Introduction to block devices
Let's take a good look at disk-oriented aspects of Gentoo Linux and Linux in general, including block devices, partitions, and Linux filesystems. Once the ins and outs of disks are understood, partitions and filesystems can be established for installation.
To begin, let's look at block devices. SCSI and Serial ATA drives are both labeled under device handles such as: /dev/sda, /dev/sdb, /dev/sdc, etc. On more modern machines, PCI Express based NVMe solid state disks have device handles such as /dev/nvme0n1, /dev/nvme0n2, etc.
The following table will help readers determine where to find a certain type of block device on the system:
|Type of device||Default device handle||Editorial notes and considerations|
|NVM Express (NVMe)||/dev/nvme0n1||The latest in solid state technology, NVMe drives are connected to the PCI Express bus and have the fastest transfer block speeds on the market. Systems from around 2014 and newer may have support for NVMe hardware.|
|SATA, SAS, SCSI, or USB flash||/dev/sda||Found on hardware from roughly 2007 until the present, this device handle is perhaps the most commonly used in Linux. These types of devices can be connected via the SATA bus, SCSI, USB bus as block storage.|
|MMC, eMMC, and SD||/dev/mmcblk0||embedded MMC devices, SD cards, and other types of memory cards can be useful for data storage. That said, many systems may not permit booting from these types of devices. It is suggested to not use these devices for active Linux installations; rather consider using them to transfer files, which is their design goal. Alernatively they could be useful for short-term backups.|
|IDE/PATA||/dev/hda||Older Linux kernel drivers for IDE/Parallel ATA hardware displayed rotational block storage devices connected to the IDE bus starting at this location. Generally these types of devices has been phased out of personal computers since the year 2003, which is when the computer industry standard shifted to SATA. Most systems with one IDE controller could support four devices (hda-hdd). |
Alternative naming for these older interfaces include Extended IDE (EIDE) and Ultra ATA (UATA).
The block devices above represent an abstract interface to the disk. User programs can use these block devices to interact with the disk without worrying about whether the drives are SATA, SCSI, or something else. The program can simply address the storage on the disk as a bunch of contiguous, randomly-accessible 4096-byte (4K) blocks.
Partitions and slices
Although it is theoretically possible to use a full disk to house the Linux system, this is almost never done in practice. Instead, full disk block devices are split up in smaller, more manageable block devices. On most systems, these are called partitions. Other architectures use a similar technique, called slices.
Designing a partition scheme
How many partitions and how big?
The design of disk partition layout is highly dependent on the demands of the system and the file system(s) applied to the device. If there are lots of users, then it is advised to have /home on a separate partition which will increase security and make backups and other types of maintenance easier. If Gentoo is being installed to perform as a mail server, then /var should be a separate partition as all mails are stored inside the /var directory. Game servers may have a separate /opt partition since most gaming server software is installed therein. The reason for these recommendations is similar to the /home directory: security, backups, and maintenance.
In most situations on Gentoo, /usr and /var should be kept relatively large in size. /usr hosts the majority of applications available on the system and the Linux kernel sources (under /usr/src). By default, /var hosts the Gentoo ebuild repository (located at /var/db/repos/gentoo) which, depending on the file system, generally consumes around 650 MiB of disk space. This space estimate excludes the /var/cache/distfiles and /var/cache/binpkgs directories, which will gradually fill with source files and (optionally) binary packages respectively as they are added to the system.
How many partitions and how big very much depends on considering the trade-offs and choosing the best option for the circumstance. Separate partitions or volumes have the following advantages:
- Choose the best performing filesystem for each partition or volume.
- The entire system cannot run out of free space if one defunct tool is continuously writing files to a partition or volume.
- If necessary, file system checks are reduced in time, as multiple checks can be done in parallel (although this advantage is realized more with multiple disks than it is with multiple partitions).
- Security can be enhanced by mounting some partitions or volumes read-only,
nosuid(setuid bits are ignored),
noexec(executable bits are ignored), etc.
However, multiple partitions have certain disadvantages as well:
- If not configured properly, the system might have lots of free space on one partition and little free space on another.
- Another nuisance is that separate partitions - especially for important mount points like /usr/ or /var/ - often require the administrator to boot with an initramfs to mount the partition before other boot scripts start. This is not always the case though, so results may vary.
- There is also a 15-partition limit for SCSI and SATA unless the disk uses GPT labels.
What about swap space?
There is no perfect value for the swap partition. The purpose of swap space is to provide disk storage to the kernel when internal memory (RAM) is under pressure. A swap space allows for the kernel to move memory pages that are not likely to be accessed soon to disk (swap or page-out), freeing memory. Of course, if that memory is suddenly needed, these pages need to be put back in memory (page-in) which will take a while (as disks are very slow compared to internal memory).
When the system is not going to run memory intensive applications or the system has lots of memory available, then it probably does not need much swap space. However, swap space is also used to store the entire memory in case of hibernation. If the system is going to need hibernation, then a bigger swap space is necessary, often at least the amount of memory installed in the system.
Using fdisk on HPPA
Use fdisk to create the partitions needed:
HPPA machines use the PC standard DOS partition tables. To create a new DOS partition table press the o key.
Command (m for help):
Building a new DOS disklabel.
PALO (the HPPA bootloader) needs a special partition to work. A partition of at least 16 MB at the beginning of the disk needs to be created for it. The partition type must be of type f0 (Linux/PA-RISC boot).
If this is forgotten and the installation continues without a special PALO partition, then eventually the system will fail to restart. Also, if the disk is larger than 2 GB, make sure that the boot partition is in the first 2 GB of the disk. PALO is unable to read a kernel after the 2 GB limit.
/dev/sda2 /boot ext2 noauto,noatime 1 1 /dev/sda3 none swap sw 0 0 /dev/sda4 / ext4 noatime 0 0
In fdisk, such a partition layout looks like so:
Command (m for help):
Disk /dev/sda: 4294 MB, 4294816768 bytes 133 heads, 62 sectors/track, 1017 cylinders Units = cylinders of 8246 * 512 = 4221952 bytes Device Boot Start End Blocks Id System /dev/sda1 1 8 32953 f0 Linux/PA-RISC boot /dev/sda2 9 20 49476 83 Linux /dev/sda3 21 70 206150 82 Linux swap /dev/sda4 71 1017 3904481 83 Linux
Creating file systems
Now that the partitions have been created, it is time to place a filesystem on them. In the next section the various file systems that Linux supports are described. Readers that already know which filesystem to use can continue with Applying a filesystem to a partition. The others should read on to learn about the available filesystems...
Linux supports several dozen filesystems, although many of them are only wise to deploy for specific purposes. Only certain filesystems may be found found stable on the hppa architecture - it is advised to read up on the filesystems and their support state before selecting a more experimental one for important partitions.
- A next generation filesystem that provides many advanced features such as snapshotting, self-healing through checksums, transparent compression, subvolumes, and integrated RAID. Kernels prior to 5.4.y are not guaranteed to be safe to use with btrfs in production because fixes for serious issues are only present in the more recent releases of the LTS kernel branches. Filesystem corruption issues are common on older kernel branches, with anything older than 4.4.y being especially unsafe and prone to corruption. Corruption is more likely on older kernels (than 5.4.y) when compression is enabled. RAID 5/6 and quota groups unsafe on all versions of btrfs. Furthermore, btrfs can counter-intuitively fail filesystem operations with ENOSPC when df reports free space due to internal fragmentation (free space pinned by DATA + SYSTEM chunks, but needed in METADATA chunks). Additionally, a single 4K reference to a 128M extent inside btrfs can cause free space to be present, but unavailable for allocations. This can also cause btrfs to return ENOSPC when free space is reported by df. Installing sys-fs/btrfsmaintenance and configuring the scripts to run periodically can help to reduce the possibility of ENOSPC issues by rebalancing btrfs, but it will not eliminate the risk of ENOSPC when free space is present. Some workloads will never hit ENOSPC while others will. If the risk of ENOSPC in production is unacceptable, you should use something else. If using btrfs, be certain to avoid configurations known to have issues. With the exception of ENOSPC, information on the issues present in btrfs in the latest kernel branches is available at the btrfs wiki status page.
- This is the tried and true Linux filesystem but doesn't have metadata journaling, which means that routine ext2 filesystem checks at startup time can be quite time-consuming. There is now quite a selection of newer-generation journaled filesystems that can be checked for consistency very quickly and are thus generally preferred over their non-journaled counterparts. Journaled filesystems prevent long delays when the system is booted and the filesystem happens to be in an inconsistent state.
- The journaled version of the ext2 filesystem, providing metadata journaling for fast recovery in addition to other enhanced journaling modes like full data and ordered data journaling. It uses an HTree index that enables high performance in almost all situations. In short, ext3 is a very good and reliable filesystem.
- Initially created as a fork of ext3, ext4 brings new features, performance improvements, and removal of size limits with moderate changes to the on-disk format. It can span volumes up to 1 EB and with maximum file size of 16TB. Instead of the classic ext2/3 bitmap block allocation ext4 uses extents, which improve large file performance and reduce fragmentation. Ext4 also provides more sophisticated block allocation algorithms (delayed allocation and multiblock allocation) giving the filesystem driver more ways to optimize the layout of data on the disk. Ext4 is the recommended all-purpose all-platform filesystem.
- The Flash-Friendly File System was originally created by Samsung for the use with NAND flash memory. As of Q2, 2016, this filesystem is still considered immature, but it is a decent choice when installing Gentoo to microSD cards, USB drives, or other flash-based storage devices.
- IBM's high-performance journaling filesystem. JFS is a light, fast, and reliable B+tree-based filesystem with good performance in various conditions.
- A B+tree-based journaled filesystem that has good overall performance, especially when dealing with many tiny files at the cost of more CPU cycles. ReiserFS version 3 is included in the mainline Linux kernel, but is not recommended to be used when initially installing a Gentoo system. Newer versions of the ReiserFS filesystem exist, however they require additional patching of the mainline kernel to be utilized.
- A filesystem with metadata journaling which comes with a robust feature-set and is optimized for scalability. XFS seems to be less forgiving to various hardware problems, but has been continuously upgraded to include modern features.
- Also known as FAT32, is supported by Linux but does not support standard UNIX permission settings. It is mostly used for interoperability with other operating systems (Microsoft Windows or Apple's OSX) but is also a necessity for some system bootloader firmware (like UEFI).
- This "New Technology" filesystem is the flagship filesystem of Microsoft Windows since Windows NT 3.1. Similar to vfat above it does not store UNIX permission settings or extended attributes necessary for BSD or Linux to function properly, therefore it should not be used as a root filesystem. It should only be used for interoperability with Microsoft Windows systems (note the emphasis on only).
When using ext2, ext3, or ext4 on a small partition (less than 8 GiB), then the file system must be created with the proper options to reserve enough inodes. The mke2fs (mkfs.ext2) application uses the "bytes-per-inode" setting to calculate the number of inodes for a file system. On smaller partitions, it is advised to increase the calculated number of inodes.
On ext2, ext3 and ext4, this can be done using one of the following commands, respectively:
mkfs.ext2 -T small /dev/<device>
mkfs.ext3 -T small /dev/<device>
mkfs.ext4 -T small /dev/<device>
This will generally quadruple the number of inodes for a given file system as its "bytes-per-inode" reduces from one every 16kB to one every 4kB. This can be tuned even further by providing the ratio:
mkfs.ext2 -i <ratio> /dev/<device>
Applying a filesystem to a partition
To create a filesystem on a partition or volume, there are user space utilities available for each possible filesystem. Click the filesystem's name in the table below for additional information on each filesystem:
|Filesystem||Creation command||On minimal CD?||Package|
For instance, to have the boot partition (/dev/sda2) in ext2 and the root partition (/dev/sda4) in ext4 as used in the example partition structure, the following commands would be used:
Now create the filesystems on the newly created partitions (or logical volumes).
Activating the swap partition
mkswap is the command that is used to initialize swap partitions:
To activate the swap partition, use swapon:
Create and activate the swap with the commands mentioned above.
Mounting the root partition
Now that the partitions are initialized and are housing a filesystem, it is time to mount those partitions. Use the mount command, but don't forget to create the necessary mount directories for every partition created. As an example we mount the root partition:
mount /dev/sda4 /mnt/gentoo
If /tmp/ needs to reside on a separate partition, be sure to change its permissions after mounting:
chmod 1777 /mnt/gentoo/tmp
Later in the instructions the proc filesystem (a virtual interface with the kernel) as well as other kernel pseudo-filesystems will be mounted. But first we install the Gentoo installation files.