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This section explains what goes on when a Linux system is brought up and taken down, and how it should be done properly. If proper procedures are not followed, files might be corrupted or lost.

An overview of boots and shutdowns[edit]

The act of turning on a computer system and causing its operating system to be loaded is called booting. The name comes from an image of the computer pulling itself up from its bootstraps, but the act itself slightly more realistic.

During bootstrapping, the computer first loads a small piece of code called the bootstrap loader, which in turn loads and starts the operating system. The bootstrap loader is usually stored in a fixed location on a hard disk or a floppy. The reason for this two step process is that the operating system is big and complicated, but the first piece of code that the computer loads must be very small (a few hundred bytes), to avoid making the firmware unnecessarily complicated.

Different computers do the bootstrapping differently. For PCs, the computer (its BIOS) reads in the first sector (called the boot sector) of a floppy or hard disk. The bootstrap loader is contained within this sector. It loads the operating system from elsewhere on the disk (or from some other place).

After Linux has been loaded, it initializes the hardware and device drivers, and then runs init. init starts other processes to allow users to log in, and do things. The details of this part will be discussed below.

In order to shut down a Linux system, first all processes are told to terminate (this makes them close any files and do other necessary things to keep things tidy), then filesystems and swap areas are unmounted, and finally a message is printed to the console that the power can be turned off. If the proper procedure is not followed, terrible things can and will happen; most importantly, the filesystem buffer cache might not be flushed, which means that all data in it is lost and the filesystem on disk is inconsistent, and therefore possibly unusable.

The boot process in closer look[edit]

When a PC is booted, the BIOS will do various tests to check that everything looks all right, and will then start the actual booting. This process is called the power on self test , or POST for short. It will choose a disk drive (typically the first floppy drive, if there is a floppy inserted, otherwise the first hard disk, if one is installed in the computer; the order might be configurable, however) and will then read its very first sector. This is called the boot sector; for a hard disk, it is also called the master boot record, since a hard disk can contain several partitions, each with their own boot sectors.

The boot sector contains a small program (small enough to fit into one sector) whose responsibility is to read the actual operating system from the disk and start it. When booting Linux from a floppy disk, the boot sector contains code that just reads the first few hundred blocks (depending on the actual kernel size, of course) to a predetermined place in memory. On a Linux boot floppy, there is no filesystem, the kernel is just stored in consecutive sectors, since this simplifies the boot process. It is possible, however, to boot from a floppy with a filesystem, by using LILO, the LInux LOader, or GRUB, the GRand Unifying Bootloader.

When booting from the hard disk, the code in the master boot record will examine the partition table (also in the master boot record), identify the active partition (the partition that is marked to be bootable), read the boot sector from that partition, and then start the code in that boot sector. The code in the partition's boot sector does what a floppy disk's boot sector does: it will read in the kernel from the partition and start it. The details vary, however, since it is generally not useful to have a separate partition for just the kernel image, so the code in the partition's boot sector can't just read the disk in sequential order, it has to find the sectors wherever the filesystem has put them. There are several ways around this problem, but the most common way is to use a boot loader like LILO or GRUB. (The details about how to do this are irrelevant for this discussion, however; see the LILO or GRUB documentation for more information; it is most thorough.)

When booting, the bootloader will normally go right ahead and read in and boot the default kernel. It is also possible to configure the boot loader to be able to boot one of several kernels, or even other operating systems than Linux, and it is possible for the user to choose which kernel or operating system is to be booted at boot time. LILO, for example, can be configured so that if one holds down the alt, shift, or ctrl key at boot time (when LILO is loaded), LILO will ask what is to be booted and not boot the default right away. Alternatively, the bootloader can be configured so that it will always ask, with an optional timeout that will cause the default kernel to be booted.

It is also possible to give a kernel command line argument, after the name of the kernel or operating system. For a list of possible options you can read

Booting from floppy and from hard disk have both their advantages, but generally booting from the hard disk is nicer, since it avoids the hassle of playing around with floppies. It is also faster. Most Linux distributions will setup the bootloader for you during the install process.

After the Linux kernel has been read into the memory, by whatever means, and is started for real, roughly the following things happen:

  • The Linux kernel is installed compressed, so it will first uncompress itself. The beginning of the kernel image contains a small program that does this.
  • If you have a super-VGA card that Linux recognizes and that has some special text modes (such as 100 columns by 40 rows), Linux asks you which mode you want to use. During the kernel compilation, it is possible to preset a video mode, so that this is never asked. This can also be done with LILO, GRUB or rdev.
  • After this, the kernel checks what other hardware there is (hard disks, floppies, network adapters, etc), and configures some of its device drivers appropriately; while it does this, it outputs messages about its findings. For example, when I boot, I it looks like this:
LILO boot:
Loading linux.
Console: colour EGA+ 80x25, 8 virtual consoles
Serial driver version 3.94 with no serial options enabled
tty00 at 0x03f8 (irq = 4) is a 16450
tty01 at 0x02f8 (irq = 3) is a 16450
lp_init: lp1 exists (0), using polling driver
Memory: 7332k/8192k available (300k kernel code, 384k reserved, 176k 
Floppy drive(s): fd0 is 1.44M, fd1 is 1.2M
Loopback device init
Warning WD8013 board not found at i/o = 280.
Math coprocessor using irq13 error reporting.
Partition check:
hda: hda1 hda2 hda3
VFS: Mounted root (ext filesystem).
Linux version 0.99.pl9-1 (root@haven) 05/01/93 14:12:20
  • The exact texts are different on different systems, depending on the hardware, the version of Linux being used, and how it has been configured.
  • Then the kernel will try to mount the root filesystem. The place is configurable at compilation time, or any time with rdev or the bootloader. The filesystem type is detected automatically. If the mounting of the root filesystem fails, for example because you didn't remember to include the corresponding filesystem driver in the kernel, the kernel panics and halts the system (there isn't much it can do, anyway).
  • The root filesystem is usually mounted read-only (this can be set in the same way as the place). This makes it possible to check the filesystem while it is mounted; it is not a good idea to check a filesystem that is mounted read-write.
  • After this, the kernel starts the program init (located in /sbin/init) in the background (this will always become process number 1). init does various startup chores. The exact things it does depends on how it is configured; see Section 2.3.1 for more information (not yet written). It will at least start some essential background daemons.
  • init then switches to multi-user mode, and starts a getty for virtual consoles and serial lines. getty is the program which lets people log in via virtual consoles and serial terminals. init may also start some other programs, depending on how it is configured.
  • After this, the boot is complete, and the system is up and running normally.

For more information on LILO, you can read

For more information on GRUB, you can visit

More about shutdowns[edit]

It is important to follow the correct procedures when you shut down a Linux system. If you fail do so, your filesystems probably will become trashed and the files probably will become scrambled. This is because Linux has a disk cache that won't write things to disk at once, but only at intervals. This greatly improves performance but also means that if you just turn off the power at a whim the cache may hold a lot of data and that what is on the disk may not be a fully working filesystem (because only some things have been written to the disk).

Another reason against just flipping the power switch is that in a multi-tasking system there can be lots of things going on in the background, and shutting the power can be quite disastrous. By using the proper shutdown sequence, you ensure that all background processes can save their data.

The command for properly shutting down a Linux system is shutdown. It is usually used in one of two ways.

If you are running a system where you are the only user, the usual way of using shutdown is to quit all running programs, log out on all virtual consoles, log in as root on one of them (or stay logged in as root if you already are, but you should change to root's home directory or the root directory, to avoid problems with unmounting), then give the command shutdown -h now (substitute now with a plus sign and a number in minutes if you want a delay, though you usually don't on a single user system).

Alternatively, if your system has many users, use the command shutdown -h +time message, where time is the time in minutes until the system is halted, and message is a short explanation of why the system is shutting down.

  1. shutdown -h +10 'We will install a new

disk.* System should > be back on-line in three hours.'

This will warn everybody that the system will shut down in ten minutes, and that they'd better get lost or lose data. The warning is printed to every terminal on which someone is logged in, including all xterms:

Broadcast message from root (ttyp0) Wed Aug* 2 01:03:25 1995...

We will install a new disk.* System should be back on-line in three hours. The system is going DOWN for system halt in 10 minutes !!

The warning is automatically repeated a few times before the boot, with shorter and shorter intervals as the time runs out.

When the real shutting down starts after any delays, all filesystems (except the root one) are unmounted, user processes (if anybody is still logged in) are killed, daemons are shut down, all filesystem are unmounted, and generally everything settles down. When that is done, init prints out a message that you can power down the machine. Then, and only then, should you move your fingers towards the power switch.

Sometimes, although rarely on any good system, it is impossible to shut down properly. For instance, if the kernel panics and crashes and burns and generally misbehaves, it might be completely impossible to give any new commands, hence shutting down properly is somewhat difficult, and just about everything you can do is hope that nothing has been too severely damaged and turn off the power. If the troubles are a bit less severe (say, somebody hit your keyboard with an axe), and the kernel and the update program still run normally, it is probably a good idea to wait a couple of minutes to give update a chance to flush the buffer cache, and only cut the power after that.

In the old days, some people like to shut down using the command sync three times, waiting for the disk I/O to stop, then turn off the power. If there are no running programs, this is equivalent to using shutdown. However, it does not unmount any filesystems and this can lead to problems with the ext2fs ``clean filesystem flag. The triple-sync method is not recommended.

(In case you're wondering: the reason for three syncs is that in the early days of UNIX, when the commands were typed separately, that usually gave sufficient time for most disk I/O to be finished.)


Rebooting means booting the system again. This can be accomplished by first shutting it down completely, turning power off, and then turning it back on. A simpler way is to ask shutdown to reboot the system, instead of merely halting it. This is accomplished by using the -r option to shutdown, for example, by giving the command shutdown -r now.

Most Linux systems run shutdown -r now when ctrl-alt-del is pressed on the keyboard. This reboots the system. The action on ctrl-alt-del is configurable, however, and it might be better to allow for some delay before the reboot on a multiuser machine. Systems that are physically accessible to anyone might even be configured to do nothing when ctrl-alt-del is pressed.

Single user mode[edit]

The shutdown command can also be used to bring the system down to single user mode, in which no one can log in, but root can use the console. This is useful for system administration tasks that can't be done while the system is running normally.

Emergency boot floppies[edit]

It is not always possible to boot a computer from the hard disk. For example, if you make a mistake in configuring LILO, you might make your system unbootable. For these situations, you need an alternative way of booting that will always work (as long as the hardware works). For typical PCs, this means booting from the floppy drive.

Most Linux distributions allow one to create an emergency boot floppy during installation. It is a good idea to do this. However, some such boot disks contain only the kernel, and assume you will be using the programs on the distribution's installation disks to fix whatever problem you have. Sometimes those programs aren't enough; for example, you might have to restore some files from backups made with software not on the installation disks.

Thus, it might be necessary to create a custom root floppy as well. The Bootdisk HOWTO by Graham Chapman contains instructions for doing this. You can find this HOWTO at You must, of course, remember to keep your emergency boot and root floppies up to date.

You can't use the floppy drive you use to mount the root floppy for anything else. This can be inconvenient if you only have one floppy drive. However, if you have enough memory, you can configure your boot floppy to load the root disk to a ramdisk (the boot floppy's kernel needs to be specially configured for this). Once the root floppy has been loaded into the ramdisk, the floppy drive is free to mount other disks.