33.2. A Detailed Look at the Boot Process

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The beginning of the boot process varies depending on the hardware platform being used. However, once the kernel is found and loaded by the boot loader, the default boot process is identical across all architectures. This chapter focuses primarily on the x86 architecture.

33.2.1. The BIOS

When an x86 computer is booted, the processor looks at the end of system memory for the Basic Input/Output System or BIOS program and runs it. The BIOS controls not only the first step of the boot process, but also provides the lowest level interface to peripheral devices. For this reason it is written into read-only, permanent memory and is always available for use.
Other platforms use different programs to perform low-level tasks roughly equivalent to those of the BIOS on an x86 system. For instance, Itanium-based computers use the Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) Shell.
Once loaded, the BIOS tests the system, looks for and checks peripherals, and then locates a valid device with which to boot the system. Usually, it checks any diskette drives and CD-ROM drives present for bootable media, then, failing that, looks to the system's hard drives. In most cases, the order of the drives searched while booting is controlled with a setting in the BIOS, and it looks on the master IDE device on the primary IDE bus. The BIOS then loads into memory whatever program is residing in the first sector of this device, called the Master Boot Record or MBR. The MBR is only 512 bytes in size and contains machine code instructions for booting the machine, called a boot loader, along with the partition table. Once the BIOS finds and loads the boot loader program into memory, it yields control of the boot process to it.

33.2.2. The Boot Loader

This section looks at the default boot loader for the x86 platform, GRUB. Depending on the system's architecture, the boot process may differ slightly. Refer to Section, “Boot Loaders for Other Architectures” for a brief overview of non-x86 boot loaders. For more information about configuring and using GRUB, see Chapter 9, The GRUB Boot Loader.
A boot loader for the x86 platform is broken into at least two stages. The first stage is a small machine code binary on the MBR. Its sole job is to locate the second stage boot loader and load the first part of it into memory.
GRUB has the advantage of being able to read ext2 and ext3 [13] partitions and load its configuration file — /boot/grub/grub.conf — at boot time. Refer to Section 9.7, “GRUB Menu Configuration File” for information on how to edit this file.


If upgrading the kernel using the Red Hat Update Agent, the boot loader configuration file is updated automatically. More information on Red Hat Network can be found online at the following URL:
Once the second stage boot loader is in memory, it presents the user with a graphical screen showing the different operating systems or kernels it has been configured to boot. On this screen a user can use the arrow keys to choose which operating system or kernel they wish to boot and press Enter. If no key is pressed, the boot loader loads the default selection after a configurable period of time has passed.
Once the second stage boot loader has determined which kernel to boot, it locates the corresponding kernel binary in the /boot/ directory. The kernel binary is named using the following format — /boot/vmlinuz-<kernel-version> file (where <kernel-version> corresponds to the kernel version specified in the boot loader's settings).
For instructions on using the boot loader to supply command line arguments to the kernel, refer to Chapter 9, The GRUB Boot Loader. For information on changing the runlevel at the boot loader prompt, refer Section 9.8, “Changing Runlevels at Boot Time”.
The boot loader then places one or more appropriate initramfs images into memory. Next, the kernel decompresses these images from memory to /sysroot/, a RAM-based virtual file system, via cpio. The initramfs is used by the kernel to load drivers and modules necessary to boot the system. This is particularly important if SCSI hard drives are present or if the systems use the ext3 file system.
Once the kernel and the initramfs image(s) are loaded into memory, the boot loader hands control of the boot process to the kernel.
For a more detailed overview of the GRUB boot loader, refer to Chapter 9, The GRUB Boot Loader. Boot Loaders for Other Architectures

Once the kernel loads and hands off the boot process to the init command, the same sequence of events occurs on every architecture. So the main difference between each architecture's boot process is in the application used to find and load the kernel.
For example, the Itanium architecture uses the ELILO boot loader, the IBM eServer pSeries architecture uses yaboot, and the IBM System z systems use the z/IPL boot loader.

33.2.3. The Kernel

When the kernel is loaded, it immediately initializes and configures the computer's memory and configures the various hardware attached to the system, including all processors, I/O subsystems, and storage devices. It then looks for the compressed initramfs image(s) in a predetermined location in memory, decompresses it directly to /sysroot/, and loads all necessary drivers. Next, it initializes virtual devices related to the file system, such as LVM or software RAID, before completing the initramfs processes and freeing up all the memory the disk image once occupied.
The kernel then creates a root device, mounts the root partition read-only, and frees any unused memory.
At this point, the kernel is loaded into memory and operational. However, since there are no user applications that allow meaningful input to the system, not much can be done with the system.
To set up the user environment, the kernel executes the /sbin/init program.

33.2.4. The /sbin/init Program

The /sbin/init program (also called init) coordinates the rest of the boot process and configures the environment for the user.
When the init command starts, it becomes the parent or grandparent of all of the processes that start up automatically on the system. First, it runs the /etc/rc.d/rc.sysinit script, which sets the environment path, starts swap, checks the file systems, and executes all other steps required for system initialization. For example, most systems use a clock, so rc.sysinit reads the /etc/sysconfig/clock configuration file to initialize the hardware clock. Another example is if there are special serial port processes which must be initialized, rc.sysinit executes the /etc/rc.serial file.
The init command then runs the /etc/inittab script, which describes how the system should be set up in each SysV init runlevel. Runlevels are a state, or mode, defined by the services listed in the SysV /etc/rc.d/rc<x>.d/ directory, where <x> is the number of the runlevel. For more information on SysV init runlevels, refer to Section 33.4, “SysV Init Runlevels”.
Next, the init command sets the source function library, /etc/rc.d/init.d/functions, for the system, which configures how to start, kill, and determine the PID of a program.
The init program starts all of the background processes by looking in the appropriate rc directory for the runlevel specified as the default in /etc/inittab. The rc directories are numbered to correspond to the runlevel they represent. For instance, /etc/rc.d/rc5.d/ is the directory for runlevel 5.
When booting to runlevel 5, the init program looks in the /etc/rc.d/rc5.d/ directory to determine which processes to start and stop.
Below is an example listing of the /etc/rc.d/rc5.d/ directory:
K05innd -> ../init.d/innd 
K05saslauthd -> ../init.d/saslauthd 
K10dc_server -> ../init.d/dc_server 
K10psacct -> ../init.d/psacct 
K10radiusd -> ../init.d/radiusd 
K12dc_client -> ../init.d/dc_client 
K12FreeWnn -> ../init.d/FreeWnn 
K12mailman -> ../init.d/mailman 
K12mysqld -> ../init.d/mysqld 
K15httpd -> ../init.d/httpd 
K20netdump-server -> ../init.d/netdump-server 
K20rstatd -> ../init.d/rstatd 
K20rusersd -> ../init.d/rusersd 
K20rwhod -> ../init.d/rwhod 
K24irda -> ../init.d/irda 
K25squid -> ../init.d/squid 
K28amd -> ../init.d/amd 
K30spamassassin -> ../init.d/spamassassin 
K34dhcrelay -> ../init.d/dhcrelay 
K34yppasswdd -> ../init.d/yppasswdd 
K35dhcpd -> ../init.d/dhcpd 
K35smb -> ../init.d/smb 
K35vncserver -> ../init.d/vncserver 
K36lisa -> ../init.d/lisa 
K45arpwatch -> ../init.d/arpwatch 
K45named -> ../init.d/named 
K46radvd -> ../init.d/radvd 
K50netdump -> ../init.d/netdump 
K50snmpd -> ../init.d/snmpd 
K50snmptrapd -> ../init.d/snmptrapd 
K50tux -> ../init.d/tux 
K50vsftpd -> ../init.d/vsftpd 
K54dovecot -> ../init.d/dovecot 
K61ldap -> ../init.d/ldap 
K65kadmin -> ../init.d/kadmin 
K65kprop -> ../init.d/kprop 
K65krb524 -> ../init.d/krb524 
K65krb5kdc -> ../init.d/krb5kdc 
K70aep1000 -> ../init.d/aep1000 
K70bcm5820 -> ../init.d/bcm5820 
K74ypserv -> ../init.d/ypserv 
K74ypxfrd -> ../init.d/ypxfrd 
K85mdmpd -> ../init.d/mdmpd 
K89netplugd -> ../init.d/netplugd 
K99microcode_ctl -> ../init.d/microcode_ctl 
S04readahead_early -> ../init.d/readahead_early 
S05kudzu -> ../init.d/kudzu 
S06cpuspeed -> ../init.d/cpuspeed 
S08ip6tables -> ../init.d/ip6tables 
S08iptables -> ../init.d/iptables 
S09isdn -> ../init.d/isdn 
S10network -> ../init.d/network 
S12syslog -> ../init.d/syslog 
S13irqbalance -> ../init.d/irqbalance 
S13portmap -> ../init.d/portmap 
S15mdmonitor -> ../init.d/mdmonitor 
S15zebra -> ../init.d/zebra 
S16bgpd -> ../init.d/bgpd 
S16ospf6d -> ../init.d/ospf6d 
S16ospfd -> ../init.d/ospfd 
S16ripd -> ../init.d/ripd 
S16ripngd -> ../init.d/ripngd 
S20random -> ../init.d/random 
S24pcmcia -> ../init.d/pcmcia 
S25netfs -> ../init.d/netfs 
S26apmd -> ../init.d/apmd 
S27ypbind -> ../init.d/ypbind 
S28autofs -> ../init.d/autofs 
S40smartd -> ../init.d/smartd 
S44acpid -> ../init.d/acpid 
S54hpoj -> ../init.d/hpoj 
S55cups -> ../init.d/cups 
S55sshd -> ../init.d/sshd 
S56rawdevices -> ../init.d/rawdevices 
S56xinetd -> ../init.d/xinetd 
S58ntpd -> ../init.d/ntpd 
S75postgresql -> ../init.d/postgresql 
S80sendmail -> ../init.d/sendmail 
S85gpm -> ../init.d/gpm 
S87iiim -> ../init.d/iiim 
S90canna -> ../init.d/canna 
S90crond -> ../init.d/crond 
S90xfs -> ../init.d/xfs 
S95atd -> ../init.d/atd 
S96readahead -> ../init.d/readahead 
S97messagebus -> ../init.d/messagebus 
S97rhnsd -> ../init.d/rhnsd 
S99local -> ../rc.local
As illustrated in this listing, none of the scripts that actually start and stop the services are located in the /etc/rc.d/rc5.d/ directory. Rather, all of the files in /etc/rc.d/rc5.d/ are symbolic links pointing to scripts located in the /etc/rc.d/init.d/ directory. Symbolic links are used in each of the rc directories so that the runlevels can be reconfigured by creating, modifying, and deleting the symbolic links without affecting the actual scripts they reference.
The name of each symbolic link begins with either a K or an S. The K links are processes that are killed on that runlevel, while those beginning with an S are started.
The init command first stops all of the K symbolic links in the directory by issuing the /etc/rc.d/init.d/<command> stop command, where <command> is the process to be killed. It then starts all of the S symbolic links by issuing /etc/rc.d/init.d/<command> start.


After the system is finished booting, it is possible to log in as root and execute these same scripts to start and stop services. For instance, the command /etc/rc.d/init.d/httpd stop stops the Apache HTTP Server.
Each of the symbolic links are numbered to dictate start order. The order in which the services are started or stopped can be altered by changing this number. The lower the number, the earlier it is started. Symbolic links with the same number are started alphabetically.


One of the last things the init program executes is the /etc/rc.d/rc.local file. This file is useful for system customization. Refer to Section 33.3, “Running Additional Programs at Boot Time” for more information about using the rc.local file.
After the init command has progressed through the appropriate rc directory for the runlevel, the /etc/inittab script forks an /sbin/mingetty process for each virtual console (login prompt) allocated to the runlevel. Runlevels 2 through 5 have all six virtual consoles, while runlevel 1 (single user mode) has one, and runlevels 0 and 6 have none. The /sbin/mingetty process opens communication pathways to tty devices[14], sets their modes, prints the login prompt, accepts the user's username and password, and initiates the login process.
In runlevel 5, the /etc/inittab runs a script called /etc/X11/prefdm. The prefdm script executes the preferred X display manager[15]gdm, kdm, or xdm, depending on the contents of the /etc/sysconfig/desktop file.
Once finished, the system operates on runlevel 5 and displays a login screen.

[13] GRUB reads ext3 file systems as ext2, disregarding the journal file. See the chapter titled The ext3 File System in the Red Hat Enterprise Linux Deployment Guide for more information on the ext3 file system.
[14] Refer to the Red Hat Enterprise Linux Deployment Guide for more information about tty devices.
[15] Refer to the Red Hat Enterprise Linux Deployment Guide for more information about display managers.
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