GRUB2 stands for “GRand Unified Bootloader – version 2” and it is now the primary bootloader for most current Linux distributions. GRUB2 is the program which makes the computer just smart enough to find the operating system kernel and load it into memory. Because it is easier to write and say GRUB than GRUB2, I may use the term GRUB in this document but I will be referring to GRUB2 unless specified otherwise.
GRUB has been designed to be compatible with the multiboot specification which allows GRUB to boot many versions of Linux and other free operating systems; it can also chain load the boot record of proprietary operating systems.
GRUB can also allow the user to choose to boot from among several different kernels for any given Linux distribution. This affords the ability to boot to a previous kernel version if an updated one fails somehow or is incompatible with an important piece of software. GRUB can be configured using the /boot/grub/grub.conf file.
GRUB1 is now considered to be legacy and has been replaced in most modern distributions with GRUB2, which is a rewrite of GRUB1. Red Hat based distros upgraded to GRUB2 around Fedora 15 and CentOS/RHEL 7. GRUB2 provides the same boot functionality as GRUB1 but GRUB2 is also a mainframe-like command-based pre-OS environment and allows more flexibility during the pre-boot phase. GRUB2 is configured with /boot/grub2/grub.cfg.
The primary function of either GRUB is to get the Linux kernel loaded into memory and running. Both versions of GRUB work essentially the same way and have the same three stages, but I will use GRUB2 for this discussion of how GRUB does its job. The configuration of GRUB or GRUB2, and the use of GRUB2 commands is outside the scope of this article.
Although GRUB2 does not officially use the stage notation for the three … well … stages of GRUB2, it is convenient to refer to them in that way. So I will.
As mentioned in the BIOS POST section, at the end of POST, BIOS searches the attached disks for a boot record, usually located in the Master Boot Record (MBR), it loads the first one it finds into memory, and then starts execution of the boot record. The bootstrap code, i.e., GRUB2 stage 1, is very small because it must fit into the first 512 byte sector on the hard drive along with the partition table. The total amount of space allocated for the actual bootstrap code in a Classic Generic MBR is 446 bytes. The 446 Byte file for stage 1 is named boot.img and does not contain the partition table which is added to the boot record separately.
Because the boot record must be so small, it is also not very smart and does not understand filesystem structures. Therefore the sole purpose of stage 1 is to locate and load stage 1.5. In order to accomplish this, stage 1.5 of GRUB must be located in the space between the boot record itself and the first partition on the drive. After loading GRUB stage 1.5 into RAM, stage 1 turns control over to stage 1.5.
As mentioned above, stage 1.5 of GRUB must be located in the space between the boot record itself and the first partition on the disk drive. This space was left unused historically for technical reasons. The first partition on the hard drive begins at sector 63 and with the MBR in sector 0, that leaves 62 512-byte sectors — 31,744 bytes — in which to store the core.img file which is stage 1.5 of GRUB. The core.img file is 25,389 Bytes so there is plenty of space available between the MBR and the first disk partition in which to store it.
Because of the larger amount of code that can be accommodated for stage 1.5, it can have enough code to contain a few common filesystem drivers, such as the standard EXT and other Linux filesystems, FAT, and NTFS. The GRUB2 core.img is much more complex and capable than the older GRUB1 stage 1.5. This means that stage 2 of GRUB2 can be located on a standard EXT filesystem but it cannot be located on a logical volume. So the standard location for the stage 2 files is in the /boot filesystem, specifically /boot/grub2.
Note that the /boot directory must be located on a filesystem that is supported by GRUB. Not all filesystems are. The function of stage 1.5 is to begin execution with the filesystem drivers necessary to locate the stage 2 files in the /boot filesystem and load the needed drivers.
All of the files for GRUB stage 2 are located in the /boot/grub2 directory and several subdirectories. GRUB2 does not have an image file like stages 1 and 2. Instead it consists mostly of runtime kernel modules that are loaded as needed from the /boot/grub2/i386-pc directory.
The function of GRUB2 stage 2 is to locate and load a Linux kernel into RAM and turn control of the computer over to the kernel. The kernel and its associated files are located in the /boot directory. The kernel files are identifiable as they are all named starting with vmlinuz. You can list the contents of the /boot directory to see the currently installed kernels on your system.
GRUB2, like GRUB1, supports booting from one of a selection of Linux kernels. The Red Hat package manager, DNF, supports keeping multiple versions of the kernel so that if a problem occurs with the newest one, an older version of the kernel can be booted. By default, GRUB provides a pre-boot menu of the installed kernels, including a rescue option and, if configured, a recovery option.
Stage 2 of GRUB2 loads the selected kernel into memory and turns control of the computer over to the kernel.
All of the kernels are in a self-extracting, compressed format to save space. The kernels are located in the /boot directory, along with an initial RAM disk image, and device maps of the hard drives.
After the selected kernel is loaded into memory and begins executing, it must first extract itself from the compressed version of the file before it can perform any useful work. Once the kernel has extracted itself, it loads systemd, which is the replacement for the old SysV init program, and turns control over to it.
This is the end of the boot process. At this point the Linux kernel and systemd are running but unable to perform any productive tasks for the end user because nothing else is running.