s6 and s6-rc-based init system

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A draft consolidation and restructure of this page and the S6 page is available here; it is currently awaiting review by a Gentoo dev.

An s6 and s6-rc-based init system is an init system built using components from the s6, s6-rc and s6-linux-init packages. It can be used as alternative to sysvinit + OpenRC, or systemd.

General setup

While Gentoo does offer s6, s6-rc and s6-linux-init packages in its official repository, it does not completely support using them to make an init system. Gentoo users who want to do that might need to use alternative ebuild repositories and/or do some local tweaking.

The general setup of an s6 and s6-rc-based init system is as follows:

  1. When the machine boots, all initialization tasks needed to bring it to its stable, normal 'up and running' state, are split into a stage1 init and a stage2 init. The stage1 init is the s6-linux-init program from the package of the same name, which is invoked by the kernel, runs as process 1, and replaces itself with the s6-svscan program from s6 when its work is done. The stage2 init is invoked by the stage1 init, runs as a child of process 1, blocks until s6-svscan starts to execute, and exits when its work is done.
  2. During most of the machine's uptime, s6-svscan runs as process 1 with signal diversion turned on, and there is an s6 supervision tree rooted in process 1, that is launched as soon as s6-svscan starts to execute.
  3. A supervised catch-all logger is started as part of the supervision tree. The catch-all logger logs messages sent by supervision tree processes to s6-svscan's standard output and error, supporting a logging chain arrangement. The catch-all logger is optional since s6-linux-init version; if one is not set up, messages that would be logged by it are printed to the machine's console instead.
  4. The stage2 init initializes the s6-rc service manager and starts a subset of the services defined in the boot-time compiled service database. Some of these s6-rc-managed services might carry out part of the machine's initialization tasks.
  5. While s6-svscan is running as process 1, services are normally managed using s6-rc tools. The s6-linux-init-telinit program in combination with the runlevel changer service created by the s6-linux-init-maker program (both from package s6-linux-init) allows the implementation of sysvinit-like runlevels.
  6. The administrator initiates the machine's shutdown sequence using the s6-linux-init-shutdown program or the s6-linux-init-hpr program, both from package s6-linux-init. These programs communicate with a special supervision tree process, the shutdown daemon, which then takes care of the shutdown sequence, including the stopping of all s6-rc-managed services, and finally halts, powers off or reboots the machine.

The boot sequence

The stage1 init

When the machine starts booting (if an initramfs is being used, after it passes control to the 'main' init), a stage1 init executes as process 1. This is usually a simple execline script wrapper (e.g. as created by s6-linux-init-maker) around the s6-linux-init program from the package of the same name. Using a script allows passing options to s6-linux-init, which would otherwise have to be present in the kernel command line.

Therefore, if the wrapper script is named, for example, s6-gentoo-init, and placed in /sbin, to use an s6 and s6-rc-based init system, an init=/sbin/s6-gentoo-init argument can be added to the kernel's command line using the bootloader's available mechanisms (e.g. a linux command in some 'Gentoo with s6 + s6-rc + s6-linux-init' menu entry for GRUB). It is possible to go back to sysvinit + OpenRC at any time, or to any other init system, by reverting the change. Alternatively, the wrapper script can be the /sbin/init file, in which case the init= parameter is not needed, but this would conflict on Gentoo with sysvinit or with systemd if it was installed with the sysv-utils USE flag.

s6-linux-init runs with its standard input, output and error initially redirected to the machine's console. It does all necessary setup for s6-svscan, including setting up its scan directory. Because at that point in the boot sequence the root filesystem might be the only mounted filesystem, and possibly read-only, s6-linux-init also mounts a tmpfs (at /run on Gentoo) as a read-write filesystem to hold control files that s6-svscan and s6-supervise need to write to. s6-linux-init uses a directory called the run image, that contains the initial scan directory, and copies it to the read-write tmpfs as a directory named service. When s6-svscan starts running as process 1, it uses the directory in the tmpfs as its scan directory (so its absolute pathname would be /run/service on Gentoo). The run image can be in a read-only filesystem, and must be subdirectory run-image of s6-linux-init's base directory (normally /etc/s6-linux-init/current).

Because s6-linux-init runs as process 1, if it terminates in any way, there will be a kernel panic. Therefore, machine initialization is split between s6-linux-init, which does a minimal amount of work and then replaces itself with s6-svscan using a POSIX execve() call, and a stage2 init, which is spawned as a child process by s6-linux-init.

The stage2 init

The stage2 init is spawned by the s6-linux-init as a child process, and is blocked from running until the latter replaces itself with s6-svscan. To achieve this, the child process of s6-linux-init opens the catch-all logger's FIFO for writing using the POSIX open() call. The call will block until some other process opens the FIFO for reading. The catch-all logger is a supervised process, so it starts executing when s6-svscan does, and opens the FIFO for reading, thereby unblocking the process, which then replaces itself with the stage2 init. If no catch-all logger is set up, the child process of s6-linux-init just waits until s6-svscan notifies its readiness, using a pipe as the notification channel.

The stage2 init executes with s6-svscan as process 1, and performs all remaining initialization tasks needed to bring the machine to its stable, normal 'up and running' state. It executes with a few vital supervised long-lived processes already running, started as part of process 1's supervision tree, including the catch-all logger, if one is used. When the stage2 init finishes its work, it just exits and gets reaped by s6-svscan.

The stage2 init must be an executable file named rc.init, and located in the scripts subdirectory of s6-linux-init's base directory (normally /etc/s6-linux-init/current). It is usually an execline or shell script. Gentoo's official repository does not supply any package with a stage2 init for s6 and s6-rc-based init systems. The s6-linux-init package installs an example rc.init shell script in /etc/s6-linux-init/skel, containing only comments that illustrate how to set up the init system for a variety of rc subsystems.

s6-rc initialization

The s6-rc service manager needs to be initialized, which must be done when s6-svscan is already running. Therefore, initialization is performed by having the stage2 init invoke the s6-rc-init program. This program takes the pathname of a compiled service database as an argument (or defaults it to /etc/s6-rc/compiled), as well as the pathname of process 1's scan directory (i.e. /run/service on Gentoo). So a suitable service database must exist and be available at least in a read-only filesystem. This is the boot-time service database. s6-rc's live state directory must be in a read-write filesystem. On Gentoo, letting s6-rc-init default the live state directory pathname to /run/s6-rc will place it in the read-write tmpfs mounted by s6-linux-init.

The initial state of all s6-rc services, as set by s6-rc-init, is down. So the the stage2 init must also start all atomic services (oneshots and longruns) that are needed to complete the machine's initialization, if any, as well as all longruns that are wanted up at the end of the boot sequence. This is performed by defining a service bundle in the boot-time service database that groups these atomic services, and having the stage2 init start them with an s6-rc -u change command naming the bundle. This bundle would be the s6-rc counterpart to OpenRC's sysinit + boot + default runlevels, systemd's default.target unit, or nosh's normal target bundle directory.

The catch-all logger

In the context of an s6 and s6-rc-based init system, the catch-all logger is a supervised long-lived process that logs messages sent by supervision tree processes to s6-svscan's standard output and error, normally in an automatically rotated logging directory. In a logging chain arrangement, the leaf processes of a supervision tree normally have dedicated loggers that collect and store messages sent to the process' standard output and error in per-service logs. Messages from s6-svscan, s6-supervise processes, logger processes themselves, and leaf processes that exceptionally don't have logger, are printed on process 1's standard output or error. At the beginning of the boot sequence, they are redirected by the kernel to the machine's console, and can be redirected later so that the messages are delivered to the catch-all logger, using a setup that involves a FIFO. Only the catch-all logger's standard error remains redirected to the machine's console, as a last resort.

The run image that is copied to the read-write tmpfs mounted by the stage1 init contains s6-svscan's initial scan directory with a service directory for the catch-all logger already present, so that it is started as soon as s6-svscan begins execution as process 1. For s6-linux-init and later, the catch-all logger's service directory must be named s6-svscan-log, since the s6-linux-init program passes s6-svscan an -X option (console holder) to redirect the catch-all logger's standard error.

The logging directory is owned by the catch-all logger's effective user after dropping privileges, and normally has permissions 2750 (i.e. the output of ls -l displays drwx--s---). Because it must be set up by the stage1 init before the init system's supervision tree is started, a subdirectory with the name, owner, group and permissions of the logging directory must exist in s6-linux-init's run image. This subdirectory will then be copied to the read-write tmpfs, the only read-write filesystem that can be guaranteed to exist when starting the supervision tree, setting this copy up as the catch-all logger's logging directory.

The s6-linux-init-maker program from s6-linux-init can create a catch-all logger that uses the s6-log program. The logging directory of s6-linux-init-maker's logger is named uncaught-logs (so its absolute pathname will be /run/uncaught-logs on Gentoo).

The catch-all logger's FIFO

An s6 and s6-rc-based init system has a FIFO some place in the filesystem, reserved for the catch-all logger. The FIFO is owned by root and has permissions 0600 (i.e. the output of ls -l displays prw-------). The code of the catch-all logger's run file opens the FIFO for reading, redirects its standard input to it, optionally drops privileges (e.g. by invoking s6-setuidgid or s6-applyuidgid if it is a script) and calls the logger program.

The stage1 init redirects its standard output and error to the catch-all logger's FIFO before replacing itself with s6-svscan, so s6-svscan and all supervision tree processes will have their standard output and error redirected this way as well, except the catch-all logger itself. Using a FIFO allows delaying the execution of the stage2 init until s6-svscan is running as process 1.

Shutdown and reboot

The shutdown daemon

The init system's supervision tree includes a shutdown daemon, that receives requests to initiate the shutdown sequence, either immediately or after a certain specified time elapses. The shutdown daemon is program s6-linux-init-shutdownd from the s6-linux-init package.

s6-linux-init-shutdownd executes a shutdown file, and waits for it to terminate. Generally speaking, the shutdown file undoes what the stage2 init has done at boot time, and is normally an execline or shell script. Its code can use s6 tools and s6-rc services to do its work. In particular, if s6-rc is in use, it can be used to stop all s6-rc-managed services (normally with a s6-rc -da change command).

Then, s6-linux-init-shutdownd stops all processes from the supervision tree except the catch-all logger, if one is used, kills all remaining processes, unmounts all mounted filesystem, and finally performs the halt, poweroff or reboot operation, as requested.

Optionally, after unmounting filesystems, s6-linux-init-shutdownd can also execute a final shutdown file, waiting for it to terminate before shutting down the machine. This file can be used to perform actions after all filesystems are unmounted. For example, to deactivate LVM logical volumes using a vgchange --activate command, or to wipe LUKS encrypted volumes' keys from kernel memory and remove their existing mappings using a cryptsetup close command. While the final shutdown file is running the only filesystems remain mounted are the rootfs (read-only), the tmpfs mounted at /run by s6-linux-init (read-write), and the devtmpfs, sysfs and proc filesystems.

The shutdown and final shutdown files must be executable files named rc.shutdown and rc.shutdown.final, respectively, and located in the scripts subdirectory of s6-linux-init-shutdownd's base directory (normally /etc/s6-linux-init/current). They are usually execline or shell scripts. Gentoo's official repository does not supply any package with a shutdown file or final shutdown file for s6 and s6-rc-based init systems. Users must create them from scratch or take them from somewhere else (e.g. alternative ebuild repositories). The s6-linux-init package installs example rc.shutdown and rc.shutdown.final shell scripts in /etc/s6-linux-init/skel containing only comments, that illustrate how to set up the init system for a variety of rc subsystems.

The s6-svscan diverted signal handlers

Since the program running as process 1 is s6-svscan with signal diversion turned on, use of diverted signal handlers defines what happens when it receives a signal. The s6-linux-init-maker program from s6-linux-init can create signal handler execline scripts for all s6-svscan diverted signals, that either invoke the s6-linux-init-shutdown program from the same package to request that the machine be halted, powered off or rebooted, or do nothing. This allows shutting down the machine by sending signals to process 1, in addition to using the s6-linux-init-shutdown or s6-linux-init-hpr programs.

Compatibility scripts

s6-svscan is not directly compatible with sysvinit's telinit, halt, poweroff, reboot, and shutdown commands. However, the s6-linux-init-maker program from s6-linux-init can create execline compatibility scripts for these programs, that invoke the s6-linux-init, s6-linux-init-telinit, s6-linux-init-shutdown and s6-linux-init-hpr programs from the same package, as appropriate.

Service management

On an s6 and s6-rc-based init system, the s6-rc package is used for service management. In particular, the administrator can replace the init system's compiled service database with a new one using s6-rc-update, and can create a new boot-time service database, to be used next time the machine boots, with s6-rc-compile and a set of service definitions in this program's supported source format. It is best to have the s6-rc-init invocation in the stage2 init use a symbolic link as the compiled service database pathname, so that the boot-time database can be changed by modifying the symlink instead of the stage2 init code, e.g. by having an /etc/s6-rc/db directory for storing one or more compiled databases, making /etc/s6-rc/boot a symbolic link to one of those databases, and using the symlink in the s6-rc-init invocation.

It is possible to have long-lived processes not managed by s6-rc but supervised by process 1, by managing s6 service directories directly, placing them (or symbolic links to them) in the init system's scan directory, and using s6-svscanctl -a, s6-svscanctl -n or s6-svscanctl -N commands as needed. It is also possible to use s6-svscan as process 1 and just s6 tools, without s6-rc, but then the init system becomes more like runit.

s6 service directories and s6-rc service definitions for anything not supplied in packages from Gentoo's official repository must be created by the administrator, either from scratch or taken from somewhere else (e.g. alternative ebuild repositories).


An s6-based init system can implement the equivalent of sysvinit-like runlevels. The s6-linux-init-maker program from s6-linux-init can create a runlevel changer service, that performs a runlevel change' by invoking a runlevel changer file. The meaning of "runlevel change" is defined by whatever this file does when executed.

If s6-linux-init-maker's runlevel changer service is used, the administrator requests a runlevel change using the s6-linux-init-telinit program from s6-linux-init. If s6-rc is in use, runlevels can be mapped to services bundles and the runlevel changer file can perform a runlevel change using an s6-rc change command with the -p (prune) option. The runlevel changer file must be an executable file named runlevel, and located in the scripts subdirectory of the runlevel changer service's base directory (normally /etc/s6-linux-init/current). It is usually an execline or shell script. Gentoo's official repository does not supply any package with a runlevel changer file for s6-based init systems. The s6-linux-init package installs an example runlevel shell script in /etc/s6-linux-init/skel, containing only comments that illustrate how to implement runlevel-like functionality for a variety of rc subsystems.

Historical notes

Before version, the s6-linux-init package could be used to create an s6 and s6-rc-based init system with a different design:

  • The stage1 init was a larger script that invoked several execline programs instead of just a wrapper around the s6-linux-init program.
  • The shutdown sequence was different:
    • Shutdown was initiated only by sending signals to process 1. s6-linux init provided programs named s6-halt, s6-poweroff and s6-reboot to send the appropriate signal for the desired action.
    • There was no shutdown daemon, s6-svscan's diverted signal handlers took care of initiating the shutdown sequence, and executing the shutdown file.
    • s6-svscan did not run until the end of the shutdown sequence. The diverted signal handlers used the s6-svscanctl program to make s6-svscan perform its finish procedure, replacing itself with its associated finish file, which was an execline script that took care of the rest of the shutdown sequence. Because this finish file would run as process 1 as a consequence, it was called the stage3 init.
    • The stage3 init was informed about the desired shutdown action (halt, poweroff or reboot) by receiving an argument from s6-svscan, which in turned depended on the particular option passed to s6-svcanctl by the relevant diverted signal handler. The shutdown action was performed at the end by invoking the s6-halt, s6-poweroff or s6-reboot program, depending on the requested action, with the -f (force) option.
  • The catch-all logger did not run until the end of the shutdown sequence, it was stopped by the stage3 init using an s6-svc command with a special option (-X). This was needed because s6-log can be configured to ignore the SIGTERM signal sent by its s6-supervise parent during supervision tree tear down, so the option made s6-supervise arrange to have s6-log get an end-of-file condition on its standard input, and exit.

The described design has been deprecated by the relase of s6-linux-init version, and became unsupported with upstream's release of version of the s6 package.

See also

External resources

  • lh-bootstrap, a set of scripts that build a disk image for a virtual machine such as QEMU. The image contains a Linux kernel and a collection of small user-space tools such as BusyBox and dropbear (sys-apps/busybox, net-misc/dropbear), all statically linked to musl (sys-libs/musl), and an s6 and s6-rc-based init system.
  • Obarun, an Arch derivative with an s6 and s6-rc-based init system. It uses a frontend named 66.
  • Slew, a project that provides scripts for creating an s6 and s6-rc-based init system, as well as s6-rc service definitions for several services and other supporting scripts, to make an s6 and s6-rc-based init system. Most scripts require Byron Rakitzis's implementation of the Plan 9 shell, rc, for Unix (app-shells/rc).