with the kernel.

  • NERF is LinuxBoot with u-root as the initramfs. u-root contains boot policy tools in Go (e.g. PXE booting, booting via GRUB config) among standard busybox-like utilities rewritten in Go.

  • HEADS is a secure runtime that can be used as the initramfs for LinuxBoot. Take a look at the LinuxBoot branch of HEADS. See for more documentation on HEADS.

Initially, all three of these projects were called NERF. Because this would have only become more confusing, and because we do not want to be prescriptive of the initramfs, we named the Linux kernel in firmware LinuxBoot.

Will Anyone Ever Ship This?

Horizon Computing plans to ship Open Compute Platform Winterfell nodes with LinuxBoot/NERF in Q2 2018.

Do I Need A coreboot-compatible Motherboard?

No, LinuxBoot is compatible with UEFI as well as coreboot. You can use LinuxBoot as a UEFI DXE or as a coreboot payload. See Ron Minnich’s talk “Replace your exploit-ridden firmware with a Linux kernel”: video / slides

What Does Booting Look Like?

Our generally recommended approach is to use the Linux kernel in ROM to locate the actual kernel you want to boot, verify it is signed as you expect, and boot that using kexec. This could be done by implementing PXE booting in userspace, or finding a kernel on a mounted disk, or whatever way you desire. You may want to check out NERF or HEADS for tools to do this (see section below).

You could boot straight into the Linux kernel in ROM and use that; however this is likely undesired due to space constraints. There may be a different set of requirements for the kernel in ROM than for the kernel you want to run in production: the kernel in ROM needs to fit in ROM and should contain the smallest attack surface possible, so it should be compiled with the lowest common denominator of kernel features you need. That means it likely lacks features you may want to use in a Linux kernel.

Technical Details

Platform init and memory training

As part of the hardware setup the so called “SoC” init is required. It consists of the platform bring-up and memory training. If the RAM training succeeds the Linux kernel can be loaded.

x86 bootblock magic

Under x86 architecture there is no cache as RAM support from the beginning of the platform init. Therefore, a register must be used as memory in order to initialize CAR.

Cache As RAM

In order to do RAM training some sort of memory is needed. That is why the CPU caches are utilized.

What about SMM, ACPI, PCI DT and GFX init?

Graphics init and PCI Device Tree enumeration are already part of the linux kernel. System Management Mode can be integrated as well. ACPI table generation is currently not supported and should be done by the firmware instead.