Implementing LinuxBoot

The aim of LinuxBoot is to reduce complexity and obscure firmware by moving that functionality into kernel and userspace.

This chapter describes the procedures from a LinuxBoot workshop where an Atomic Pi board with UEFI firmware was converted to run LinuxBoot. The build materials associated with this are found at digitalloggers/atomicpi.

Read the below and consult the Makefile for the details of how it was implemented.

A quick refresher on UEFI

UEFI has three sections:

  • SEC ("Boot")
  • PEI ("Very early chip setup and DRAM programming")
  • DXE ("DRAM code")

DXE process is very complex; some systems have 750 DXEs.

LinuxBoot replaces most of the UEFI software with Linux. LinuxBoot has an initramfs provided by u-root.

The above are stored inside a flash filesystem (FFS) inside a region of flash on your motherboard (the BIOS region). Another important region of flash is the ME region.

The Management Engine (ME) is an x86 CPU embedded in the Intel Platform Controller Hub (PCH). It runs the Minix operating system which boots first and enables hardware such as clocks and GPIOs. ME checks the contents of flash memory and is used to implement "BootGuard". If you reflash and the ME is in "BootGuard" mode, your machine will be unusable. You need to run a tool called me_cleaner on the image to disable BootGuard.

How do you get LinuxBoot on your hardware

Start with a board running standard UEFI and proceed from "zero changes to FLASH" to "max changes" in 4 steps:

  • Boot from USB stick via UEFI shell command or netboot (zero changes)
  • Find a way to read flash and write flash
  • Understand the flash layout
  • Prepare linux kernel and initrd/initramfs payload.
  • Replace UEFI Shell code section with Linux kernel and associated initrd (change part of one thing)
  • Remove as many DXEs as possible (change by removal). This change:
    • Speeds boot
    • Reduces panic possibilities
    • Removes exploits
    • In production, it has solved problems
  • Clear ME region for initrd storage
  • Replace some DXEs with open source components (change by replacement)

One of the challenges in the above is in finding (or reclaiming) enough space in flash to shoehorn your kernel and initrd into.

Tools of the trade

There are two tools you use when you modify the UEFI flash image: utk and me_cleaner.

The ME Cleaner tool:

/usr/bin/python2 -s imagefile.bin

me_cleaner sets the high assurance platform (HAP) bit. HAP provides a way to disable a feature on Intel chips that does not allow us to modify the UEFI image and install LinuxBoot. Setting the bit with me_cleaner disables the "feature". Note that this does not always work; check with the LinuxBoot community.

When you run me_cleaner:

~/projects/linuxboot/me_cleaner/ -s /tmp/rom.bin

you should see output similar to the following:

Full image detected
Found FPT header at 0x1010
Found 20 partition(s)
Found FTPR header: FTPR partition spans from 0x6f000 to 0xe700
ME/TXE firmware version (generation 2)
Public key match: Intel TXE, firmware versions 2.x.x.x
The AltMeDisable bit is SET
Setting the AltMeDisable bit in PCHSTRP10 to disable Intel ME…
Checking the FTPR RSA signature... VALID
Done! Good luck!

By applying me_cleaner, it has been observed that almost 4M of flash ram can be reclaimed for use. That 4M is enough to store a reasonably full featured compressed initrd image.

The utk tool can:

  • Remove DXEs
  • Insert new DXEs
  • Replace the binary code of a DXE with a kernel
  • Reallocate space from the ME region to the BIOS region ("tighten")

LinuxBoot Implementation steps

Step 1: boot Linux via netboot / UEFI shell

  • netboot: standard BIOS-based PXE boot
    • Netboot is probably the most common working boot method on UEFI
    • We have never seen a system that did not have a net boot
  • UEFI Shell (mentioned only for completeness)
    • Install Linux on FAT-32 media with a name of your choice (e.g. "kernel")
      • FAT-32, also known as MS-DOS file system
    • Boot kernel at UEFI Shell prompt
    • We've run into a few systems that don't have a UEFI shell

Working with a system that only has a net interface

If the system only has a net interface, you use Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), using broadcast DISCOVER, and Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP) to get the boot information you need.

Configuration information is provided by REPLY to a DHCP request. The REPLY returns an IP, server, and a configuration file name that provides:

  • Identity
  • What to boot
  • Where to get it

Data is provided by TFTP. HTTP downloading takes a fraction of a second even for 16M kernels. With TFTP it's very slow and TFTP won't work with initramfs much large than 32MiB. Most LinuxBoot shops use or are transitioning to HTTP.

Note: Boot images require a kernel(bzImage) + an initramfs + a command line. They can be loaded as three pieces or compiled and loaded as one piece, as described in this section.

Step 2: read & write the flash

There are two main ways to read and write the flash - hardware and software.

Hardware: It is worth buying a Pomona 5250 SOIC Clip adapter to read directly by hardware to have something to roll back to if anything goes wrong. Avoid cheap SOIC clip adapters that don't allow you to use standard jumper leads. For a good example of using a Raspberry Pi 3/4 to read/write, see Sakaki's EFI Install Guide/Disabling the Intel Management Engine

Software: With a working boot image, use flashrom to read an image of your flash. To write you may need to disable flash protections (look for "ME Manufacturing mode" jumpers on your motherboard). Figure on generally using software methods for reading & writing flash, but with hardware to drop back to.

Step 3: Familiarise yourself with the flash layout and identify free space

Open your flash image with UEFITool, and locate the filesystem containing the DXE's (it will have the Shell or Shell_Full in it ). Check how much volume free space is in that filesystem - this will be an initial limit when you come to place your kernel and initramfs in it in step 5.

Step 4: Prepare linux/u-root payload

Start small and work your way up.

  • Use the tiny.config to configure your first kernel, and embed a small initramfs in-kernel (the u-root cpu payload is an excellent starting point).
  • One can have a full kernel/initramfs in around 2M of flash.
  • A more full featured kernel might consume 2M and a u-root bb distribution 4M, which may well exceed the volume free space.
  • When there isn't enough space in this filesystem, one can either start removing unused DXE's (step 6), or use space formerly used by the ME Region (step 7).

Step 5: replace Shell binary section

  • UEFI Shell is a DXE
    • DXEs are Portable Executable 32-bit binaries (PE32)
    • They have multiple sections, one of them being binary code
    • You need a flash image (in this case called firmware.bin). You can get it via vendor website, flashrom, or other mechanism.
  • The following utk command replaces the Shell code section with a Linux kernel:
    • utk firmware.bin replace_pe32 Shell bzImage save new.bin
    • Note: It's always a PE32, even for 64-bit kernels. new.bin is a filename of your choosing.
  • After running utk, you can reflash

Step 6a: remove as many DXEs as possible

  • You can do an initial mass removal based on your current knowledge
  • utk automates removing DXEs: this is the DXE cleaner
    • utk removes a DXE, reflashes, checks if it boots, repeat This part should be easy: DXE can have a dependency section. In practice, it's hard: because dependency sections are full of errors and omissions. A lot of UEFI code does not check for failed DXE loads.

Step 6b: place your initramfs in me_cleaned region

  • Run me_cleaner and then utk tighten on the source image, then inspect the image using UEFITool. If successful, there will now be padding at the beginning of the BIOS region of a substantial size.
  • This padding space can be used, without the filesystem's knowledge, to stash an initramfs. The kernel is informed of the location this initramfs as an initrd kernel parameter.
    • Use the base address of this padding region to calculate the offset in the flash image where the initrd is stashed using dd.
    • Use the address (not base address) as the initramfs location in memory to pass as a kernel parameter.

Step 7: replace closed-source with open source

  • If you can build a DXE from source, you can use utk to remove the proprietary one and replace it with one built from source. You can get DXE source from the tianocore/EDK2 source repo at The GitHub repo has a limited number of DXEs in source form; i.e., you can't build a full working image using it.
  • There are scripts that let you compile individual DXEs, including the UEFI Shell and Boot Device Selection (BDS). These two DXEs have been compiled and are used in the Atomic Pi. Source-based BDS was needed to ensure the UEFI Shell was called.
  • You only need the UEFI Shell built long enough to replace it with Linux.

Final step: reflash the image

  • "Native" reflash: Boot the system whatever way is easiest: netboot, usb, local disk, and run flashrom -p internal -w _filename.bin_ where filename.bin is a filename of your choosing.
  • Run flashrom with an external device such as an sf100. There may be a header on the board, or you might have to use a clip. flashrom -p dediprog:voltage=1.8 -w _filename.bin_

The voltage option is required for the Atomic Pi.