Remote Access to ZFSBootMenu

Having SSH access to ZFSBootMenu can be critical because it allows some measure of recovery over a remote connection. If your boot environments reside in encrypted filesystems, SSH access is necessary if you ever intend to reboot a machine when you are not physically present. Because ZFSBootMenu supports Dracut and mkinitcpio, any mechanism that can provide remote access to a Dracut or mkinitcpio initramfs will work.


The dracut-crypt-ssh provides a straightforward approach to configuring and launching an SSH server in Dracut images. The module is packaged in Void and does not rely on systemd within the initramfs. If you run a distribution that does not package dracut-crypt-ssh, you will need to track down its dependencies. The dracut-network module and dropbear are required to provide network access and an SSH server, respectively; other prerequisites are probably already installed on your system.

Simplified Installation Instructions

The dracut-crypt-ssh package comes with a few helper utilities in the module/60crypt-ssh/helper directory that are designed to simplify providing passwords and snooping console output so that you can interact with unlock processes that are already running in the initramfs. These components are not required for ZFSBootMenu and do not provide a lot of value. If you have no problems installing the package as intended, it is OK to leave the helpers installed. If your distribution has trouble compiling the helpers, just copy the contents of the 60crypt-ssh directory, less the helper directory and Makefile, to the modules directory for Dracut. This will most likely be /usr/lib/dracut/modules.d/60crypt-ssh.

If you do not install the contents of helper, you may wish to edit the script provided by the package to remove references to installing the helper. At the time of writing, these references consist of the last four lines (five, if you count the harmless comment) of the install() functioned. Removing these lines should not be critical, as Dracut should happily continue the initramfs creation process even if those installation commands fail.

If you use Dracut to produce the initramfs images in your boot environment, you may wish to disable the crypt-ssh module in those images. Just add

omit_dracutmodules+=" crypt-ssh "

to a configuration file in /etc/dracut.conf.d. The configuration file must have a .conf extension to be recognized; see dracut.conf(5) for more information.

Configuring Dropbear in ZFSBootMenu

By default, dracut-crypt-ssh will generate random host keys for your ZFSBootMenu initramfs. This is undesirable because SSH will complain about unknown keys every time you reboot. If you wish, you can configure the module to copy your regular host keys into the image. However, there are two problems with this:

  1. The ZFSBootMenu image will generally be installed on a filesystem with no access permissions, allowing anybody to read your private host keys; and

  2. The dropbearconvert program may be incapable of converting modern OpenSSH host keys into the required dropbear format.

To create dedicated host keys in the proper format, decide on a location, for example /etc/dropbear, and create the new keys:

mkdir -p /etc/dropbear
ssh-keygen -t rsa -m PEM -f /etc/dropbear/ssh_host_rsa_key
ssh-keygen -t ecdsa -m PEM -f /etc/dropbear/ssh_host_ecdsa_key

The module expects to install RSA and ECDSA keys, so both types are created here.


When prompted for a passphrase when creating each host key, leave it blank. A non-empty password will prevent dropbear from reading a key.

To inform dracut-network that it must bring up a network interface, pass the kernel command-line parameters ip=dhcp and rd.neednet=1 to your ZFSBootMenu image. If you use another boot loader to start ZFSBootMenu, e.g. rEFInd or syslinux, this can be accomplished by configuring that loader. However, it may be more convenient to add these parameters directly to the ZFSBootMenu image:

mkdir -p /etc/cmdline.d
echo "ip=dhcp rd.neednet=1" > /etc/cmdline.d/dracut-network.conf

It is possible to specify a static IP configuration by replacing dhcp with a properly formatted configuration string. Consult the dracut documentation for details about static IP configuration.

There are methods besides writing to /etc/cmdline.d or configuring another boot loader to specify kernel command-line arguments that will configure networking in Dracut. However, Dracut uses the /etc/cmdline.d directory to store "fake" arguments, which it processes directly rather than handing to the kernel. In my tests, using other methods (like adding these arguments to the kernel_cmdline Dracut option for a UEFI bundle) can cause the ip=dhcp argument to appear more than once on the kernel command-line, which may cause dracut-network to fail catastrophically and refuse to boot. Writing a configuration file in /etc/cmdline.d is a reliable way to ensure that ip=dhcp appears exactly once to dracut-network.

With critical pieces in place, ZFSBootMenu can be configured to bundle dracut-crypt-ssh in its images. Create the Dracut configuration file /etc/zfsbootmenu/dracut.conf.d/dropbear.conf with the following contents:

# Enable dropbear ssh server and pull in network configuration args
add_dracutmodules+=" crypt-ssh "
install_optional_items+=" /etc/cmdline.d/dracut-network.conf "
# Copy system keys for consistent access
# User zbmuser is the authorized unlocker here

The last line is optional and assumes the user zbmuser should provide an authorized_keys file that will determine remote access to the ZFSBootMenu image. The dracut-crypt-ssh module does not allow for password authentication over SSH; instead, key-based authentication is forced. By default, the list of authorized keys is taken from /root/.ssh/authorized_keys on the host. If you would prefer to use the authorized_keys file from another user on your system, copy the above example and replace zbmuser with the name of the user whose authorized_keys you wish to include.


The default configuration will start dropbear on TCP port 222. This can be overridden with the dropbear_port configuration option. Generally, you do not want the server listening on the default port 22. Clients that expect to find your normal host keys when connecting to an SSH server on port 22 will refuse to connect when they find different keys provided by dropbear.

Unless you've taken steps not described here, the network-enabled ZFSBootMenu image will not advertise itself via dynamic DNS or mDNS. You will need to know the IP address of the ZFSBootMenu host to connect. Thus, you should either configure a static IP address in /etc/cmdline.d/dracut-network.conf or configure your DHCP server to reserve a known address for the MAC address of the network interface you configure for dracut-crypt-ssh.


ZFSBootMenu also supports the mkinitcpio initramfs generator used by Arch Linux.

ZFSBootMenu Configuration Changes

Since version 2.0.0, ZFSBootMenu will install a standard mkinitcpio.conf in the /etc/zfsbootmenu configuration directory. This file is generally the same as a standard mkinitcpio.conf, except some additional declarations may be added to control aspects of the zfsbootmenu mkinitcpio module. The configuration file includes extensive inline documentation in the form of comments; configuration options specific to ZFSBootMenu are also described in the zfsbootmenu(7) manual page.

ZFSBootMenu still expects to use dracut by default. To override this behavior and instead use mkinitcpio, edit /etc/zfsbootmenu/config.yaml and add the following options:

  InitCPIO: true
  ## NOTE: The following three lines are OPTIONAL
    - /etc/zfsbootmenu/initcpio
    - /usr/lib/initcpio


In the examples below, a couple of mkinitcpio modules will be installed to /etc/zfsbootmenu/initcpio to keep them isolated from system-installed modules. To accommodate this non-standard installation, InitCPIOHookDirs must be defined in /etc/zfsbootmenu/config.yaml. Furthermore, because overriding the hook directory causes mkinitcpio to ignore its default module path, the default /usr/lib/initcpio must be manually specified. If all hooks are installed in /usr/lib/initcpio or /etc/initcpio, the ZFSBootMenu configuration does not need to specify InitCPIOHookDirs.

Without further changes, running generate-zbm should now produce a ZBM image based on mkinitcpio rather than dracut, although it will lack networking and remote-access capabilities. (By default, generate-zbm instructs mkinitcpio to use the configuration at /etc/zfsbootmenu/config.yaml, although this can be changed in the generate-zbm configuration file.) For these features, some additional mkinitcpio modules and configuration changes are necessary.

Because further configuration will require additional mkinitcpio modules, and these must be run before the zfsbootmenu module in the initramfs, edit /etc/zfsbootmenu/mkinitcpio.conf and remove any zfsbootmenu entry in the HOOKS definition. As the standard configuration file notes, the zfsbootmenu module is required for ZFSBootMenu to function, but generate-zbm will forcefully at this at the end of the module list. Thus, the simplest way to ensure that additions to the HOOKS array occur before the zfsbootmenu module is to omit the latter from the configuration. The standard HOOKS line in /etc/zfsbootmenu/mkinitcpio.conf should therefore be something like:

HOOKS=(base udev autodetect modconf block filesystems keyboard)

Basic Network Access

Network access in a mkinitcpio image can be realized in one of several ways. In Arch Linux, for example, the mkinitcpio-nfs-utils package provides a net module that allows the initramfs to parse ip= directives from the kernel command line. When a static IP configuration is sufficient, the mkinitcpio-rclocal module allows user scripts to be injected at several points in the initramfs boot process and provides a simple mechanism for configuring a network interface.

When installing mkinitcpio modules that are not provided by a system package manager, it may be preferable to keep them isolated from the ordinary module tree. Because this module will only be required in ZBM images, placing extra modules in /etc/zfsbootmenu/initcpio is convenient:

curl -L | tar -zxvf - -C /tmp
mkdir -p /etc/zfsbootmenu/initcpio/{install,hooks}
cp /tmp/mkinitcpio-rclocal-master/rclocal_hook /etc/zfsbootmenu/initcpio/hooks/rclocal
cp /tmp/mkinitcpio-rclocal-master/rclocal_install /etc/zfsbootmenu/initcpio/install/rclocal
rm -r /tmp/mkinitcpio-rclocal-master

Next, create an rc.local script that can be run within the mkinitcpio image to configure the eth0 interface:

cat > /etc/zfsbootmenu/initcpio/rc.local <<RCEOF

# Don't attempt to configure an interface that does not exist
ip link show dev eth0 >/dev/null 2>&1 || exit

# Bring up the interface
ip link set dev eth0 up

# Configure a static address for this host
ip addr add brd + dev eth0
ip route add default via

# Add some name servers
cat > /etc/resolv.conf <<-EOF


If your Ethernet interface is called something other than eth0 or your static IP configuration is different, adjust the script as needed.

To ensure that the rclocal module is installed and run in the ZBM image, either append rclocal to the array defined on the HOOKS line in /etc/zfsbootmenu/mkinitcpio.conf or run

sed -e '/HOOKS=/a HOOKS+=(rclocal)' -i /etc/zfsbootmenu/mkinitcpio.conf

The rclocal module should be told where it can find the rc.local script to install and run by running:

echo 'rclocal_hook=/etc/zfsbootmenu/initcpio/rc.local' >> /etc/zfsbootmenu/mkinitcpio.conf

Finally, make sure to include the ip executable in your initramfs image by manually adding ip to the BINARIES array in /etc/zfsbootmenu/mkinitcpio.conf or by running

sed -e '/BINARIES=/a BINARIES+=(ip)' -i /etc/zfsbootmenu/mkinitcpio.conf


Arch Linux provides a mkinitcpio-dropbear package that provides a straightforward method for installing, configuring and running the dropbear SSH server inside a mkinitcpio image. This package is based on a project of the same name by an Arch Linux developer. A fork of the mkinitcpio-dropbear project contains a few minor improvements in runtime configuration and key management. If these improvements are not needed, using the upstream project is perfectly acceptable.

Once again, the mkinitcpio module must first be downloaded and installed:

curl -L | tar -zxvf - -C /tmp
mkdir -p /etc/zfsbootmenu/initcpio/{install,hooks}
cp /tmp/mkinitcpio-dropbear-master/rclocal_hook /etc/zfsbootmenu/initcpio/hooks/dropbear
cp /tmp/mkinitcpio-dropbear-master/rclocal_install /etc/zfsbootmenu/initcpio/install/dropbear
rm -r /tmp/mkinitcpio-dropbear-master

The upstream dropbear module will attempt to copy host OpenSSH keys into /etc/dropbear if possible; otherwise, it will generate random host keys. Both options are undesirable. Copying host keys will leave these protected files directly accessible to anybody able to read a ZFSBootMenu image, which is probably every user on the system. Generating unique keys with each run inhibits your ability to detect interlopers when you connect to your bootloader via SSH. My fork will, by default, respect any existing dropbear keys available as /etc/dropbear/dropbear_*_host_key. Therefore, make some new host keys for use in your ZFSBootMenu image:

mkdir -p /etc/dropbear
for keytype in rsa ecdsa ed25519; do
    dropbearkey -t "${keytype}" -f "/etc/dropbear/dropbear_${keytype}_host_key"

The module also requires, at /etc/dropbear/root_key, a set of authorized SSH keys that will be given access to the root account in the image. On a single-user system, it is sufficient to do:

ln -s ${HOME}/.ssh/authorized_keys /etc/dropbear/root_key

assuming that ${HOME} points to the home directory of the user who should be given access to ZFSBootMenu.

Finally, enable the dropbear module in /etc/zfsbootmenu/mkinitcpio.conf by manually appending dropbear to the HOOKS array, or by running:

sed -e '/HOOKS.*rclocal/a HOOKS+=(dropbear)' -i /etc/zfsbootmenu/mkinitcpio.conf

Final Steps

With the above configuration complete, running generate-zbm should produce a ZFSBootMenu image that contains the necessary components to enable an SSH server in your bootloader. This can be verified with the lsinitrd tool provided by dracut or the lsinitcpio tool provided by mkinitcpio. (The lsinitcpio tool is not able to inspect UEFI bundles, but lsinitrd can.) In the file listing, you should see keys in /etc/dropbear, the dropbear and ip executables, and the file root/.ssh/authorized_keys.

After rebooting, ZFSBootMenu should configure the network interface, launch an SSH server and accept connections on TCP port 22 by default. If your SSH client complains because it finds ZFSBootMenu keys when it expects to find your normal host keys, you may wish to reconfigure dropbear to listen on a non-standard port. My fork of mkinitcpio-dropbear supports this by writing a dropbear_listen definition to /etc/dropbear/dropbear.conf:

echo 'dropbear_listen=2222' > /etc/dropbear/dropbear.conf

After writing this file (adjust 2222 to whatever port you prefer), re-run generate-zbm, reboot and confirm that dropbear listens where expected.

Accessing ZFSBootMenu Remotely

When you connect to ZFSBootMenu via SSH, you will be presented a simple shell prompt. Launch zfsbootmenu to start the menu interface over the remote connection:


You may then use the menu as if you were connected locally.


recent versions of ZFSBootMenu automatically set the TERM environment variable to linux. If you are running an older version, your SSH client may have provided a more specific terminal definition that will not be recognized by the restricted environment provided by ZFSBootMenu. Under these circumstances, you may need to run:

export TERM=linux

from the login shell to ensure that basic terminal functionality works as expected.

If you followed the Void Linux ZFSBootMenu install guide and configured rEFInd to launch ZFSBootMenu, you may need to remove the zbm.skip argument from the default menu entry if you would like remote access and you have no encrypted boot environments. Otherwise, rEFInd will attempt to bypass the ZFSBootMenu countdown and your default boot environment will be started immediately if possible. In this case, either set zbm.timeout to a suitably long delay (e.g., 60 sec) to give yourself time to connect and launch ZFSBootMenu remotely before the automatic boot can proceed, or use by default to prevent automatic boot and force the local instance to show the interactive menu immediately.


To provide some safety against multi-user conflicts, only one ZFSBootMenu instance is allowed to run at any given time. If you have encrypted boot environments, this will generally not present an issue, because the local instance will always block awaiting passphrase entry before launching the menu instance. Otherwise, the later instance of ZFSBootMenu will wait patiently for the earlier instance to terminate before continuing. If you are certain that the currently running instance is not being actively used, you can interrupt the wait loop by pressing [ESC] and then run:

rm /zfsbootmenu/active

to eliminate the indicator of the other running instance. You may then run zfsbootmenu again to launch the menu.