TL;DR: Currently there’s no common boot scheme across architectures and platforms for open-source operating systems. There’s also little cooperation between multiple distributions in dual-boot (or triple, … multi-boot) setups. We’d like to improve this situation by getting everybody to commit to a single boot configuration format that is based on drop-in files, and thus is robust, simple, works without rewriting configuration files and is free of namespace clashes.
The Boot Loader Specification defines a scheme how different operating systems can cooperatively manage a boot loader configuration directory, that accepts drop-in files for boot menu items that are defined in a format that is shared between various boot loader implementations, operating systems, and userspace programs. The same scheme can be used to prepare OS media for cases where the firmware includes a boot loader. The target audience for this specification is:
Of course, without this specification things already work mostly fine. But here’s why we think this specification is needed:
EFI is not ubiquitous, especially not in embedded systems. If you have an EFI system, it provides a boot options logic that can offer similar functionality. Here’s why we think that it is not enough for our uses:
Everything described below is located on a placeholder file system
$BOOT. The installer program should pick
$BOOT according to the following rules:
bc13c2ff-59e6-4262-a352-b275fd6f7172, already exists, it should be used as
c12a7328-f81f-11d2-ba4b-00a0c93ec93b) already exists and is large enough (let’s say 250MB) and otherwise qualifies, it should be used as
This placeholder file system shall be determined during installation time, and an fstab entry may be created. It should be mounted to either
/efi/. Additional locations like
/boot/ being a separate file system, might be supported by implementations. This is not recommended because the mounting of
$BOOT is then dependent on and requires the mounting of the intermediate file system.
$BOOT should be considered shared among all OS installations of a system. Instead of maintaining one
$BOOT per installed OS (as
/boot/ was traditionally handled), all installed OS share the same place to drop in their boot-time configuration.
For systems where the firmware is able to read file systems directly,
must be a file system readable by the firmware. For other systems and generic
installation and live media,
$BOOT must be a VFAT (16 or 32) file
system. Applications accessing
$BOOT should hence not assume that fancier
file system features such as symlinks, hardlinks, access control or case
sensitivity are supported.
This specification defines two types of boot loader entries. The first type is text based, very simple and suitable for a variety of firmware, architecture and image types (“Type #1”). The second type is specific to EFI, but allows single-file images that embed all metadata in the kernel binary itself, which is useful to cryptographically sign them as one file for the purpose of SecureBoot (“Type #2”).
Not all boot loader entries will apply to all systems. For example, Type #1
entries that use the
efi key and all Type #2 entries only apply to EFI
systems. Entries using the
architecture key might specify an architecture that
doesn’t match the local one. Boot loaders should ignore all entries that don’t
match the local platform and what the boot loader can support, and hide them
from the user. Only entries matching the feature set of boot loader and system
shall be considered and displayed. This allows image builders to put together
images that transparently support multiple different architectures.
Note that the
$BOOT partition is not supposed to be exclusive territory of
this specification. This specification only defines semantics of the
directory inside the file system (see below), but it doesn’t intend to define
ownership of the whole file system exclusively. Boot loaders, firmware, and
other software implementing this specification may choose to place other
files and directories in the same file system. For example, boot loaders that
implement this specification might install their own boot code into the
partition. On systems where
$BOOT is the ESP this is a particularly common
setup. Implementations of this specification must be able to operate correctly
if files or directories other than
/loader/ are found in the top level
directory. Implementations that add their own files or directories to the file
systems should use well-named directories, to make name collisions between
multiple users of the file system unlikely.
We define two directories below
$BOOT/loader/is the directory containing all files needed for Type #1 entries
$BOOT/loader/entries/is the directory containing the drop-in snippets. This directory contains one
.conffile for each boot menu item.
Note: In all cases the
/loader/ directory should be located directly in the root of the file system. Specifically, if
$BOOT is the ESP, then
/loader/ directory should be located directly in the root directory of the ESP, and not in the
$BOOT/loader/entries/ directory each OS vendor may drop one or
more configuration snippets with the suffix “.conf”, one for each boot menu
item. The file name of the file is used for identification of the boot item but
shall never be presented to the user in the UI. The file name may be chosen
freely but should be unique enough to avoid clashes between OS
installations. More specifically it is suggested to include the machine ID
/etc/machine-id or the D-Bus machine ID for OSes that lack
/etc/machine-id), the kernel version (as returned by
uname -r) and an OS
identifier (The ID field of
In order to maximize compatibility with file system implementations and restricted boot loader environments, and to minimize conflicting character use with other programs, file names shall be chosen from a restricted character set: ASCII upper and lower case characters, digits, “+”, “-“, “_” and “.”. Also, the file names should have a length of at least one and at most 255 characters (including file name suffix).
These configuration snippets shall be Unix-style text files (i.e. line separation with a single newline character), in the UTF-8 encoding. The configuration snippets are loosely inspired on Grub1’s configuration syntax. Lines beginning with ‘#’ shall be ignored and used for commenting. The first word of a line is used as key and shall be separated by one or more spaces from its value. The following keys are known:
titleshall contain a human readable title string for this menu item. This will be displayed in the boot menu for the item. It is a good idea to initialize this from the
/etc/os-release. This name should be descriptive and does not have to be unique. If a boot loader discovers two entries with the same title it is a good idea to show more than just the raw title in the UI, for example by appending the
versionfield. This field is optional. Example: “Fedora 18 (Spherical Cow)”.
versionshall contain a human readable version string for this menu item. This is usually the kernel version and is intended for use by OSes to install multiple kernel versions at the same time with the same
titlefield. This field shall be in a syntax that is useful for Debian-style version sorts, so that the boot loader UI can determine the newest version easily and show it first or preselect it automatically. This field is optional. Example:
machine-idshall contain the machine ID of the OS
/etc/machine-id. This is useful for boot loaders and applications to filter out boot entries, for example to show only a single newest kernel per OS, or to group items by OS, or to maybe filter out the currently booted OS in UIs that want to show only other installed operating systems. This ID shall be formatted as 32 lower case hexadecimal characters (i.e. without any UUID formatting). This key is optional. Example:
linuxrefers to the Linux kernel to spawn and shall be a path relative to the
$BOOTdirectory. It is recommended that every distribution creates a machine id and version specific subdirectory below
$BOOTand places its kernels and initial RAM disk images there. Example:
initrdrefers to the initrd to use when executing the kernel. This also shall be a path relative to the
$BOOTdirectory. This key is optional. This key may appear more than once in which case all specified images are used, in the order they are listed. Example:
efirefers to an arbitrary EFI program. This also takes a path relative to
$BOOT. If this key is set, and the system is not an EFI system this entry should be hidden.
optionsshall contain kernel parameters to pass to the Linux kernel to spawn. This key is optional and may appear more than once in which case all specified parameters are used in the order they are listed.
devicetreerefers to the binary device tree to use when executing the kernel. This also shall be a path relative to the
$BOOTdirectory. This key is optional. Example:
devicetree-overlayrefers to a list of device tree overlays that should be applied by the boot loader. Multiple overlays are separated by spaces and applied in the same order as they are listed. This key is optional but depends on the
architecturerefers to the architecture this entry is defined for. The argument should be an architecture identifier, using the architecture vocabulary defined by the EFI specification (i.e.
AA64, …). If specified and this does not match (case insensitively) the local system architecture this entry should be hidden.
Each configuration drop-in snippet must include at least a
linux or an
efi key and is otherwise not valid. Here’s an example for a complete drop-in file:
# /boot/loader/entries/6a9857a393724b7a981ebb5b8495b9ea-3.8.0-2.fc19.x86_64.conf title Fedora 19 (Rawhide) version 3.8.0-2.fc19.x86_64 machine-id 6a9857a393724b7a981ebb5b8495b9ea options root=UUID=6d3376e4-fc93-4509-95ec-a21d68011da2 architecture x64 linux /6a9857a393724b7a981ebb5b8495b9ea/3.8.0-2.fc19.x86_64/linux initrd /6a9857a393724b7a981ebb5b8495b9ea/3.8.0-2.fc19.x86_64/initrd
On EFI systems all Linux kernel images should be EFI images. In order to increase compatibility with EFI systems it is highly recommended only to install EFI kernel images, even on non-EFI systems, if that’s applicable and supported on the specific architecture.
Conversely, in order to increase compatibility it is recommended to install generic kernel images that make few assumptions about the firmware they run on, i.e. it is a good idea that both images shipped as UEFI PE images and those which are not don’t make unnecessary assumption on the underlying firmware, i.e. don’t hard depend on legacy BIOS calls or UEFI boot services.
Note that these configuration snippets may only reference kernels (and EFI programs) that reside on the same file system as the configuration snippets, i.e. everything referenced must be contained in the same file system. This is by design, as referencing other partitions or devices would require a non-trivial language for denoting device paths. If kernels/initrds are to be read from other partitions/disks the boot loader can do this in its own native configuration, using its own specific device path language, and this is out of focus for this specification. More specifically, on non-EFI systems configuration snippets following this specification cannot be used to spawn other operating systems (such as Windows).
A unified kernel image is a single EFI PE executable combining an EFI stub
loader, a kernel image, an initramfs image, and the kernel command line. See
the description of the
--uefi option in
dracut(8). Such unified
images will be searched for under
$BOOT/EFI/Linux/ and must have the
.efi. Support for images of this type is of course specific to
systems with EFI firmware. Ignore this section if you work on systems not
Type #2 file names should be chosen from the same restricted character set as
Type #1 described above (but use a different file name suffix of
Images of this type have the advantage that all metadata and payload that makes up the boot entry is monopolized in a single PE file that can be signed cryptographically as one for the purpose of EFI SecureBoot.
A valid unified kernel image must contain two PE sections:
.cmdlinesection with the kernel command line
.osrelsection with an embedded copy of the os-release file describing the image
VERSION_ID= fields in the embedded os-release file are used the same as
version in the “boot loader specification” entries. The
.cmdline section is used instead of the
initrd fields are not necessary, and there is no counterpart for the
On EFI, any such images shall be added to the list of valid boot entries.
Note that these configurations snippets do not need to be the only configuration source for a boot loader. It may extend this list of entries with additional items from other configuration files (for example its own native configuration files) or automatically detected other entries without explicit configuration.
To make this explicitly clear: this specification is designed with “free” operating systems in mind, starting Windows or macOS is out of focus with these configuration snippets, use boot-loader specific solutions for that. In the text above, if we say “OS” we hence imply “free”, i.e. primarily Linux (though this could be easily be extended to the BSDs and whatnot).
Note that all paths used in the configuration snippets use a Unix-style “/” as path separator. This needs to be converted to an EFI-style “\” separator in EFI boot loaders.
A boot loader needs a file system driver to discover and read
simply reads all files
$BOOT/loader/entries/*.conf, and populates its boot
menu with this. On EFI, it then extends this with any unified kernel images
$BOOT/EFI/Linux/*.efi. It may also add additional entries, for
example a “Reboot into firmware” option. Optionally it may sort the menu based
version fields, and possibly others. It uses the file
name to identify specific items, for example in case it supports storing away
default entry information somewhere. A boot loader should generally not modify
For “Boot Loader Specification Entries” (Type #1), the kernel package
installer installs the kernel and initrd images to
$BOOT (it is recommended
to place these files in a vendor and OS and installation specific directory)
and then generates a configuration snippet for it, placing this in
$BOOT/loader/entries/xyz.conf, with xyz as concatenation of machine id and
version information (see above). The files created by a kernel package are
private property of the kernel package and should be removed along with it.
For “EFI Unified Kernel Images” (Type #2), the vendor or kernel package
installer creates the combined image and drops it into
file is also private property of the kernel package and should be removed along
A UI application intended to show available boot options shall operate similar to a boot loader, but might apply additional filters, for example by filtering out the booted OS via the machine ID, or by suppressing all but the newest kernel versions.
An OS installer picks the right place for
$BOOT as defined above (possibly creating a partition and file system for it) and pre-creates the
/loader/entries/ directory in it. It then installs an appropriate boot loader that can read these snippets. Finally, it installs one or more kernel packages.
There are a couple of items that are out of focus for this specification:
systemd-bootdoes it), or via native configuration (for example via explicit Grub2 configuration generated once at installation).