User:Jsteward/Starting Android in LXC

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After successfully booting Gentoo on Nexus 6P in the previous article, we can move on to launching Android in LXC, which is the last mission in the first period of my GSoC 2018 project. This article documents the process to bring up Android successfully with most of its functions working; only a few things don't work by now, and they're recorded in the #Known Problems section at the end of this article. Note that while this article strives to provide easy-to-follow instructions, it may not be suitable as a step-by-step tutorial. That is to say, you may encounter problems due to mistakes or things that the author didn't notice. The author appreciates your understanding when such things happen; meanwhile, feel free to contact the author by the means listed in the contact page.


Command prompts in this article starts with the hostname of the machine, followed by a # or $, denoting if the user executing the command need to be root or not. The following hostnames have special meanings:

  • yuki: the Linux workstation
  • umi: Gentoo Linux on Nexus 6P
  • angler: Android on Nexus 6P

Set Up Filesystem for Android

Android directly uses the initramfs as its rootfs and mounts other partitions, namely userdata, system, cache, persist, and vendor, at mountpoints in /. What we need to do here is to copy Android's rootfs to LXC's rootfs location so that we can launch it later on. Grab a copy of the Android boot.img (not the trimmed preinit boot.img), unpack it with the Makefile rules in preinit repository, tar it up, and transfer the tarball to the phone via adb. Remember to enable root access for ADB, which can be found in Developer Options in Android.

yuki $adb devices
List of devices attached
84xxxxxxxxxxxxxx        device
yuki $adb root
yuki $adb shell dd if=/dev/block/bootdevice/by-name/boot | dd of=boot-stock.img
yuki $mv boot-stock.img ~/preinit_angler/initramfs/boot.img && cd ~/preinit_angler
yuki $make unpack
yuki $cd initramfs/root && tar czvf - . | adb shell "cat >/data/android-root.tar.gz"

Copy the tarball into the Gentoo chroot and enter the chroot. Create the necessary mountpoints and unpack the root tarball into LXC rootfs.

yuki $adb shell
angler #/data/gnu/start_chroot
angler #mv /data/android-root.tar.gz /data/gnu/root/
angler #chroot /data/gnu /bin/su
umi #mkdir -p /var/lib/android/{system,vendor,data,system,cache}
umi #mkdir -p /var/lib/lxc/android/rootfs
umi #tar xvf ~/android-root.tar.gz -C /var/lib/lxc/android/rootfs
umi #mkdir -p /var/lib/lxc/android/run

We need /run in Android rootfs to talk to the host for the charger hack later on.

Write the following fstab entries to /etc/fstab in Gentoo, so that OpenRC will take care of mounts on Gentoo startup.

FILE /etc/fstabAndroid container fstab
# Android mounts
/dev/mmcblk0p43 /var/lib/android/system ext4 ro,barrier=1,inode_readahead_blks=8 0 0
/dev/mmcblk0p32 /var/lib/android/persist ext4 noatime,nosuid,nodev,barrier=1,data=ordered,nomblk_io_submit 0 0
/dev/mmcblk0p37 /var/lib/android/vendor ext4 ro,barrier=1,inode_readahead_blks=8 0 0
/dev/mmcblk0p38 /var/lib/android/cache ext4 noatime,nosuid,nodev,barrier=1,data=ordered,nomblk_io_submit,noauto_da_alloc 0 0
/dev/mmcblk0p44 /var/lib/android/data ext4 noatime,nosuid,nodev,barrier=1,data=ordered,nomblk_io_submit,noauto_da_alloc,inode_readahead_blks=8 0 0

# Bind into container
/var/lib/android/system /var/lib/lxc/android/rootfs/system none bind 0 0
/var/lib/android/persist /var/lib/lxc/android/rootfs/persist none bind 0 0
/var/lib/android/vendor /var/lib/lxc/android/rootfs/vendor none bind 0 0
/var/lib/android/cache /var/lib/lxc/android/rootfs/cache none bind 0 0
/var/lib/android/data /var/lib/lxc/android/rootfs/data none bind 0 0
/run /var/lib/lxc/android/rootfs/run none bind 0 0

Boot into Gentoo by temporarily booting the preinit boot.img to check if the partitions are mounted correctly. Double-check that the device nodes are correct if things go wrong. Boot back into Android by rebooting.

Install LXC in Gentoo Linux

LXC is the core suite to boot Android containerized here. The installation process is in two parts: installing the userspace utilities, and enabling necessary options in the kernel.

Userspace Utilities

This is not different from installing normal Gentoo packages. Enter the chroot and install app-emulation/lxc:

yuki $adb root
yuki $adb shell /data/gnu/start_chroot
yuki $adb shell chroot /data/gnu /bin/su
umi #dispatch-conf
umi #emerge --verbose app-emulation/lxc

The process can take a little bit of time to run. If it's too slow in your case, consider setting up a cross build environment per instructions on Gentoo Wiki if you have a Gentoo workstation. That's out of the scope of this article.


According to the LXC article, we need quite many options for LXC's functioning. I've put how to compile a custom kernel in a separate article: Building a LXC-ready Android kernel with Gentoo toolchain. Follow that article to get a Image.gz-dtb file, which is the kernel image that satisfies our needs, and proceed with the following instructions to repack the preinit boot.img--we no longer need the Android boot.img to be boot from this point on.

yuki $cp Image.gz-dtb ~/preinit_angler/out/zImage && cd ~/preinit_angler
yuki $make repack

The final preinit boot.img should be located at out/boot-mod.img. Boot the phone into fastboot, then flash the new image.

yuki $fastboot devices
84xxxxxxxxxxxxxx        fastboot
yuki $fastboot flash boot out/boot-mod.img

Boot into Gentoo by choosing "Start" in fastboot. Run lxc-checkconfig to see if our kernel is suitable. Not everything's required; as long as you don't see red "missing" on items other than systemd, you're good to go.

umi #lxc-checkconfig
--- Namespaces ---
Namespaces: enabled
Utsname namespace: enabled
Ipc namespace: enabled
Pid namespace: enabled
User namespace: enabled
Network namespace: enabled
Multiple /dev/pts instances: enabled

--- Control groups ---
Cgroups: enabled

Cgroup v1 mount points:

Cgroup v2 mount points:

Cgroup v1 systemd controller: missing
Cgroup v1 clone_children flag: enabled
Cgroup device: enabled
Cgroup sched: enabled
Cgroup cpu account: enabled
Cgroup memory controller: missing
Cgroup cpuset: enabled

--- Misc ---
Veth pair device: enabled, not loaded
Macvlan: enabled, not loaded
Vlan: missing
Bridges: enabled, not loaded
Advanced netfilter: enabled, not loaded
CONFIG_NF_NAT_IPV4: enabled, not loaded
FUSE (for use with lxcfs): enabled, not loaded

--- Checkpoint/Restore ---
checkpoint restore: missing
File capabilities:

Note : Before booting a new kernel, you can check its configuration
usage : CONFIG=/path/to/config /usr/bin/lxc-checkconfig

Bring Android up in LXC container

Now that we have LXC correctly configured, we can set up the Android container. Some modifications to Andoid's fstab.<device> and init.rc are needed for a successful boot. Some hacks are required to fix some functions, of which we'll discuss in the next section. Commands in this section are expected to be executed with Gentoo booted up with preinit, not in the chroot from Android.

The modified files' patches as well as helper scripts are put together in a repository on GitHub. Make sure that you apply them before continuing.

Place,, and config in /var/lib/lxc/android. Make sure that the executable bit is there for the scripts. Issue the following to see if LXC has recognized the container:

umi #lxc-info android
Name:           android
State:          STOPPED

If everything's going as expected, start the container, and we'll see Android booting up on the device screen.

umi #lxc-start android

If the container failed to start, issue the following and then examine start.log to see what's wrong:

umi #lxc-start -l debug -o start.log -n android

Verify that things are working, especially the hardware. In case something's crashing, or the Android framework failed to start at all, connect the phone to the computer via USB and check out logcat via ADB (it starts pretty early). Tombstones at /data/tombstones in Android root are usually helpful; consult this article for how to read them.

yuki $adb logcat | less
yuki $adb shell
angler #cd /data/tombstones

Only some small bits don't work by now, and we'll cover them in the following section.


Container Auto-start

It's tiresome to attach a serial cable and issue lxc-start android to boot Android every time. Create service and add it to the boot runlevel, as Android takes care of most of the device-specific work, namely networking:

umi #cd /etc/init.d
umi #ln -s lxc
umi #rc-update add boot

Dial Home from Android world

Having to attach serial cable to access Gentoo is just too tiresome. Configure ssh so that the Android guest can dialhome.

angler #ssh-keygen -t ed25519 -C android -f /data/ssh/id_ed25519

Enable sshd in Gentoo, configure authorized_keys for root, and put a little script dialhome (available in scripts/ in the android-lxc-files repository) for quick access:

umi #umask 077
umi #mkdir -p ~/.ssh
umi #cat /var/lib/android/data/ssh/ >> ~/.ssh/authorized_keys
umi #cp dialhome /var/lib/android/data/ssh/
umi #chmod u+x /var/lib/android/data/ssh/dialhome
umi #chown 2000:2000 /var/lib/android/data/ssh/dialhome
umi #rc-update add sshd default

We can now issue /data/ssh/dialhome to log into Gentoo. No more serial cable needed unless something goes wrong. We can safely disable ADB root access from Android Developer Settings by now.

Note that you can lxc-attach android from Gentoo world! This will launch /bin/sh, which is the busybox sh. You may need to set PATH to include /system/bin to get Android's utilities.

Fix Charger Mode

Android's init knows whether it's plugged into the charger while powered off. If that's the case, it launches /sbin/charger, which draws the charging animation on the screen. Long-pressing the power button causes a restart, and the system will boot into normal Android. Unfortunately, our LXC stop hooks can't tell if the container ended with a poweroff or a restart, thus we won't be able to exit charger mode unless we unplug the power source.

The solution is quite simple: replace /sbin/charger with a simple script that places a marker file in /run (which is also GNU/Linux's /run), and then call the real charger, which is now /sbin/charger.real. The hook can then reboot if it sees that marker file. The script is available here.

How It Worked

If you take a look at the config for LXC, the start-stop hooks, and the init.rc patch, you'll discover that we needed to correct paths for cgroup pseudo-filesystems and set rt_runtime_us RT schedule parameters. Android uses cgroups heavily as well, and we need to get it correct so that Android doesn't end up writing to the host's cgroup space. We need to set rt_runtime_us to allocate realtime bandwidth to the cgroup, otherwise realtime schedulers will fail. The following should be helpful to grab a general understanding of group scheduling:

The rest of things (filesystem mounting, etc.) are pretty straightforward. Note that we need to tell Android (vold to be specific) not to touch mounting, by commenting out fstab> entries for the relevant partitions. Due to poorly-written vold code without nullptr checks, we need an empty entry for /data in Android fstab, otherwise vold will crash.

We bind /run from GNU/Linux Android so that the container can talk to the host, informing the host about its states (such as "We're in charger mode: reboot when I finish instead of power off"). /run was chosen because it's the place to hold runtime files by convention on a GNU/Linux system. Read this article for more information.

Known Problems

The (non-exhaustive) list of problems as of 2018-05-26:

  • Reboot function in Android system (along with Advanced Reboot) doesn't work. This is because Android system doesn't actually poweroff the system or reboot it when inside a container: it simply performs exit(0), making it impossible for the GNU/Linux world (at least for now) to tell how the container stopped. The current behavior is that the system will power down regardless of whether "Poweroff" or "Reboot" (or other reboot options, e.g. Reboot to bootloader) has been selected in Android.
    • charger suffers from similar problems, though a workaround works pretty well; see The Charger section above.
    • This may be fixed by patching Android framework so that it signals the host about how it ended, by placing a file in the /run filesystem bind-mounted from the host. The host then decides whether to reboot or to poweroff according to the signal file. This is exactly how charger's problem gets fixed.
  • Boot is unbearably slow. Charging while powered off takes a long time to show the charging animation as well.
    • This is because the Linux kernel's initialization time is long. It takes over 10 seconds for the kernel to launch the first userspace program--preinit.
    • For better experience, the kernel should have most of its functions as kernel modules, so that we can display a boot animation (or a static picture other than the Google logo from bootloader) as early as possible. We may draw an animation that's unrelated to bootanim in Android though.
  • Full-disk encryption / file-based encryption doesn't work.
    • This was done deliberately, as Android's cryptfs implementation is a little bit too complicated to implement (see my previous analysis on Android cryptfs).
    • Standard encryption means should get implemented at some point (e.g. LUKS).
Choosing to encrypt device in System Settings in Android will break the boot, as it will cause preinit to become unable to mount the userdata partition, thus unable to mount the root partition. Make sure you don't encrypt the device!