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|
|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 design goal. Alternatively they could be useful for short-term backups.|
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 a 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.
In the remainder of the installation instructions, we will use the Pegasos example partition layout. Adjust to personal preference.
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.
If you intend to uses Systemd, /usr/ must be available on 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.
Apple New World
Apple New World machines are fairly straightforward to configure. The first partition is always an Apple Partition Map (APM). This partition keeps track of the layout of the disk. It is not possible to remove this partition. The next partition should always be a bootstrap partition. This partition contains a small (800KiB) HFS filesystem that holds a copy of the bootloader Yaboot and its configuration file. This partition is not the same as a /boot partition as found on other architectures. After the boot partition, the usual Linux filesystems are placed, according to the scheme below. The swap partition is a temporary storage place for when the system runs out of physical memory. The root partition will contain the filesystem that Gentoo is installed on. To dual boot, the OSX partition can go anywhere after the bootstrap partition to insure that yaboot starts first.
There may be "Disk Driver" partitions on the disk such as Apple_Driver63, Apple_Driver_ATA, Apple_FWDriver, Apple_Driver_IOKit, and Apple_Patches. These are used to boot MacOS, so if there is no need for this, they can be removed by initializing the disk with mac-fdisk's i option. Be careful, this will completely erase the disk! If in doubt do not remove them.
If the disk is partitioned with Apple's Disk Utility, there may be 128 MiB spaces between partitions which Apple reserves for "future use". These can be safely removed.
|/dev/sda1||32KiB||None.||Apple Partition Map (APM).|
|/dev/sda3||512 MiB||swap||Linux swap (type 0x82).|
|/dev/sda4||Rest of the disk.||ext4, reiserfs, xfs, etc.||Linux root.|
Apple Old World
Apple Old World machines are a bit more complicated to configure. The first partition is always an Apple Partition Map (APM). This partition keeps track of the layout of the disk. It is not possible to remove this partition. When using BootX, the configuration below assumes that MacOS is installed on a separate disk. If this is not the case, there will be additional partitions for "Apple Disk Drivers" such as Apple_Driver63, Apple_Driver_ATA, Apple_FWDriver, Apple_Driver_IOKit, Apple_Patches and the MacOS install. When using Quik, it is necessary to create a boot partition to hold the kernel, unlike other Apple boot methods. After the boot partition, the usual Linux filesystems are placed, according to the scheme below. The swap partition is a temporary storage place for when the system runs out of physical memory. The root partition will contain the filesystem that Gentoo is installed on.
When using an OldWorld machine, it is necessary to keep MacOS available. The layout here assumes MacOS is installed on a separate drive.
Example partition layout for an Old World machine:
|/dev/sda1||32KiB||None.||Apple Partition Map (APM).|
|/dev/sda2||32MiB||ext2||Quik Boot Partition (quik only).|
|/dev/sda3||512MiB||swap||Linux swap (type 0x82).|
|/dev/sda4||Rest of the disk.||ext4, reiserfs, xfs, etc.||Linux root.|
The Pegasos partition layout is quite simple compared to the Apple layouts. The first partition is a boot partition, which contains kernels to be booted along with an Open Firmware script that presents a menu on boot. After the boot partition, the usual Linux filesystems are placed, according to the scheme below. The swap partition is a temporary storage place for when the system runs out of physical memory. The root partition will contain the filesystem that Gentoo is installed on.
Example partition layout for Pegasos systems:
|/dev/sda1||32MiB||affs1 or ext2||Boot partition.|
|/dev/sda2||512MiB||swap||Linux swap (type 0x82).|
|/dev/sda3||Rest of the disk.||ext4, reiserfs, xfs, etc.||Linux root.|
IBM PReP (RS/6000)
The IBM PowerPC Reference Platform (PReP) requires a small PReP boot partition on the disk's first partition, followed by the swap and root partitions.
Example partition layout for the IBM PReP:
|/dev/sda1||800KiB||None||PReP boot partition (type 0x41).|
|/dev/sda2||512MiB||swap||Linux swap (type 0x82).|
|/dev/sda3||Rest of the disk||ext4, reiserfs, xfs, etc.||Linux root (type 0x83).|
parted is able to resize partitions including HFS+. Unfortunately there may be issues with resizing HFS+ journaled filesystems, so, for the best results, switch off journaling in Mac OS X before resizing. Remember that any resizing operation is dangerous, so attempt at own risk! Be sure to always have a backup of all data before resizing!
Using mac-fdisk (Apple)
At this point, create the partitions using mac-fdisk:
If Apple's Disk Utility was used prior to leave space for Linux, first delete the partitions that might have been created previously to make room for the new install. Use d in mac-fdisk to delete those partition(s). It will ask for the partition number to delete. Usually the first partition on NewWorld machines (Apple_partition_map) cannot be deleted. To start with a clean disk, simply initialize the disk by pressing i. This will completely erase the disk, so use this with caution.
Second, create an Apple_Bootstrap partition by using b. It will ask for what block to start. Enter the number of the first free partition, followed by a p. For instance this is 2p.
This partition is not a /boot partition. It is not used by Linux at all; there is no need to place any filesystem on it and it should never be mounted. Apple users don't need an extra partition for /boot.
Now create a swap partition by pressing c. Again mac-fdisk will ask for what block to start this partition from. As we used 2 before to create the Apple_Bootstrap partition, now enter 3p. When sked for the size, enter 512M (or whatever size needed - a minimum of 512MiB is recommended, but 2 times the physical memory is the generally accepted size). When asked for a name, enter swap.
To create the root partition, enter c, followed by 4p to select from what block the root partition should start. When asked for the size, enter 4p again. mac-fdisk will interpret this as "Use all available space". When asked for the name, enter root.
To finish up, write the partition to the disk using w and q to quit mac-fdisk.
To make sure everything is okay, run mac-fdisk -l and check whether all the partitions are there. If not all partitions created previously are shown, or the changes made are not reflected in the output, reinitialize the partitions by pressing i in mac-fdisk. Note that this will recreate the partition map and thus remove all existing partitions.
Using parted (Pegasos and RS/6000)
parted, the partition editor, can now handle HFS+ partitions used by Mac OS and Mac OS X. With this tool it is possible to resize the Mac partitions and create space for the Linux partitions. Nevertheless, the example below describes partitioning for Pegasos machines only.
To begin let's fire up parted:
If the drive is unpartitioned, run mklabel amiga to create a new disklabel for the drive.
It is possible to type print at any time in parted to display the current partition table. To abort parted, press Ctrl+c.
If next to Linux, the system is also meant to have MorphOS installed, then create an affs1 filesystem at the start of the drive. 32MB should be more than enough to store the MorphOS kernel. With a Pegasos I, or when Linux will use any filesystem besides ext2 or ext3, then it is necessary to also store the Linux kernel on this partition (the Pegasos II can only boot from ext2/ext3 or affs1 partitions). To create the partition run
mkpart primary affs1 START END where START and END should be replaced with the megabyte range (e.g. 0 32) which creates a 32 MB partition starting at 0MB and ending at 32MB. When creating an ext2 or ext3 partition instead, substitute ext2 or ext3 for affs1 in the mkpart command.
Create two partitions for Linux, one root filesystem and one swap partition. Run
mkpart primary START END to create each partition, replacing START and END with the desired megabyte boundaries.
It is generally recommended to create a swap partition that is two times bigger than the amount of RAM in the computer, but at least 512MiB is recommended. To create the swap partition, run
mkpart primary linux-swap START END with START and END again denoting the partition boundaries.
When done in parted simply type
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 ppc architecture - it is advised to read up on the filesystems and their support state before selecting a more experimental one for important partitions. ext4 is the recommended all-purpose all-platform filesystem.
- 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).
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 EFI system partition partition (/dev/sda1) as FAT32 and the root partition (/dev/sda3) as ext4 as used in the example partition structure, the following commands would be used:
mkfs.vfat -F 32 /dev/sda1
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. 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.
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/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.