Boot Linux without GRUB

Gauthier Jolly

November 19, 2021

Boot Linux without GRUB

To boot the Linux Kernel, most distro use a bootloader and one of the most popular is GRUB. But did you know you can directly boot the Kernel without using a bootloader?

DISCLAIMER: This is only for fun and learning, I do not advise anyone to do that on their main system. Be safe, use a VM.

VM setup

Just a quick recap of what is needed (mostely stolen from powersj’s excelent blog post).

Setup the user-data (for cloud-init) to be able to SSH into the VM:

cat > user-data.yaml <<EOF
  - ssh-rsa AAAAB3NzaC1yc2EAAAABIwJJJQEA3I7VUf3l5gSn5uavROsc5HRDpZ ...
  - gh:<github user>
  - lp:<launchpad user>

# cloud-localds is shipped in [cloud image utils](cloud-image-utils)
cloud-localds seed.img user-data.yaml

Copy the EFI vars to a temp place (they will get modified)

cp /usr/share/OVMF/OVMF_VARS.fd /tmp/

Download an Ubuntu cloud-image and launch the VM with the cloud-init metadata and the EFI firemware.

curl -O
qemu-system-x86_64 \
  -nographic \
  -cpu host \
  -enable-kvm \
  -smp 4 \
  -m 4G \
  -drive if=virtio,format=qcow2,file=ubuntu-21.10-server-cloudimg-amd64.img \
  -drive if=virtio,format=raw,file=./seed.img \
  -device virtio-net-pci,netdev=net0 --netdev user,id=net0,hostfwd=tcp::2222-:22 \
  -drive if=pflash,format=raw,readonly=on,file=/usr/share/OVMF/OVMF_CODE.fd \
  -drive if=pflash,format=raw,file=/tmp/OVMF_VARS.fd

To SSH into the VM: ssh [email protected] -p 2222

In practice

First, check if your Kernel config allows this:

$ cat /boot/config-$(uname -r) [|](|) grep EFI_STUB

Then, copy the Kernel and initrd to the EFI partition:

cp -v /boot/initrd.img-* /boot/efi/EFI/
cp -v /boot/vmlinuz-$(uname -r) /boot/efi/EFI/vmlinuz-$(uname -r).efi

In theory, you can put those files wherever you want on the EFI partition (Ubuntu uses /EFI/ubuntu for example). Just be carefull about the length of the EFI stub path, see this thread.

Now we need to find out some information about the system:


loop0   /snap/core20/1169
loop1   /snap/lxd/21780
loop2   /snap/snapd/13640
├─vda1  /                 cloudimg-rootfs
└─vda15 /boot/efi         UEFI
vdb                       cidata

On this system, the root filesystem is in /dev/vda1 and the EFI partition is on the same device /dev/vda on partition number 15.

Now, let’s add a new boot entry in the UEFI boot manager

efibootmgr --create --disk /dev/vda --part 15 --label grub-less --loader "\EFI\vmlinuz-$(uname -r).efi" -u "root=/dev/vda1 initrd=\\EFI\\initrd.img-$(uname -r) ro console=ttyS0"

The current boot entries can then be checked with: efibootmgr (no arg). The new boot entry we just created should already be the first one in the bootorder list.

Reboot!! The system should start directly without going through the GRUB.

At the very beginning of the serial console, we can find:

BdsDxe: loading Boot0008 "grub-less" from HD(15,GPT,CB5D0560-825B-4575-A9E3-F3263C410054,0x2800,0x35000)/\EFI\vmlinuz-5.13.0-20-generic.efi
BdsDxe: starting Boot0008 "grub-less" from HD(15,GPT,CB5D0560-825B-4575-A9E3-F3263C410054,0x2800,0x35000)/\EFI\vmlinuz-5.13.0-20-generic.efi
EFI stub: Loaded initrd from command line option


If something goes really wrong and the system doesn’t boot, use this post to mount the EFI partition locally and simply delete the Kernel’s EFI from it. The new entry will just fail to find the EFI stub and fallback to the old boot entry.

To delete a boot entry: efibootmgr -b NUM -B