Kernel booting process. Part 5.

Kernel decompression

This is the fifth part of the Kernel booting process series. We saw transition to the 64-bit mode in the previous part and we will continue from this point in this part. We will see the last steps before we jump to the kernel code as preparation for kernel decompression, relocation and directly kernel decompression. So... let's start to dive in the kernel code again.

Preparation before kernel decompression

We stopped right before the jump on the 64-bit entry point - startup_64 which is located in the arch/x86/boot/compressed/head_64.S source code file. We already saw the jump to the startup_64 in the startup_32:

    pushl    $__KERNEL_CS
    leal    startup_64(%ebp), %eax
    pushl    %eax

in the previous part, startup_64 starts to work. Since we loaded the new Global Descriptor Table and there was CPU transition in other mode (64-bit mode in our case), we can see the setup of the data segments:

    .org 0x200
    xorl    %eax, %eax
    movl    %eax, %ds
    movl    %eax, %es
    movl    %eax, %ss
    movl    %eax, %fs
    movl    %eax, %gs

in the beginning of the startup_64. All segment registers besides cs now point to the ds which is 0x18 (if you don't understand why it is 0x18, read the previous part).

The next step is computation of difference between where the kernel was compiled and where it was loaded:

    leaq    startup_32(%rip), %rbp
    movl    BP_kernel_alignment(%rsi), %eax
    decl    %eax
    addq    %rax, %rbp
    notq    %rax
    andq    %rax, %rbp
    cmpq    $LOAD_PHYSICAL_ADDR, %rbp
    jge    1f
    movq    $LOAD_PHYSICAL_ADDR, %rbp
    leaq    z_extract_offset(%rbp), %rbx

rbp contains the decompressed kernel start address and after this code executes rbx register will contain address to relocate the kernel code for decompression. We already saw code like this in the startup_32 ( you can read about it in the previous part - Calculate relocation address), but we need to do this calculation again because the bootloader can use 64-bit boot protocol and startup_32 just will not be executed in this case.

In the next step we can see setup of the stack pointer and resetting of the flags register:

    leaq    boot_stack_end(%rbx), %rsp

    pushq    $0

As you can see above, the rbx register contains the start address of the kernel decompressor code and we just put this address with boot_stack_end offset to the rsp register which represents pointer to the top of the stack. After this step, the stack will be correct. You can find definition of the boot_stack_end in the end of arch/x86/boot/compressed/head_64.S assembly source code file:

    .balign 4
    .fill BOOT_HEAP_SIZE, 1, 0
    .fill BOOT_STACK_SIZE, 1, 0

It located in the end of the .bss section, right before the .pgtable. If you will look into arch/x86/boot/compressed/ linker script, you will find Definition of the .bss and .pgtable there.

As we set the stack, now we can copy the compressed kernel to the address that we got above, when we calculated the relocation address of the decompressed kernel. Before details, let's look at this assembly code:

    pushq    %rsi
    leaq    (_bss-8)(%rip), %rsi
    leaq    (_bss-8)(%rbx), %rdi
    movq    $_bss, %rcx
    shrq    $3, %rcx
    rep    movsq
    popq    %rsi

First of all we push rsi to the stack. We need preserve the value of rsi, because this register now stores a pointer to the boot_params which is real mode structure that contains booting related data (you must remember this structure, we filled it in the start of kernel setup). In the end of this code we'll restore the pointer to the boot_params into rsi again.

The next two leaq instructions calculates effective addresses of the rip and rbx with _bss - 8 offset and put it to the rsi and rdi. Why do we calculate these addresses? Actually the compressed kernel image is located between this copying code (from startup_32 to the current code) and the decompression code. You can verify this by looking at the linker script - arch/x86/boot/compressed/

    . = 0;
    .head.text : {
        _head = . ;
        _ehead = . ;
    .rodata..compressed : {
    .text :    {
        _text = .;     /* Text */
        _etext = . ;

Note that .head.text section contains startup_32. You may remember it from the previous part:


The .text section contains decompression code:

 * Do the decompression, and jump to the new kernel..

And .rodata..compressed contains the compressed kernel image. So rsi will contain the absolute address of _bss - 8, and rdi will contain the relocation relative address of _bss - 8. As we store these addresses in registers, we put the address of _bss in the rcx register. As you can see in the linker script, it's located at the end of all sections with the setup/kernel code. Now we can start to copy data from rsi to rdi, 8 bytes at the time, with the movsq instruction.

Note that there is an std instruction before data copying: it sets the DF flag, which means that rsi and rdi will be decremented. In other words, we will copy the bytes backwards. At the end, we clear the DF flag with the cld instruction, and restore boot_params structure to rsi.

Now we have the address of the .text section address after relocation, and we can jump to it:

    leaq    relocated(%rbx), %rax
    jmp    *%rax

Last preparation before kernel decompression

In the previous paragraph we saw that the .text section starts with the relocated label. The first thing it does is clearing the bss section with:

    xorl    %eax, %eax
    leaq    _bss(%rip), %rdi
    leaq    _ebss(%rip), %rcx
    subq    %rdi, %rcx
    shrq    $3, %rcx
    rep    stosq

We need to initialize the .bss section, because we'll soon jump to C code. Here we just clear eax, put the address of _bss in rdi and _ebss in rcx, and fill it with zeros with the rep stosq instruction.

At the end, we can see the call to the decompress_kernel function:

    pushq    %rsi
    movq    $z_run_size, %r9
    pushq    %r9
    movq    %rsi, %rdi
    leaq    boot_heap(%rip), %rsi
    leaq    input_data(%rip), %rdx
    movl    $z_input_len, %ecx
    movq    %rbp, %r8
    movq    $z_output_len, %r9
    call    decompress_kernel
    popq    %r9
    popq    %rsi

Again we set rdi to a pointer to the boot_params structure and call decompress_kernel from arch/x86/boot/compressed/misc.c with seven arguments:

  • rmode - pointer to the boot_params structure which is filled by bootloader or during early kernel initialization;
  • heap - pointer to the boot_heap which represents start address of the early boot heap;
  • input_data - pointer to the start of the compressed kernel or in other words pointer to the arch/x86/boot/compressed/vmlinux.bin.bz2;
  • input_len - size of the compressed kernel;
  • output - start address of the future decompressed kernel;
  • output_len - size of decompressed kernel;
  • run_size - amount of space needed to run the kernel including .bss and .brk sections.

All arguments will be passed through the registers according to System V Application Binary Interface. We've finished all preparation and can now look at the kernel decompression.

Kernel decompression

As we saw in previous paragraph, the decompress_kernel function is defined in the arch/x86/boot/compressed/misc.c source code file and takes seven arguments. This function starts with the video/console initialization that we already saw in the previous parts. We need to do this again because we don't know if we started in real mode or a bootloader was used, or whether the bootloader used the 32 or 64-bit boot protocol.

After the first initialization steps, we store pointers to the start of the free memory and to the end of it:

free_mem_ptr     = heap;
free_mem_end_ptr = heap + BOOT_HEAP_SIZE;

where the heap is the second parameter of the decompress_kernel function which we got in the arch/x86/boot/compressed/head_64.S:

leaq    boot_heap(%rip), %rsi

As you saw above, the boot_heap is defined as:

    .fill BOOT_HEAP_SIZE, 1, 0

where the BOOT_HEAP_SIZE is macro which expands to 0x8000 (0x400000 in a case of bzip2 kernel) and represents the size of the heap.

After heap pointers initialization, the next step is the call of the choose_random_location function from arch/x86/boot/compressed/kaslr.c source code file. As we can guess from the function name, it chooses the memory location where the kernel image will be decompressed. It may look weird that we need to find or even choose location where to decompress the compressed kernel image, but the Linux kernel supports kASLR which allows decompression of the kernel into a random address, for security reasons. Let's open the arch/x86/boot/compressed/kaslr.c source code file and look at choose_random_location.

First, choose_random_location tries to find the kaslr option in the Linux kernel command line if CONFIG_HIBERNATION is set, and nokaslr otherwise:

    if (!cmdline_find_option_bool("kaslr")) {
        debug_putstr("KASLR disabled by default...\n");
        goto out;
    if (cmdline_find_option_bool("nokaslr")) {
        debug_putstr("KASLR disabled by cmdline...\n");
        goto out;

If the CONFIG_HIBERNATION kernel configuration option is enabled during kernel configuration and there is no kaslr option in the Linux kernel command line, it prints KASLR disabled by default... and jumps to the out label:

    return (unsigned char *)choice;

which just returns the output parameter which we passed to the choose_random_location, unchanged. If the CONFIG_HIBERNATION kernel configuration option is disabled and the nokaslr option is in the kernel command line, we jump to out again.

For now, let's assume the kernel was configured with randomization enabled and try to understand what kASLR is. We can find information about it in the documentation:

kaslr/nokaslr [X86]

Enable/disable kernel and module base offset ASLR
(Address Space Layout Randomization) if built into
the kernel. When CONFIG_HIBERNATION is selected,
kASLR is disabled by default. When kASLR is enabled,
hibernation will be disabled.

It means that we can pass the kaslr option to the kernel's command line and get a random address for the decompressed kernel (you can read more about ASLR here). So, our current goal is to find random address where we can safely to decompress the Linux kernel. I repeat: safely. What does it mean in this context? You may remember that besides the code of decompressor and directly the kernel image, there are some unsafe places in memory. For example, the initrd image is in memory too, and we must not overlap it with the decompressed kernel.

The next function will help us to find a safe place where we can decompress kernel. This function is mem_avoid_init. It defined in the same source code file, and takes four arguments that we already saw in the decompress_kernel function:

  • input_data - pointer to the start of the compressed kernel, or in other words, the pointer to arch/x86/boot/compressed/vmlinux.bin.bz2;
  • input_len - the size of the compressed kernel;
  • output - the start address of the future decompressed kernel;
  • output_len - the size of decompressed kernel.

The main point of this function is to fill array of the mem_vector structures:

#define MEM_AVOID_MAX 5

static struct mem_vector mem_avoid[MEM_AVOID_MAX];

where the mem_vector structure contains information about unsafe memory regions:

struct mem_vector {
    unsigned long start;
    unsigned long size;

The implementation of the mem_avoid_init is pretty simple. Let's look on the part of this function:

    initrd_start  = (u64)real_mode->ext_ramdisk_image << 32;
    initrd_start |= real_mode->hdr.ramdisk_image;
    initrd_size  = (u64)real_mode->ext_ramdisk_size << 32;
    initrd_size |= real_mode->hdr.ramdisk_size;
    mem_avoid[1].start = initrd_start;
    mem_avoid[1].size = initrd_size;

Here we can see calculation of the initrd start address and size. The ext_ramdisk_image is the high 32-bits of the ramdisk_image field from the setup header, and ext_ramdisk_size is the high 32-bits of the ramdisk_size field from the boot protocol:

Offset    Proto    Name        Meaning
0218/4    2.00+    ramdisk_image    initrd load address (set by boot loader)
021C/4    2.00+    ramdisk_size    initrd size (set by boot loader)

And ext_ramdisk_image and ext_ramdisk_size can be found in the Documentation/x86/zero-page.txt:

Offset    Proto    Name        Meaning
0C0/004    ALL    ext_ramdisk_image ramdisk_image high 32bits
0C4/004    ALL    ext_ramdisk_size  ramdisk_size high 32bits

So we're taking ext_ramdisk_image and ext_ramdisk_size, shifting them left on 32 (now they will contain low 32-bits in the high 32-bit bits) and getting start address of the initrd and size of it. After this we store these values in the mem_avoid array.

The next step after we've collected all unsafe memory regions in the mem_avoid array will be searching for a random address that does not overlap with the unsafe regions, using the find_random_addr function. First of all we can see the alignment of the output address in the find_random_addr function:

minimum = ALIGN(minimum, CONFIG_PHYSICAL_ALIGN);

You can remember CONFIG_PHYSICAL_ALIGN configuration option from the previous part. This option provides the value to which kernel should be aligned and it is 0x200000 by default. Once we have the aligned output address, we go through the memory regions which we got with the help of the BIOS e820 service and collect regions suitable for the decompressed kernel image:

for (i = 0; i < real_mode->e820_entries; i++) {
    process_e820_entry(&real_mode->e820_map[i], minimum, size);

Recall that we collected e820_entries in the second part of the Kernel booting process part 2. The process_e820_entry function does some checks that an e820 memory region is not non-RAM, that the start address of the memory region is not bigger than maximum allowed aslr offset, and that the memory region is above the minimum load location:

struct mem_vector region, img;

if (entry->type != E820_RAM)


if (entry->addr + entry->size < minimum)

After this, we store an e820 memory region start address and the size in the mem_vector structure (we saw definition of this structure above):

region.start = entry->addr;
region.size = entry->size;

As we store these values, we align the region.start as we did it in the find_random_addr function and check that we didn't get an address that is outside the original memory region:

region.start = ALIGN(region.start, CONFIG_PHYSICAL_ALIGN);

if (region.start > entry->addr + entry->size)

In the next step, we reduce the size of the memory region to not include rejected regions at the start, and ensure that the last address in the memory region is smaller than CONFIG_RANDOMIZE_BASE_MAX_OFFSET, so that the end of the kernel image will be less than the maximum aslr offset:

region.size -= region.start - entry->addr;

if (region.start + region.size > CONFIG_RANDOMIZE_BASE_MAX_OFFSET)
        region.size = CONFIG_RANDOMIZE_BASE_MAX_OFFSET - region.start;

Finally, we go through all unsafe memory regions and check that the region does not overlap unsafe areas, such as kernel command line, initrd, etc...:

for (img.start = region.start, img.size = image_size ;
         mem_contains(&region, &img) ;
         img.start += CONFIG_PHYSICAL_ALIGN) {
        if (mem_avoid_overlap(&img))

If the memory region does not overlap unsafe regions we call the slots_append function with the start address of the region. slots_append function just collects start addresses of memory regions to the slots array:

slots[slot_max++] = addr;

which is defined as:

static unsigned long slots[CONFIG_RANDOMIZE_BASE_MAX_OFFSET /
static unsigned long slot_max;

After process_e820_entry is done, we will have an array of addresses that are safe for the decompressed kernel. Then we call slots_fetch_random function to get a random item from this array:

if (slot_max == 0)
    return 0;

return slots[get_random_long() % slot_max];

where get_random_long function checks different CPU flags as X86_FEATURE_RDRAND or X86_FEATURE_TSC and chooses a method for getting random number (it can be the RDRAND instruction, the time stamp counter, the programmable interval timer, etc...). After retrieving the random address, execution of the choose_random_location is finished.

Now let's back to misc.c. After getting the address for the kernel image, there need to be some checks to be sure that the retrieved random address is correctly aligned and address is not wrong.

After all these checks we will see the familiar message:

Decompressing Linux...

and call the __decompress function which will decompress the kernel. The __decompress function depends on what decompression algorithm was chosen during kernel compilation:

#include "../../../../lib/decompress_inflate.c"

#include "../../../../lib/decompress_bunzip2.c"

#include "../../../../lib/decompress_unlzma.c"

#include "../../../../lib/decompress_unxz.c"

#include "../../../../lib/decompress_unlzo.c"

#include "../../../../lib/decompress_unlz4.c"

After kernel is decompressed, the last two functions are parse_elf and handle_relocations. The main point of these functions is to move the uncompressed kernel image to the correct memory place. The fact is that the decompression will decompress in-place, and we still need to move kernel to the correct address. As we already know, the kernel image is an ELF executable, so the main goal of the parse_elf function is to move loadable segments to the correct address. We can see loadable segments in the output of the readelf program:

readelf -l vmlinux

Elf file type is EXEC (Executable file)
Entry point 0x1000000
There are 5 program headers, starting at offset 64

Program Headers:
  Type           Offset             VirtAddr           PhysAddr
                 FileSiz            MemSiz              Flags  Align
  LOAD           0x0000000000200000 0xffffffff81000000 0x0000000001000000
                 0x0000000000893000 0x0000000000893000  R E    200000
  LOAD           0x0000000000a93000 0xffffffff81893000 0x0000000001893000
                 0x000000000016d000 0x000000000016d000  RW     200000
  LOAD           0x0000000000c00000 0x0000000000000000 0x0000000001a00000
                 0x00000000000152d8 0x00000000000152d8  RW     200000
  LOAD           0x0000000000c16000 0xffffffff81a16000 0x0000000001a16000
                 0x0000000000138000 0x000000000029b000  RWE    200000

The goal of the parse_elf function is to load these segments to the output address we got from the choose_random_location function. This function starts with checking the ELF signature:

Elf64_Ehdr ehdr;
Elf64_Phdr *phdrs, *phdr;

memcpy(&ehdr, output, sizeof(ehdr));

if (ehdr.e_ident[EI_MAG0] != ELFMAG0 ||
   ehdr.e_ident[EI_MAG1] != ELFMAG1 ||
   ehdr.e_ident[EI_MAG2] != ELFMAG2 ||
   ehdr.e_ident[EI_MAG3] != ELFMAG3) {
   error("Kernel is not a valid ELF file");

and if it's not valid, it prints an error message and halts. If we got a valid ELF file, we go through all program headers from the given ELF file and copy all loadable segments with correct address to the output buffer:

    for (i = 0; i < ehdr.e_phnum; i++) {
        phdr = &phdrs[i];

        switch (phdr->p_type) {
        case PT_LOAD:
            dest = output;
            dest += (phdr->p_paddr - LOAD_PHYSICAL_ADDR);
            dest = (void *)(phdr->p_paddr);
                   output + phdr->p_offset,
        default: /* Ignore other PT_* */ break;

That's all. From now on, all loadable segments are in the correct place. The last handle_relocations function adjusts addresses in the kernel image, and is called only if the kASLR was enabled during kernel configuration.

After the kernel is relocated, we return back from the decompress_kernel to arch/x86/boot/compressed/head_64.S. The address of the kernel will be in the rax register and we jump to it:

jmp    *%rax

That's all. Now we are in the kernel!


This is the end of the fifth and the last part about linux kernel booting process. We will not see posts about kernel booting anymore (maybe updates to this and previous posts), but there will be many posts about other kernel internals.

Next chapter will be about kernel initialization and we will see the first steps in the Linux kernel initialization code.

If you have any questions or suggestions write me a comment or ping me in twitter.

Please note that English is not my first language, And I am really sorry for any inconvenience. If you find any mistakes please send me PR to linux-insides.

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