Hack and / - Break In Your Boots

New boots, new bootloaders—both take some time to get used to. In this column, find out all the uncomfortable changes in the new GRUB2 bootloader.
New Boots

Now that you have learned (or refreshed your memory) about GRUB, you may promptly forget it, because much of what I said above has changed. For starters (and this will drive you crazy), the default key to edit GRUB2 options at boot is Shift, not Esc. Second, the main configuration file has been changed from /boot/grub/menu.lst to /boot/grub/grub.cfg. Not only has the filename changed, but also the syntax inside the file is quite different from what you'd find in menu.lst.

While I'm on the subject of syntax changes, a crucial syntax change that GRUB2 makes is in how it numbers partitions. Where in GRUB your partitions were counted starting from zero, now the count starts with one. To make it more confusing, disk devices still are being counted starting from zero. Confused yet? In short:

  • GRUB1: /dev/sda1 = (hd0,0)

  • GRUB2: /dev/sda1 = (hd0,1)

Here's a sample stanza from GRUB's menu.lst and a similar stanza from GRUB2's grub.cfg, so you can compare their syntax:


title    Ubuntu karmic (development branch), kernel 2.6.31-14-generic
uuid     c7b6836f-ac57-47ed-9e7c-b16adbf8abed
kernel   /boot/vmlinuz-2.6.31-14-generic root=UUID=
         ↪c7b6836f-ac57-47ed-9e7c-b16adbf8abed ro quiet splash
initrd   /boot/initrd.img-2.6.31-14-generic


menuentry 'Ubuntu, with Linux 2.6.31-20-generic' --class ubuntu 
 ↪--class gnu-linux --class gnu --class os {
        insmod ext2
        set root='(hd0,2)'
        search --no-floppy --fs-uuid --set 
        linux   /boot/vmlinuz-2.6.31-20-generic 
        ↪ro   quiet splash
        initrd  /boot/initrd.img-2.6.31-20-generic

Before you sit down and study the new syntax, I should point out that you are actively discouraged from editing grub.cfg directly. This file is generated from a series of scripts and configuration files I will talk about later, so any changes you make will be overwritten the next time any package updates that would trigger the GRUB2 update.

Like with GRUB, here are the core files and programs involved in GRUB2 configuration:

  • /boot/grub/grub.cfg: this is the core GRUB2 configuration file but is not to be edited directly.

  • /etc/default/grub: this is the main configuration file for end users to edit. In this file, you can configure a limited subset of GRUB2 options, such as timeouts, basic kernel boot options and whether to use a graphical console or UUIDs. Every time you make a change to this file, you must run /usr/sbin/update-grub for the changes to be reflected. Here are some sample lines from the file to give you some idea of the syntax:

    GRUB_DISTRIBUTOR=`lsb_release -i -s 2> /dev/null || echo Debian`

  • /etc/grub.d/: this directory contains a series of scripts that are executed in numerical order by the grub-mkconfig program and will configure different parts of grub.cfg. On a default Ubuntu Lucid install, for instance, you would find the following files:

    $ ls /etc/grub.d/
    00_header        10_linux       30_os-prober  README
    05_debian_theme  20_memtest86+  40_custom

    The order in which configuration options appear in grub.cfg is governed by the order its script appears in this directory. So if, for instance, you wanted to have a different OS appear before the Linux options in the menu, you could name the script 01_otheros. Although the scripts that are currently there do a few complicated things, essentially your script needs to output the configuration information you want in the proper grub.cfg syntax, so I suppose it even could be a series of echo statements in a shell script. If you want to create a custom configuration script though, Ubuntu has provided the 40_custom script for you to use that will not risk being overwritten.

  • /usr/sbin/grub-install: like with GRUB, the GRUB2 grub-install program is the recommended way to install GRUB2 onto a device. It calls a number of other scripts that perform various system checks, device probes and everything else that's necessary to install GRUB2 to a boot device.

  • /usr/sbin/update-grub: this script still exists and is still the recommended way to update GRUB2's configuration file, but now this is a very short shell script that executes grub-mkconfig. Whenever you edit a configuration file or script, run this command with no arguments to rebuild the grub.cfg file.

  • /usr/sbin/grub-mkconfig: this program does the real heavy-lifting to build your grub.cfg file. It is the program that executes the various scripts in /etc/grub.d.

In addition to the above changes, here are a few extra things that are different in GRUB2:

  • GRUB2 no longer has stage 1.5 in the boot process.

  • On a new Ubuntu install when no other OSes are present, GRUB2 will not display a menu at boot time and will instead boot directly into the Ubuntu install.

  • To reiterate, hold Shift instead of Esc to change GRUB2 boot options.

If you are like I was when I first discovered all of these changes, right about now you are feeling like the ground has been moved out from under you. I felt much like I did when I couldn't buy a new pair of black suede One Stars. All I can hope for is that over time, like my new shoes, the uncomfortable parts of GRUB2 will break in, and I will feel comfortable with them and maybe some day even like them as much as GRUB1.


Kyle Rankin is Chief Security Officer at Purism, a company focused on computers that respect your privacy, security, and freedom. He is the author of many books including Linux Hardening in Hostile Networks, DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu