In many scenarios OS installations are shipped as pre-built images, that
require no further installation process beyond simple
dd-ing the image to
disk and booting it up. When building such “golden” OS images for
systemd-based OSes a few points should be taken into account.
Most of the points described here are implemented by the
mkosi OS image builder developed and
maintained by the systemd project. If you are using or working on another image
builder it’s recommended to keep the following concepts and recommendations in
Typically the same OS image shall be deployable in multiple instances, and each instance should automatically acquire its own identifying credentials on first boot. For that it’s essential to:
file or write the string
uninitialized\n into it. This file is supposed to
carry a 128bit identifier unique to the system. Only when it is reset it
will be auto-generated on first boot and thus be truly unique. If this file
is not reset, and carries a valid ID every instance of the system will come
up with the same ID and that will likely lead to problems sooner or later,
as many network-visible identifiers are commonly derived from the machine
ID, for example IPv6 addresses or transient MAC addresses.
/var/lib/systemd/random-seed file (see
which is used to seed the kernel’s random pool on boot. If this file is
shipped pre-initialized, every instance will seed its random pool with the
same random data that is included in the image, and thus possibly generate
random data that is more similar to other instances booted off the same
image than advisable.
/loader/random-seed file (see
from the UEFI System Partition (ESP), in case the
systemd-boot boot loader
is used in the image.
/var/lib/systemd/credential.secret which is used for protecting
service credentials, see
for details. Note that by removing this file access to previously encrypted
credentials from this image is lost. The file is automatically generated if
a new credential is encrypted and the file does not exist yet.
logic used to generate Boot Loader Specification Type
1 entries by default uses the
machine ID as stored in
/etc/machine-id for naming boot menu entries and the
directories in the ESP to place kernel images in. This is done in order to
allow multiple installations of the same OS on the same system without
conflicts. However, this is problematic if the machine ID shall be generated
automatically on first boot: if the ID is not known before the first boot it
cannot be used to name the most basic resources required for the boot process
Thus, for images that shall acquire their identity on first boot only, it is
required to use a different identifier for naming boot menu entries. To allow
kernel-install logic knows the generalized entry token concept,
which can be a freely chosen string to use for identifying the boot menu
resources of the OS. If not configured explicitly it defaults to the machine
ID. The file
/etc/kernel/entry-token may be used to configure this string
explicitly. Thus, golden image builders should write a suitable identifier into
this file, for example the
ID= field from
(also see below). It is recommended to do this before the
functionality is invoked (i.e. before the package manager is used to install
packages into the OS tree being prepared), so that the selected string is
automatically used for all entries to be generated.
/var/and/or Empty Root File System
systemd is designed to be able to come up safely and robustly if the
file system or even the entire root file system (with exception of
i.e. the vendor OS resources) is empty (i.e. “unpopulated”). With this in mind
it’s relatively easy to build images that only ship a
/usr/ tree, and
otherwise carry no other data, populating the rest of the directory hierarchy
on first boot as needed.
Specifically, the following mechanisms are in place:
switch-root logic in systemd, that is used to switch from the initrd
phase to the host will create the basic OS hierarchy skeleton if missing. It
will create a couple of directories strictly necessary to boot up
successfully, plus essential symlinks (such as those necessary for the
ld.so to function).
PID 1 will initialize
/etc/machine-id automatically if not initialized yet
glibc NSS module ensures the
nobody users and groups remain
resolvable, even without
will component automatically populate
first boot with further necessary system users.
component ensures that various files and directories below
and other places are created automatically at boot if missing. Unlike the
directories/symlinks created by the
switch-root logic above this logic is
extensible by packages, and can adjust access modes, file ownership and
more. Among others this will also link
/usr/lib/os-release, ensuring that the OS release information is
unconditionally accessible through
glibc NSS module will ensure the local host name as well as
remains resolvable, even without
With these mechanisms the hierarchies below
/etc/ can be safely
and robustly populated on first boot, so that the OS can safely boot up. Note
that some auxiliary package are not prepared to operate correctly if their
configuration data in
/etc/ or their state directories in
missing. This can typically be addressed via
systemd-tmpfiles lines that
ensure the missing files and directories are created if missing. In particular,
configuration files that are necessary for operation can be automatically
copied or symlinked from the
/usr/share/factory/etc/ tree via the
line types. That said, we recommend that all packages safely fall back to
internal defaults if their configuration is missing, making such additional
Note that while
systemd itself explicitly supports booting up with entirely
unpopulated images (
/usr/ being the only required directory to be populated)
distributions might not be there yet: depending on your distribution further,
manual work might be required to make this scenario work.
Typically, if an image is
dd-ed onto a target disk it will be minimal:
i.e. only consist of necessary vendor data, and lack “payload” data, that shall
be individual to the system, and dependent on host parameters. On first boot,
the OS should take possession of the backing storage as necessary, dynamically
using available space. Specifically:
Additional partitions should be created, that make no sense to ship
pre-built in the image. For example
/home/ partitions, or even
/var/ or the root file system (see above).
Additional partitions should be created that shall function as A/B
secondaries for partitions shipped in the original image. In other words: if
/usr/ file system shall be updated in an A/B fashion it typically
makes sense to ship the original A file system in the deployed image, but
create the B partition on first boot.
Partitions covering only a part of the disk should be grown to the full extent of the disk.
File systems in uninitialized partitions should be formatted with a file system of choice.
File systems covering only a part of a partition should be grown to the full extent of the partition.
Partitions should be encrypted with cryptographic keys generated locally on the machine the system is first booted on, ensuring these keys remain local and are not shared with any other instance of the OS image.
Or any combination of the above: i.e. first create a partition, then encrypt it, then format it.
systemd provides multiple tools to implement the above logic:
component may manipulate GPT partition tables automatically on boot, growing
partitions or adding in partitions taking the backing storage size into
account. It can also encrypt partitions automatically it creates (even bind
to TPM2, automatically) and populate partitions from various sources. It
does this all in a robust fashion so that aborted invocations will not leave
incompletely set up partitions around.
tool can automatically grow a file system to the partition it is contained
x-systemd.growfs mount option in
/etc/fstab is sufficient to
enable this logic for specific mounts. Alternatively appropriately set up
partitions can set GPT partition flag 59 to request this behaviour, see the
Specification for details. If
the file system is already grown it executes no operation.
services can format file systems and swap spaces before first use, if they
carry no file system signature yet. The
x-systemd.makefs mount option in
/etc/fstab may be used to request this functionality.
While a lot of work has gone into ensuring
systemd systems can safely boot
/etc/ trees, it sometimes is desirable to set a couple of
basic settings after
dd-ing the image to disk, but before first boot. For
this the tool
can be useful, with its
--image= switch. It may be used to set very basic
settings, such as the root password or hostname on an OS disk image or
installed block device.
For various purposes it’s useful to be able to distinguish the first boot-up of
the system from later boot-ups (for example, to set up TPM hardware
specifically, or register a system somewhere).
systemd provides mechanisms to
implement that. Specifically, the
settings may be used to conditionalize units to only run on first boot. See
A special target unit
first-boot-complete.target may be used as milestone to
safely handle first boots where the system is powered off too early: if the
first boot process is aborted before this target is reached, the following boot
process will be considered a first boot, too. Once the target is reached,
subsequent boots will not be considered first boots anymore, even if the boot
process is aborted immediately after. Thus, services that must complete fully
before a system shall be considered fully past the first boot should be ordered
before this target unit.
Whether a system will come up in first boot state or not is derived from the
initialization status of
/etc/machine-id: if the file already carries a valid
ID the system is already past the first boot. If it is not initialized yet it
is still considered in the first boot state. For details see
Typically, when operating with golden disk images it is useful to be able to
identify them and their version. For this the two fields
IMAGE_VERSION= have been defined in
fields may be accessed from unit files and similar via the
Depending on how the images are put together it might make sense to leave the
os-release file as is in
/usr/lib/os-release but to
replace the usual
/etc/os-release symlink with a regular file that extends
the distribution’s file with one augmented with these two additional