ZFSBootMenu logo

ZFSBootMenu is a bootloader that provides a powerful and flexible discovery, manipulation and booting of Linux on ZFS. Originally inspired by the FreeBSD bootloader, ZFSBootMenu leverages the features of modern OpenZFS to allow users to choose among multiple "boot environments" (which may represent different versions of a Linux distribution, earlier snapshots of a common root, or entirely different distributions), manipulate snapshots in a pre-boot environment and, for the adventurous user, even bootstrap a system installation via zfs recv.

In essence, ZFSBootMenu is a small, self-contained Linux system that knows how to find other Linux kernels and initramfs images within ZFS filesystems. When a suitable kernel and initramfs are identified (either through an automatic process or direct user selection), ZFSBootMenu launches that kernel using the kexec command.

ZFSBootMenu screenshot


In broad strokes, ZFSBootMenu works as follows:

  • Via direct EFI booting, an EFI boot manager like rEFInd, a BIOS bootloader like syslinux, or some other means, boot a ZFSBootMenu image (as either a self-contained UEFI application or a dedicated Linux kernel and initramfs).

  • Find all healthy ZFS pools and import them (or, at the user's option, find and import only a specific pool).

  • If appropriate, select a preferred boot environment:

    • If the ZFSBootMenu command line specifies a pool preference, and that pool has been imported, prefer the filesystem indicated by its bootfs property (if defined).

    • If the ZFSBootMenu command line specifies no pool preference or the preferred pool is not found, prefer the filesystem indicated by the bootfs property (if defined) on the first-found pool.

    • If a suitable bootfs has been identified, start an interruptable countdown (by default, 10 seconds) to automatically boot that environment.

    • If no bootfs value can be identified or the automatic countdown was interrupted, search all imported pools for filesystems that set mountpoint=/ and contain Linux kernels and initramfs images in their /boot subdirectories. Present a list of matching environments for user selection via fzf.

  • Mount the filesystem representing the selected boot environment and find either the highest versioned kernel or a specifically selected kernel version in its /boot directory.

  • Using kexec, load the selected kernel and its initramfs image into memory, setting the kernel command line with the contents of the org.zfsbootmenu:commandline property for that filesystem.

  • Unmount all ZFS filesystems.

  • Boot the final kernel and initramfs.

At this point, the system will be booting into your usual OS-managed kernel and initramfs, along with any arguments needed to correctly boot your system.

Whenever ZFSBootMenu encounters natively encrypted ZFS filesystems that it intends to scan for boot environments, it will prompt the user to enter a passphrase as necessary.

Distribution Agnostic#

ZFSBootMenu is capable of booting just about any Linux distribution. Distributions that are known to boot without requiring any special configuration include:

  • Void

  • Chimera

  • Alpine

  • openSUSE (Leap, Tumbleweed)

  • Gentoo

  • Fedora

  • Debian and its descendants (Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Devuan, etc.)

  • Arch

Red Hat and its descendants (RHEL, CentOS, etc.) are expected to work as well but have never been tested.

ZFSBootMenu provides several configuration options that can be used to fine-tune the boot process for nonstandard configurations.

Easily Deployed and Extensively Configurable#

Each release includes pre-generated boot images, based on Void Linux, that should work for the majority of users. Images are distributed for x86_64 platforms both as monolithic UEFI applications as well a separate kernel an initramfs image that are suitable for use on both UEFI and legacy BIOS systems. Users of other platforms or that require custom configurations can build local images, running the ZFSBootMenu image generator either in a host installation or in the controlled environment of an OCI (Docker) container.

Modern UEFI platforms provide a wide range of options for launching ZFSBootmenu. For legacy BIOS systems, syslinux is a convenient choice. A syslinux guide for Void Linux describes the syslinux installation and configuration process in the context of a broader Void Linux installation.

Local Installation#

The ZFSBootMenu repository includes a Makefile with targets to install the generate-zbm builder, all necessary components, manual pages and some convenient helpers. A local ZFSBootMenu installation requires some additional software that may be available as packages in your distribution or may need to be manually installed. The following components are required or recommended for inclusion in the bootloader image:

In addition, generate-zbm requires a few Perl modules:

If you will create unified EFI executables (which bundles the kernel, initramfs and command line), you will also need a an EFI stub loader, which is typically included with systemd-boot or gummiboot.

Most or all of these software components may be available as packages in your distribution.

Locally created ZFSBootMenu images use your your regular system kernel, ZFS drivers and user-space utilities. The ZFSBootMenu image is constructed using standard Linux initramfs generators. ZFSBootMenu is known to work and is explicitly supported with:

Building a custom image is known to work in the following configurations:

  • With mkinitcpio or dracut on Void (the zfsbootmenu package will make sure all prerequisites are available)

  • With mkinitcpio or dracut on Arch

  • With dracut on Debian or Ubuntu (installed as dracut-core to avoid replacing the system initramfs-tools setup)

Configuration of the ZFSBootMenu build process is accomplished via a YAML configuration file for generate-zbm.

Building in a Container#

The official ZFSBootMenu release images are built in a standard Void Linux OCI container that provides a predictable environment that is known to be supported with ZFSBootMenu. The container entrypoint provides full access to all of the configurability of ZFSBootMenu, and a helper script simplifies the process or running the container and managing the images that it produces. The ZFSBootMenu container guide provides a detailed description of the containerized build process as well as a straightforward example of local image management using the helper script.

ZFS Boot Environments#

The concept of a "boot environment" is very loosely defined in ZFSBootMenu. Fundamentally, ZFSBootMenu treats any filesystem that appears to be an operating system root and contains an identifiable Linux kernel and initramfs as a boot environment. A primer provides more details about the identification process.

Command-Line Arguments#

When booting a particular enviornment, ZFSBootMenu reads the org.zfsbootmenu:commandline property for that filesystem to discover kernel command-line arguments that should be passed to the kernel it will boot.


Do not set a root= option (or any similar indicator of the root filesystem) in this property; ZFSBootMenu will add an appropriate root= argument when it boots the environment and will actively suppress any conflicting option.

Because ZFS properties are inherited by default, it is possible to set the org.zfsbootmenu:commandline property on a common parent to apply the same KCL arguments to multiple environments. Setting the property locally on individual boot environments will override the common defaults.

As a special accommodation, the substitution keyword %{parent} in the KCL property will be recursively expanded to whatever the value of org.zfsbootmenu:commandline would be on the parent dataset. This allows, for example, mixing options common to multiple environments with those specific to each:

zfs set org.zfsbootmenu:commandline=""zfs.zfs_arc_max=8589934592"" zroot/ROOT
zfs set org.zfsbootmenu:commandline="%{parent} loglevel=4" zroot/ROOT/void.2019.11.01
zfs set org.zfsbootmenu:commandline="loglevel=7 %{parent}" zroot/ROOT/void.2019.10.04

will cause ZFSBootMenu to interpret the KCL for zroot/ROOT/void.2019.11.01 as:

zfs.zfs_arc_max=8589934592 loglevel=4

while the KCL for zroot/ROOT/void.2019.10.04 would be:

loglevel=7 zfs.zfs_arc_max=8589934592

To simplify the manipulation of command-line parameters for boot environments, the zbm-kcl helper facilitates live review and edits.

Run-time Configuration of ZFSBootMenu#

ZFSBootMenu may be configured via a combination of command-line parameters and ZFS properties that are described in detail in the zfsbootmenu(7) manual page. For users of pre-built UEFI executables, the zbm-kcl helper script provides a convenient way to modify the embedded ZFSBootMenu command line without requiring the creation of a custom image.

Signature Verification and Prebuilt EFI Executables#

All release assets, including EFI executables and kernel/initramfs pairs, are signed with signify, which provides a simple method for verifying that the contents of the file are as this project intended. Once you've installed signify (that's left as an exercise, although Void Linux provides the signify package for this purpose), just download the desired assets from the ZFSBootMenu release page, download the file sha256.sig alongside it, and run:

signify -C -x sha256.sig

You will need the public key used to sign ZFSBootMenu executables. The key is available at releng/keys/zfsbootmenu.pub. Install this file as /etc/signify/zfsbootmenu.pub if you like; this key can be used for all subsequent verifications. Otherwise, look at the -p command-line option for signify to provide a path to the key.

The signature file sha256.sig also includes a signature for the source tarball corresponding to the release. If this file is not present alongside the EFI bundle and the signature file, signify will complain about its signature. This error message is OK to ignore; alternatively, tell signify to verify only the EFI bundle, or download the source tarball alongside the other files.

The signify key zfsbootmenu.pub may itself be verified; alongside the public key is the GPG signature releng/keys/zfsbootmenu.pub.gpg, produced with a personal key from @ahesford, one of the members of the ZFSBootMenu project. This personal key is also available on public key servers. To verify the signify key, download the key zfsbootmenu.pub and its signature file zfsbootmenu.pub.gpg, then run:

gpg --recv-key 0x312485BE75E3D7AC
gpg --verify zfsbootmenu.pub.gpg


On some distributions, gpg may instead by gpg2.