Initializing and Cache Mechanism in Linux Kernel

I got updates on for my Debian-based Linux operating system and in between system got crashed. It automatically rebooted, after that all I was able to see is a black screen and had a command line interface and written a word, “initramfs”.

Way come out of the initramfs boot menu. I booted a live CD of ubuntu (the same version) and opened the terminal without installing the OS. Then I executed few commands which are as follows:

# for find out the partition drive in
# which the crashed OS is installed.
sudo fdisk -l|grep Linux|grep -Ev 'swap'  

# to list all superblocks in the partition.
sudo dumpe2fs /dev/sda2 | grep superblock  

# this command will repair the OS by 
# alternate superblock and ‘y’ flag is
# used to allow the terminal to fix.
sudo fsck -b 32768 /dev/sda2 -y  

Fixing without using live CD
You can also go to recovery mode but it will not be able to scan the full partition where your OS is installed and will show the initramsfs boot menu. Then you can give the command:

fsck /dev/partition \name \where \your \OS \is \installed -y

It got fixed but this error left with a question – What is initramfs?

The Mechanism

In RAM some space is reserved for the system files and also to manage the caches. Ramfs is one of the file system which exports Linux’s disk caching mechanisms as a dynamically resizable RAM-based filesystem. These types of mechanisms are used to speed the access to directories. When the disk is mounted, the cached files will also be mounted as the system files. The benefit of ramfs is it requires very less amount of memory in the disk. With the normal mechanisms cached files are deleted when VM tries to reallocate the memory but with ramfs memory can’t be freed by VM.


Rootfs is a special instance of ramfs. You can’t unmount rootfs because you there are signal handlers running parallel which assure that system is not brought down. It is made to check for and handle an empty list then it’s easier for the kernel to just make sure certain lists can’t become empty.
Linux kernels contains a gzipped cpio (it is a general file archiver utility) format archive, which is extracted into rootfs when the kernel boots up. After extracting, the kernel checks to see if rootfs contains a file “init”, and if so it executes it as PID (it is a unique number that identifies each of the running processes in an operating system ).
Now there are two possibilities,
Case #1: If found, this init process is responsible for bringing the system the rest of the way up, including locating and mounting the real root device (if any).

Case #2: If rootfs does not contain an init program after the embedded cpio archive is extracted into it, the kernel will fall through to the older code to locate and mount a root partition, then exec some variant of /sbin/init out of that.

Relation with cpio

The config option CONFIG_INITRAMFS_SOURCE (in General Setup in menuconfig and living in usr/Kconfig) can be used to specify a source for the initramfs archive, which will automatically be incorporated into the resulting binary. This option can point to an existing gzipped cpio archive, a directory containing files to be archived, or a text file specification. One advantage of the configuration file is that root access is not required to set permissions or create device nodes in the new archive.

The kernel does not depend on external cpio tools. If you specify a directory instead of a configuration file, the kernel’s build infrastructure creates a configuration file from that directory (usr/Makefile calls scripts/, and proceeds to package up that directory using the config file (by feeding it to usr/gen_init_cpio, which is created from usr/gen_init_cpio.c). The kernel’s build-time cpio creation code is entirely self-contained, and the kernel’s boot-time extractor is also self-contained.

Instructing Initramfs
Create a hello.c file with the code:


 int main(int argc, char *argv[])
   printf("Hello world!\n");

Now give the commands:

gcc -static hello.c -o init
echo init | cpio -o -H newc | gzip > test.cpio.gz 

qemu -kernel /boot/vmlinuz -initrd test.cpio.gz /dev/zero

When debugging a normal root file system, it’s nice to be able to boot with “init = /bin/sh”. The initramfs equivalent is “rdinit = /bin/sh”.

My Note: I was totally annoyed because I was about to loose the whole data but that’s not the case when I understood why is needed. Open source culture gives you the freedom to learn anything, then it is your responsibility to help in developing it not to ignore it. Open source contributions is the best way you can do for the society even if you are not highlighted, enjoying the satisfaction when your code or contribution benefited lacks of people.

This article is contributed by Krishnan Iyer. If you like GeeksforGeeks and would like to contribute, you can also write an article using or mail your article to See your article appearing on the GeeksforGeeks main page and help other Geeks.

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