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|
|IDE, 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. As example, the first partition on the first SATA device is called /dev/sda1.|
|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. The first partition on the first NVMe device is called /dev/nvme0n1p1.|
|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 typical design intention. Alternatively this storage type could be useful for short-term file backups or snapshots.|
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.
Although it is theoretically possible to use a full disk to house your Linux system, this is almost never done in practice. Instead, full disk block devices are split up in smaller, more manageable block devices. On IA64 systems, these are called partitions.
Itanium systems use EFI, the Extensible Firmware Interface, for booting. The partition table format that EFI understands is called GPT, or GUID Partition Table. The partitioning program that understands GPT is called "parted", so that is the tool used below. Additionally, EFI can only read FAT filesystems, so that is the format to use for the EFI boot partition, where the kernel will be installed by "elilo".
The IA64 Installation CDs provide support for LVM2. LVM2 increases the flexibility offered by the partitioning setup. During the installation instructions, we will focus on "regular" partitions, but it is still good to know LVM2 is supported as well.
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.
- A separate partition for /usr/ may require the administrator to boot with an initramfs to mount the partition before other boot scripts start. Since the generation and maintenance of an initramfs is beyond the scope of this handbook, we recommend that newcomers do not use a separate partition for /usr/.
- There is also a 15-partition limit for SCSI and SATA unless the disk uses GPT labels.
Installations that intend to use systemd as the service and init system must have the /usr directory available at boot, either as part of the root filesystem or mounted via an initramfs.
What about swap space?
There is no perfect value for swap space size. The purpose of the 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), which will free memory in RAM for the current task. Of course, if the pages swapped to disk are suddenly needed, they will need to be put back in memory (page-in) which will take considerably longer than reading from RAM (as disks are very slow compared to internal memory).
When a system is not going to run memory intensive applications or has lots of RAM available, then it probably does not need much swap space. However do note in case of hibernation that swap space is used to store the entire contents of memory (likely on desktop and laptop systems rather than on server systems). If the system requires support for hibernation, then swap space larger than or equal to the amount of memory is necessary.
As a general rule, the swap space size is recommended to be twice the internal memory (RAM). For systems with multiple hard disks, it is wise to create one swap partition on each disk so that they can be utilized for parallel read/write operations. The faster a disk can swap, the faster the system will run when data in swap space must be accessed. When choosing between rotational and solid state disks, it is better for performance to put swap on the SSD. Also, swap files can be used as an alternative to swap partitions; this is mostly interesting for systems with very limited disk space.
Non-default example partition scheme
An example partitioning for a 20GB disk is shown below, used as a demonstration laptop (containing webserver, mailserver, gnome, ...):
Filesystem Type Size Used Avail Use% Mounted on /dev/sda5 ext4 509M 132M 351M 28% / /dev/sda2 ext4 5.0G 3.0G 1.8G 63% /home /dev/sda7 ext4 7.9G 6.2G 1.3G 83% /usr /dev/sda8 ext4 1011M 483M 477M 51% /opt /dev/sda9 ext4 2.0G 607M 1.3G 32% /var /dev/sda1 ext2 51M 17M 31M 36% /boot /dev/sda6 swap 516M 12M 504M 2% <not mounted> (Unpartitioned space for future usage: 2 GB)
/usr/ is rather full (83% used) here, but once all software is installed, /usr/ doesn't tend to grow that much. Although allocating a few gigabytes of disk space for /var/ may seem excessive, remember that portage uses this partition by default for compiling packages. To keep /var/ at a more reasonable size, such as 1GB, alter the PORTAGE_TMPDIR variable in /etc/portage/make.conf to point to the partition with enough free space for compiling extremely large packages such as LibreOffice.
Using parted to partition the disk
The following parts explain how to create the example partition layout used in the remainder of the installation instructions, namely:
|/dev/sda1||EFI Boot partition|
Change the partition layout according to personal preference.
Viewing the current partition layout
parted is the GNU partition editor. Fire up parted on the disk (in our example, we use /dev/sda):
Once in parted, a prompt that looks like this shows up:
At this point one of the available commands is help, to see the other available commands. Another command is print to display the disk's current partition configuration:
Disk geometry for /dev/sda: 0.000-34732.890 megabytes Disk label type: gpt Minor Start End Filesystem Name Flags 1 0.017 203.938 fat32 boot 2 203.938 4243.468 linux-swap 3 4243.469 34724.281 ext4
This particular configuration is very similar to the one recommended above. Note on the second line that the partition table is type is GPT. If it is different, then the ia64 system will not be able to boot from this disk. To explain how partitions are created, let's first remove the partitions and recreate them.
Removing all partitions
Unlike fdisk and some other partitioning programs which postpone committing changes until the write instruction is given, parted commands take effect immediately. So once partitions are added or removed, there is no undo.
The easy way to remove all partitions and start fresh, which guarantees that we are using the correct partition type, is to make a new partition table using the mklabel command. This results in an empty GPT partition table.
Disk geometry for /dev/sda: 0.000-34732.890 megabytes Disk label type: gpt Minor Start End Filesystem Name Flags
Now that the partition table is empty, we're ready to create the partitions. We will use a default partitioning scheme as discussed previously. Of course, don't follow these instructions to the letter but adjust to personal preference.
Creating the EFI boot partition
First create a small EFI boot partition. This is required to be a FAT filesystem in order for the IA64 firmware to read it. Our example makes this 32 MB, which is appropriate for storing kernels and elilo configuration. Expect each IA64 kernel to be around 5 MB, so this configuration leaves some room to grow and experiment.
mkpart primary fat32 0 32
Disk geometry for /dev/sda: 0.000-34732.890 megabytes Disk label type: gpt Minor Start End Filesystem Name Flags 1 0.017 32.000 fat32
Creating the swap partition
Let's now create the swap partition. The classic size to make the swap partition was twice the amount of RAM in the system. In modern systems with lots of RAM, this is no longer necessary. For most desktop systems, a 512 megabyte swap partition is sufficient. For a server, consider something larger to reflect the anticipated needs of the server.
mkpart primary linux-swap 32 544
Disk geometry for /dev/sda: 0.000-34732.890 megabytes Disk label type: gpt Minor Start End Filesystem Name Flags 1 0.017 32.000 fat32 2 32.000 544.000
Creating the root partition
Finally, create the root partition. Our configuration will make the root partition to occupy the rest of the disk. We default to ext4, but it is possible to use ext2, jfs, reiserfs or xfs. The actual filesystem is not created in this step, but the partition table contains an indication of what kind of filesystem is stored on each partition, and it's a good idea to make the table match the intentions.
mkpart primary ext4 544 34732.890
Disk geometry for /dev/sda: 0.000-34732.890 megabytes Disk label type: gpt Minor Start End Filesystem Name Flags 1 0.017 32.000 fat32 2 32.000 544.000 3 544.000 34732.874
To quit from parted, type quit. There's no need to take a separate step to save the partition layout since parted has been saving it all along. Parted will give a reminder to update the /etc/fstab file, which is done later in the installation instructions.
Information: Don't forget to update /etc/fstab, if necessary.
Creating file systems
If using an SSD or NVMe drive, please check if it needs a firmware upgrade. Some Intel SSDs in particular (600p and 6000p) require a firmware upgrade for critical bug fixes avoid data corruption induced by XFS I/O usage patterns (though not through any fault of the filesystem). smartctl can help check the model and firmware version.
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 stable on the ia64 architecture - it is advised to read up on the filesystems and their support state before selecting a more experimental one for important partitions. XFS is the recommended all-purpose, all-platform filesystem. The below is a non-exhaustive list:
- Newer generation filesystem. Provides advanced features like 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. RAID 5/6 and quota groups unsafe on all versions of btrfs.
- Ext4 is a reliable, all-purpose all-platform filesystem, although it lacks modern features like reflinks.
- The Flash-Friendly File System was originally created by Samsung for the use with NAND flash memory. It is a decent choice when installing Gentoo to microSD cards, USB drives, or other flash-based storage devices.
- Filesystem with metadata journaling which comes with a robust feature-set and is optimized for scalability. It has been continuously upgraded to include modern features. The only downside is that XFS partitions cannot yet be shrunk, although this is being worked on. XFS notably supports reflinks and Copy on Write (CoW) which is particularly helpful on Gentoo systems because of the amount of compiles users complete. XFS is the recommended modern all-purpose all-platform filesystem. Requires a partition to be at least 300MB.
- Also known as FAT32, is supported by Linux but does not support standard UNIX permission settings. It is mostly used for interoperability/interchange with other operating systems (Microsoft Windows or Apple's macOS) but is also a necessity for some system bootloader firmware (like UEFI). Users of UEFI systems will need an EFI System Partition formatted with VFAT in order to boot.
- This "New Technology" filesystem is the flagship filesystem of Microsoft Windows since Windows NT 3.1. Similarly to VFAT, 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 for most cases. It should only be used for interoperability or data interchange with Microsoft Windows systems (note the emphasis on only).
More extensive information on filesystems can be found in the community maintained Filesystem article.
Applying a filesystem to a partition
Please make sure to emerge the relevant package for the chosen filesystem later on in the handbook, before rebooting at the end of the install process.
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 root partition (/dev/sda3) as xfs as used in the example partition structure, the following commands would be used:
If using ext4 on a small partition (less than 8 GiB), then the file system must be created with the proper options to reserve enough inodes. This can be done using one of the following commands, respectively:
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.
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
Users of non-Gentoo installation media will need to create the mount point by running:
mkdir --parents /mnt/gentoo
Now that the partitions have been 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/sda3 /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.