NFS-Root mini-HOWTO

not maintained

V9, 20 September 2002
This mini-HOWTO tries explains how to set up a ``diskless'' Linux workstation, which mounts its root filesystems via NFS. The newest version of this mini-HOWTO can always be found at or a Linux Documentation Project mirror NEAR YOU.

1. Copyright

2. General Overview

3. Setup on the server

4. Booting the workstation

5. Known problems

6. Other resources

1. Copyright

(c) 1996 Andreas Kostyrka ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

Unless otherwise stated, Linux HOWTO documents are copyrighted by their respective authors. Linux HOWTO documents may be reproduced and distributed in whole or in part, in any medium physical or electronic, as long as this copyright notice is retained on all copies. Commercial redistribution is allowed and encouraged; however, the author would like to be notified of any such distributions.

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If you have questions, please contact Andreas Kostyrka <mailto: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >, the author of this mini-HOWTO, or the Linux HOWTO coordinator, at <mailto: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it > via email.

1.1 Contributors

  • Avery Pennarun <apenwarr @> (how to boot without LILO)
  • Ofer Maor <ofer @> (a better mini-HOWTO about setting up diskless workstations)
  • Christian Leutloff <leutloff @> (info about netboot)
  • Greg Roelofs <newt @> (2.2/2.4 updates, DHCP info, NFS-export info)

2. General Overview

An NFS-mounted root filesystem is typically most useful in two situations:

  • A system administrator may wish to aggregate storage for multiple workstations in order to simplify maintenance, improve security and reliability, and/or make more economical use of limited storage capacity. In this scenario, a single, large server may host a dozen or more workstations; all of the systems can be regularly backed up from a central location, and individual clients are less prone to damage by unsophisticated users or attack by malicious parties with physical access. (Of course, if the server itself is compromised, then so are all of the clients.)
  • An embedded system may not have a disk, an IDE interface, or even a PCI bus. Even if it does, during development it may be too unstable to use the disk, and a ramdisk may be too small to include all of the necessary utilities or too large (as a part of the kernel image) to allow for rapid turnaround during testing and development. An NFS root allows quick kernel downloads, helps ensure filesystem integrity (since the server is basically impervious to crashes by the client), and provides virtually infinite storage.
(In this document we'll use the terms client and workstation interchangeably.)

However, there are two small problems from the client's perspective:

  • It must find out its own IP address and possibly also the rest of the ethernet configuration (gateway, netmask, name servers, etc.).
  • It must know or discover both the IP address of the NFS server and the mount path (on the server) to the exported root filesystem.

The current implementation of NFSROOT in the Linux kernel (as of 2.4.x) allows for several approaches, including:

  • The complete ethernet configuration, including the NFS-path to be mounted, may be passed as parameters to the kernel via LILO, LOADLIN, or a hard-coded string within linux/arch/i386/kernel/setup.c (or its equivalent for other architectures).
  • The IP address may be discovered by RARP and the NFS-path passed via kernel parameters.
  • The IP address may be discovered by RARP, with the NFS-path derived from the RARP server and the just-granted IP address (loosely speaking, ``mount -t nfs <RARP-server>:/tftpboot/<IP-address-of-client>/dev/nfs'').
  • The client configuration may be discovered by BOOTP.
  • The client configuration may be discovered by DHCP.

Since the most common dynamic-address protocol these days is DHCP, its addition as an option in kernels 2.2.19 and 2.4.x (3 < x <= 14) is particularly welcome.

Before starting to set up a diskless environment, you should decide if you will be booting via LILO, LOADLIN, or a custom, embedded bootloader. The advantage of using something like LILO is flexibility; the disadvantage is speed--booting a Linux kernel without LILO is faster. This may or may not be a consideration.

3. Setup on the server

3.1 Compiling the kernels

On the server side, if you don't plan to use the old, user-mode NFS daemon, you'll need to compile NFS server support into the kernel (``NFS server support,'' a.k.a. knfsd or CONFIG_NFSD). If you plan to use the older RARP protocol to assign the client an IP address, RARP support in the kernel of the server is probably a good idea. (You must have it if you will boot via RARP without kernel parameters.) On the other hand, it doesn't help you if the client isn't on the same subnet as the server.

The kernel for the workstation needs the following settings, as a minimum:

  • NFS filesystem support (CONFIG_NFS_FS). Note that there is no need for ext2 support.
  • Root file system on NFS (CONFIG_ROOT_NFS).
  • Ethernet (10 or 100Mbit) (CONFIG_NET_ETHERNET).
  • The ethernet driver for the workstation's network card (or onboard ethernet chip, if it's built into the motherboard or chipset).
Where there is an option to compile something in as a module, do not do so; modules only work after the kernel is booted, and these things are needed during boot.

For dynamically assigned IP numbers, you'll also need to select one or more of these kernel options:

  • IP: kernel level autoconfiguration (CONFIG_IP_PNP)

If the workstation will be booted without kernel parameters, you need also to set the root device to 0:255. Do this by creating a dummy device file with mknod /dev/nfsroot b 0 255. After having created such a device file, you can set root device of the kernel image with rdev <kernel-image> /dev/nfsroot. [NOTE: Modern kernels recognize root=/dev/nfs as a command-line argument; for consistency and/or compatibility, it may be better to use /dev/nfs as the device name instead of /dev/nfsroot.]

3.2 Creation of the root filesystem

Copying the filesystem

Warning: while these instruction might work for you, they are by no means sensefull in a production environment. For a better way to set up a root filesystem for the clients, see the NFS-Root-Client mini-HOWTO by Ofer Maor < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >.

After having decided where to place the root tree, create it with (e.g.) mkdir -p <directory> and tar cClf / - | tar xpCf <directory> -.

If you boot your kernel without LILO, then the rootdir has to be /tftpboot/<IP-address>. If you don't like it, you can change it in the top Makefile in the kernel sources, look for a line like: NFS_ROOT = -DNFS_ROOT="\"/tftpboot/%s\"" If you change this, you have to recompile the kernel.

Changes to the root filesystem

Now trim the unneeded files, and check the /etc/rc.d scripts. Some important points:

  • One important thing is eth0 setup. The workstation comes up with eth0 set up, at least partially. Setting the IP address of the workstation to the the IP address of the server is not considered a clever thing to do. (As it happened to the original author on one of his early attempts.)
  • Another point is the /etc/fstab of the workstation. It should be set up for NFS filesystems. <NOTE: this is not true in 2.4 kernels; the NFS mount is implicit and may actually cause mount(1) error messages if it's explicitly listed in /etc/fstab. It is not clear when this changed.>
  • WARNING: Don't confuse the server root filesystem and the workstation root filesystem. (I've already patched up a rc.inet1 on the server, and wondered why the workstation still didn't work.)

Exporting the filesystem

Export the root dir to the workstation. The basic idea is to edit /etc/exports to include a line similar to one of the following:

  • /path/on/server/to/nfs_root <client-IP-number>(rw,no_root_squash,no_all_squash) <2nd-client-IP-number>(rw,no_root_squash,no_all_squash)
  • /path/on/server/to/nfs_root <client-IP-network>/<client-IP-netmask>(rw,no_root_squash,no_all_squash)

For example, a DHCP client receiving an IP address on a class C subnet would need an exports entry similar to this:

  • /path/on/server/to/nfs_root,no_root_squash,no_all_squash)

The no_root_squash parameter allows the superuser (root) to be treated as such by the NFS server; otherwise root will be remapped to nobody and will generally be unable to do anything useful with the filesystem. The no_all_squash parameter is similar but applies to non-root users. See the exports(5) man page for details.

You will have to notify the NFS server after making any changes to the exports file. Under Red Hat this can easily be done by typing /etc/rc.d/init.d/nfs stop; /etc/rc.d/init.d/nfs start. On other systems, a simple /etc/rc.d/init.d/nfs restart or even exportfs -a may suffice, while on older machines running the user-mode NFS daemon you may actually need to killall -HUP rpc.mountd; killall -HUP rpc.nfsd. (Do not killall -HUP rpc.portmap, however!)

You may also need to edit /etc/hosts.allow and/or /etc/hosts.deny if tcp_wrappers are installed. In particular, if the remote system (client) gets RPC: connection refused errors, /etc/hosts.deny probably contains portmap: ALL or ALL: ALL. To enable the client to use the server's portmapper, add a corresponding line to /etc/hosts.allow:

portmap: <client-IP-number>
portmap: <2nd-client-IP-number>
portmap: <client-IP-network>/<client-IP-netmask>

There is no need to restart anything in this case. You can check by running rpcinfo -p on the NFS server and rpcinfo -p NFS-server on a Linux client within the allowed range; the RPC services listed by both should match.

In case of problems, check /var/log/messages and /var/log/syslog for errors (for example, run tail -f /var/log/messages /var/log/syslog and then try booting the client), and check your man pages (exports, exportfs, portmap, etc.). As a last resort, a reboot of the NFS server may help, but that's a borderline Microsoftism...

RARP setup

Set up the RARP somewhere on the net. If you boot without a nfsroot parameter, the RARP server has to be the NFS server. Usually this will be the NFS server. To do this, you will need to run a kernel with RARP support.

To do this, execute (and install it somewhere in /etc/rc.d of the server!):

/sbin/rarp -s <ip-addr> <hardware-addr>



is the IP address of the workstation, and


is the ethernet address of the network card of the workstation.

example: /sbin/rarp -s 00:00:c0:47:10:12

You can also use a symbolic name instead of the IP address, as long the server is able to find out the IP address. (/etc/hosts or DNS lookups)

BOOTP setup

For BOOTP setup you need to edit /etc/bootptab. Please consult the bootpd(8) and bootptab(5) man pages.

DHCP setup

There is no need for the DHCP server to be the same as the NFS server, and in most cases, a DHCP server will already be set up. If one is not, however, consult the DHCP mini-HOWTO for further help.

Finding out hardware addresses

I don't know the hardware address! How can I find it out?

  • Boot the kernel disk you made, and watch for the line where the network card is recognized. It usually contains 6 hex bytes, that should be the address of the card.
  • Boot the workstation with some OS with TCP/IP networking enabled. Then ping the workstation from the server. Look in the ARP-cache by executing: /sbin/arp -a

4. Booting the workstation

4.1 Using a boot ROM

As I have not used such a beast myself yet, I can give you only the following tips (courtesy of Christian Leutloff < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >):

  • You can't use ``normal'' boot ROMs.
  • There is a netboot packet by Gero Kuhlmann, that provides for boot ROMs for Linux, and further information. netboot is available from the local Linux mirror, or as a Debian package (netboot-0.4).
  • Read the documentation coming with your boot ROM carefully.
  • You probably will have to enable the tftpd on the server, but this depends upon your boot ROM's way of loading the kernel.
  • Any information on boot-ROM vendors of these Linux variety, mentioned above, as not everybody has access to PROM burner :( (especially in Europe, as I'm located there.) welcome, I'll include them then here.

4.2 Using a raw kernel disk

If you have exported the root filesystem with the correct name for the default naming and your NFS server is also the RARP server (which implies that the boxes are on the same subnet.), than you can just boot the kernel by cating it to a disk. (You have to set the root device in the kernel to 0:255.) This assumes, that the root directory on the server is /tftpboot/IP Address (this value can be changed when compiling the kernel.)

4.3 Using a bootloader & RARP

Give the kernel all needed parameters when booting, and add nfsroot=<server-ip-addr>:</path/to/mount> where server-ip-addr is the IP address of your NFS-server, and /path/to/mount is the path to the root directory.


  • When using LILO consider using the ``lock'' feature: Simply type in once all the correct parameters and add ``lock''. Next time when booting let LILO timeout.
  • When generating a workstation specific boot disk, you can also use the append= feature in lilo.conf.

4.4 Using a bootloader without RARP

The ip and nfsroot kernel parameters (which can be hardcoded into the kernel, interactively entered at some bootloader prompts, or included in lilo.conf via the append= parameter; see the next subsection) provide all of the information necessary for the client to set up its ethernet interface and to contact the NFS server, respectively. The parameters are fully documented in Documentation/nfsroot.txt, which is included in the kernel sources (usually found under /usr/src/linux). Here's the format for a machine with a static (pre-assigned) IP address:

  • nfsroot=<NFS-server-IP-number>:/path/on/server/to/nfs_root ip=<client-IP-number>::<gateway-IP-number>:<netmask>:<client-hostname>:eth0:off

DHCP is much simpler:

  • nfsroot=<NFS-server-IP-number>:/path/on/server/to/nfs_root ip=dhcp

4.5 Sample kernel command lines

Here's an example of a complete kernel command line such as you might include in lilo.conf or equivalent; only the IP numbers and NFS path are bogus:

  • root=/dev/nfs rw nfsroot=12.345.67.89:/path/on/server/to/nfs_root ip=dhcp console=ttyS1

That uses DHCP to assign an IP address to the machine and puts its boot messages (console) on the second serial port. The following is the corresponding example using a static IP address; it also explicitly specifies Busybox's (non-standard) location for init:

  • root=/dev/nfs rw nfsroot=12.345.67.89:/path/on/server/to/nfs_root ip=12.345.67.88::12.345.67.1: console=ttyS1 init=/bin/init

5. Known problems

5.1 /sbin/init doesn't start.

A common problem with /sbin/init is that some distributions (e.g., Red Hat Linux) come with /sbin/init dynamically linked. So you have to provide a correct /lib setup to the client. An easy thing one could try is replacing /sbin/init (for the client) with a statically linked ``Hello World'' program. This way you know if it is something more basic, or ``just'' a problem with dynamic linking.

Also note that Busybox by default installs its init symlink in /bin rather than /sbin. You may need to move it or pass an explicit init= parameter on the kernel command line, as shown in the final example of the previous section.

5.2 /dev troubles.

If you get some garbled messages about ttys when booting, then you should run a MAKEDEV from the client in the /dev directory. There are rumors that this doesn't work with certain server OSes that use 64-bit device numbers; should you run into this, please consider updating this section! A potential solution would be to create a small /dev ram disk early in the boot process and reinstall the device nodes each time, or simply embed directly into the kernel a suitably initialized ramdisk.

6. Other resources

  • In the Documentation directory of kernel source there is a file documenting NFS-Root systems (Documentation/nfsroot.txt).
  • There are quite a few related HOWTOs:
    • Diskless-HOWTO (specifically, the Network Booting section)
    • Diskless-root-NFS-HOWTO
    • Diskless-root-NFS-other-HOWTO
    • Network-boot-HOWTO
    • PXE-Server-HOWTO ("Pre-boot eXecution Environment") < coming >
  • There is a BOOTP client:

    With initrd (which is included in Linux 2.0), it could be made to work for diskless stations quite nicely. initrd is actually always an advanced option for more customized setups.

  • For plain bootpd-based boots this is actually probably not needed as Linux 2.0 contains also the option to use BOOTP instead of RARP. (To be more precise, you can compile both in the kernel, and the faster response wins.)
  • There is a patch floating around that allows for swapping over NFS. It was sent to me (during a private high workload phase), but I somehow managed to lose the mail.

    You can probably get it from in the unofficial-patches section.



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