This article will provide general guidance on the process of preparing a disk device (SSD or HDD) for a new installation of KISS Linux. Advanced storage formats (e.g. RAID, LVM) are considered out of scope.


[0.0] Overview

Next to kernel configuration, preparing a disk device for installing a Linux distribution is one of the more intimidating topics for a new UNIX user to tackle. This process is not only highly dependent on user circumstances (the type of hardware you have access to, your file system needs, your backup requirements, etc.), but the process varies based on the tools used for the job. Therefore, the first step to a successful installation is understanding the terminology and the tools which are required throughout the process.

[0.1] Terminology

|                  |                                                       |
|   Block Device   |   Represents an abstract interface to the disk.       |
|                  |   User programs can use these block devices to        |
|                  |   interact with the disk without worrying about       |
|                  |   whether the drives are SATA, SCSI, or something     |
|                  |   else. (e.g. /dev/sd*, /dev/nvme0n*, etc)            |
|                  |                                                       |
|   Partition      |   Represent smaller, more manageable block devices.   |
|                  |   These can be thought of as the places where user    |
|                  |   data lives.                                         |
|                  |                                                       |
|   Filesystem     |   A filesystem allows for data to actually be written |
|                  |   to a given partition. Filesystems vary in features, |
|                  |   requirements, and read/write access. In short, a    |
|                  |   filesystem is the structure for a given partition.  |
|                  |                                                       |
|   DOS            |   The DOS disklabel setup uses 32-bit identifiers     |
|                  |   for the start sector and length of the partitions,  |
|                  |   and supports three partition types: primary,        |
|                  |   extended, and logical. Primary partitions have      |
|                  |   their information stored in the master boot         |
|                  |   record itself - a very small (usually 512 bytes)    |
|                  |   location at the very beginning of a disk. Due to    |
|                  |   this small space, only four primary partitions      |
|                  |   are supported (for instance, /dev/sda1 to           |
|                  |   /dev/sda4). This is the old format for disklabels.  |
|                  |                                                       |
|   GPT            |   GPT (GUID Partition Table) setup uses 64-bit        |
|                  |   identifiers for the partitions. The location in     |
|                  |   which it stores the partition information is much   |
|                  |   bigger than the 512 bytes of a DOS disklabel,       |
|                  |   which means there is practically no limit on the    |
|                  |   amount of partitions for a GPT disk. Also the       |
|                  |   size of a partition is bounded by a much greater    |
|                  |   limit (almost 8 ZB - yes, zettabytes). A GPT disk   |
|                  |   is required for UEFI systems.                       |
|                  |                                                       |
|   ROOTFS         |   ROOTFS (Root Filesystem) is the primary partition   |
|                  |   where the entire system is directly or indirectly   |
|                  |   mounted to. This is commonly referred to as '/'.    |
|                  |                                                       |
|   BOOT           |   The boot partition is where important files         |
|                  |   required at boot time, such as the kernel, are      |
|                  |   stored. This partition is required only on UEFI     |
|                  |   systems. It is usually mounted at /boot.            |
|                  |                                                       |
|   HOME           |   This partition is where most user data is stored.   |
|                  |   It is usually mounted at /home.                     |
|                  |                                                       |
|   SWAP           |   Swap space can take the form of a disk partition    |
|                  |   or a file. Users may create a swap space during     |
|                  |   installation or at any later time as desired.       |
|                  |   Swap space can be used for two purposes: to         |
|                  |   extend the virtual memory beyond the installed      |
|                  |   physical memory (RAM), and also for hibernation     |
|                  |   or for suspend-to-disk support.                     |
|                  |                                                       |

Some useful facts and things to keep in mind:

Due to using 32-bit identifiers, DOS partitioning tables cannot handle disks that are >2 TBs in size.

Unless an extended partition is created, DOS disk labels supports a maximum of four partitions.

Using GPT on a BIOS-based computer works, and is referred to as a hybrid setup. This type of setup requries a 1MB BIOS boot partition (unformatted) so that extra data can be stored by the bootloader (like GRUB2). This setup is useful in cases where more than four primary or secondary partitions are required for a system. Unfortunately this has several limitations. For instance, you cannot dual-boot with a Microsoft Windows operating system, as Windows will boot in UEFI mode if it detects a GPT partition label. Also note that some buggy (old) motherboard firmware configured to boot in BIOS/CSM/legacy mode might also have problems with booting from GPT labeled disks. As such, this style is undesireable, and in general it is a good idea to use GPT in cases where UEFI can be used.

UEFI/GPT and BIOS/MBR are not synonymous. UEFI/BIOS refer to particular types of systems that utilize the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface or the Basic Input/Output System. This is determined strictly by the motherboard used in a given system. GPT/DOS, however, refer to particular disk labels: GUID Partition Tables versus the DOS label. These types directly limit the structures available on any given disk drive - both the number of partitions available, as well as the size of any given partition. A good rule of thumb, however, is that UEFI systems use GPT disk labels, BIOS systems use DOS disk labels, and hybrid systems use BIOS + GPT.

The BOOT partition is a source of much confusion for users. For instance, it is erroneously claimed that it must be mounted to /efi, or that kernel images should be named vmlinuz.efi. In point of fact, it is only necessary on UEFI systems, though it may be useful on BIOS systems. The BOOT partition need not be mounted to /efi. Indeed, the only requirements are that it be formatted to FAT32 (in the case of UEFI systems), and be at least 100MB in size. The recommended minimum size for UEFI systems is 256MB. That the kernel be named vmlinuz.efi serves only to make the fact that it is a UEFI system explicit. If users intend on using a multiboot system, a single BOOT partition can be shared by all operating systems.

An important point of consideration is whether or not a separate HOME partition should be used. This is useful in cases where users wish to keep their data in a location separate from their operating system, for instance in cases of critical failures requiring the OS to be reinstalled, or if users wish to encrypt their personal data separately from their core OS. This separation between / and /home allow users to easily migrate their data across many different operating systems; they need only remount the HOME partition to /home on the new system. In general, this is recommended.

In addition to a separate HOME, several other additional partition options exist. For instance, a separate var (/var) and data partitions can be used. Separate data partitions are useful in instances where users would like to easily share data across different operating systems, as allowing write access to a user's home directory is a security risk. A separate /var is useful in niche cases where /usr is read-only. For more detailed information on filesystem structures, refer to the Filesystem Hierarcy Standard. Additionally, the Linux From Scratch project has some useful rationales.

[0.2] Tools

Depending on which live environment the user chooses for installing a KISS Linux system, the tools available vary. On most UNIX systems, the following can usually be expected:

It is also possible to use the live CD version of parted, GParted, to partition disks, and it offers many other useful features for disk management and data recovery.

In general, most programs can handle the majority of use-cases. The tool of choice is almost entirely user preference. However, some utilities have powerful and advanced features that can aid in fixing damaged disks. fdisk is one such program, and is useful in cases where more fine-grained control is required. For general system setup, however, any tool will do.

[1.0] Partitioning Schemata

Great care should be taken when picking a partition structure, as changing it afterwards is (generally) a difficult endeavor. Ensure that the chosen structure meets your use case. Things to consider include whether or not a swap partition is needed, whether to use a separate home partition, whether separate partitions are needed for general data storage (like music or photos), and whether dual-booting is desired.

[1.1] Minimum Partition Layouts

The number of partitions required is highly variable and dependent on the use case. The following table provides examples of common partition schemata, formats, and recommended minimum sizes:

|    Schemata Description    |   Partition (Type,      Format, Size)       |
|                            |                                             |
|   GPT + UEFI (with /home)  |   /dev/sda1 (BOOT,      FAT32,  256MB)      |
|                            |   /dev/sda2 (ROOTFS,    EXT4,   30GB )      |
|                            |   /dev/sda3 (HOME,      EXT4,   *    )      |
|                            |                                             |
|   Legacy DOS (with swap)   |   /dev/sda1 (SWAP,      swap,   RAM  )      |
|                            |   /dev/sda2 (ROOTFS,    EXT4,   *    )      |
|                            |                                             |
|   Hybrid BIOS/GPT          |   /dev/sda1 (BIOS BOOT, XXXX,   1MB  )      |
|                            |   /dev/sda2 (SWAP,      swap,   RAM  )      |
|                            |   /dev/sda3 (ROOTFS,    EXT4,   xxxGB)      |
|                            |   /dev/sda4 (HOME,      XFS,    yyyGB)      |
|                            |   /dev/sda5 (DATA,      BTRFS,  zzzGB)      |
|                            |                                             |

The boot partition is generally only used for storing kernels or an initramfs. As these files are usually very small (<20MB), 256MB is more than enough to accomodate most use-cases. 512MB is plenty. A separate BOOT is only required on UEFI systems.

In cases where no other additional partition is desired, the ROOTFS or HOME partition should span the remainder of the disk.

For source-based distributions like KISS, maximizing the amount RAM that can be used is paramount for successful builds, especially for large packages such as rust, firefox, or qt5-webengine. If the amount of RAM available is less than 8GB, the usage of a swap partition or swap file is strongly recommended to avoid build failures due to out-of-memory (OOM) issues. A decent rule of thumb for swap size is to have the same amount of swap as you have RAM.

These examples only serve to show a minimum partition layout required for each type of disk style (UEFI + GPT, BIOS + DOS, hybrid).

[1.2] Swap Partition vs File

When considering swap space, there are benefits and tradeoffs to certain choices. The traditional recommendation has been to create a swap partition as close to the first partition as possible, that is at least half the amount of RAM available - this number is a sliding scale and varies by use case. For instance, if few RAM intensive programs are going to be used, and little compiling will be done on the host system, less swap space is needed (if any at all).

Historically, swap was placed at the beginning of disks as this allowed for the fastest possible seek times on traditional spinning disk drives (hard drives). This was preferred because disk access times are orders of magnitude slower than RAM access times, and long swap operations result in a desktop feeling 'slow' or 'laggy'. However, with the rise in popularity of solid state drives (and, more recently, NVMe based storage), along with the precipitous decrease in storage space cost, the requirement of a separate swap partition has laxed. If users have access to low latency, large storage drives, a swap file may be a preferable alternative.

Swap files allow for ondemand, resizeable swap spaces. Swap may not be necessary for day-to-day operation but only in cases where large builds are happening. With access to these newer technologies, users can simply create a file and define it to be a dedicated swap location which is used identically to the traditional swap partition. This has left the need for a swap partition largely to cases where solid state storage is not an option.

For more modern systems, swap files are in general preferable to partitions. Care should be taken, however. Changes may occur outside of the user's control that necessitate intervention. For instance, if a swapfile disappears but is still referenced in /etc/fstab, disk mounting will fail at boot and the system will drop users into an emergency shell. Additionally, file fragmentation can cause swap files to become unreliable. Finally, kernel updates could potentially cause issues.

In addition to swap, @/zswap and @/zram are useful options to consider for maximizing swap usage and memory management.

[2.0] Partitioning Example

The following is a step-by-step partitioning example.

PLEASE BE AWARE: The following commands can cause irreparable damage to the data on your drives. Ensure that the data on these drives is backed up to a separate device, and make sure you select the correct device for partitioning.

Again, these commands are dangerous and WILL CAUSE DATA LOSS.

In order to identify the correct disk, there are several commands that can help

|                                                                              |
|    $ fdisk -l                                                                |
|    $ sfdisk -l                                                               |
|    $ parted -l                                                               |
|    $ lsblk                                                                   |
|                                                                              |

While partitioning disks, you will be asked multiple questions. These include the starting sector of the partition, the last sector of the partition, and the hex code for that partition.

Generally, using the default as the first sector is the best choice - this will ensure there are no strange breaks between partitions.

Most programs support relative last sector locations. Therefore, instead of typing out the desired sector number, one need only write '+400GB' to make the partition start at the first available sector and continue for the next 400GB.

Hex codes or partition IDs are hexadecimal identifiers which the kernel and filesystem programs can interpret, and programs like fdisk and cfdisk will use the hex code of a given partition to display a useful fact about the partition, like that it's specifically an EFI partition, or a Linux root partition, or a Solaris partition. Because GPT uses 64-bit partitions identifiers, far more partition types are available for use on GPT systems over MBR systems.

Be aware that altering partitions on in-use disks could cause data corruption, and the changes in partition layout may not be available until the next reboot.

This example assumes the target device block of /dev/nvme0n1, using gdisk for the actual partitioning process.

To create a GPT + EFI disk with a separate /home,

|                                                                              |
|    $ gdisk /dev/nvme0n1                                                      |
|                                                                              |
|    # Enter '?' for a list of available commands                              |
|                                                                              |
|    # Delete partition data by creating a new GPT:                            |
|    $ o                                                                       |
|    This option deletes all partitions and creates a new GPT.                 |
|    Proceed? (Y/N): y                                                         |
|                                                                              |
|    # Create Partition 1 (/boot):                                             |
|    $ n                                                                       |
|    Partition Number:  (RETURN key for 1)                                     |
|    First sector: (RETURN key for first available)                            |
|    Last sector: +128M                                                        |
|    Hex Code (L to show codes): ef00                                          |
|                                                                              |
|    # Create Partition 2 (ROOTFS):                                            |
|    $ n                                                                       |
|    Partition Number:  (RETURN key for 2)                                     |
|    First sector: (RETURN key for first available)                            |
|    Last sector: +30G                                                         |
|    Hex Code: 0304                                                            |
|                                                                              |
|    # Create Partition 3 (HOME):                                              |
|    $ n                                                                       |
|    Partition Number:  (RETURN key for 3)                                     |
|    First sector: (RETURN key for first available)                            |
|    Last sector:  (RETURN key for rest of disk)                               |
|    Hex Code: 0302                                                            |
|                                                                              |
|    # Write Partition Table To Disk:                                          |
|    $ w                                                                       |
|    Do you want to proceed? (Y/N): Y                                          |
|                                                                              |

cfdisk may be preferable to users who prefer a more visual representation of partition manipulation and a constantly updating table of information on the current partition layout and structure.

[3.0] Formatting

Now that the disks have been partitioned, it is time to create the relevant filesystems for each partition.

[3.1] Filesystems

There are many different filesystems to choose from on any given Linux system. Which filesystem is used depends almost entirely on the use-case of the system. For simple data storage read only by UNIX systems, EXT4 is a perfectly normal choice. For data that needs to be accessible to Windows, FAT or NTFS is required. The Apple Filesystem (APFS) is used by Macs. In the simple case where only Linux systems require access to a given partition, many choices exist. Below is a list of filesystems which are available in KISS either in the official repository or in community.

|  Filesystem  |  Package               |  Command                         |
|              |                        |                                  |
|  swap        | core/busybox           |  mkswap                          |
|  EXT2/3/4    | extra/e2fsprogs        |  mkfs.ext2/3/4                   |
|  DOS/FATxx   | extra/dosfstools       |  mkfs.dos/fat/vfat               |
|  XFS         | extra/xfsprogs         |  mkfs.xfs                        |
|  BTRFS       | community/btrfs-progs  |  mkfs.btrfs                      |
|  NTFS        | community/ntfs-3g      |  mkfs.ntfs                       |
|              |                        |                                  |

Other filesystems exist with varying degrees of popularity, including JFS, ReiserFS, and ZFS. The community repository is an excellent place to share work in including these filesystems in KISS! Others are available in user-created repositories. ZFS is one such example. Due to licensing restrictions, ZFS requires more work to use than other filesystems.

EXT4 is a solid, general purpose filesystem. For UEFI systems, FAT32 is a required filesystem for the BOOT partition. BTRFS is an experimental filesystem which sees heavy development by organizations like Facebook, and offers a different way of managing storage than more traditional (EXT, DOS, NTFS) filesystems. All of these have built-in kernel support.

For a more complete list of other filesystem options and what limitations and features exist for them, refer to the Arch Wiki.

Continuing from the partition example in 2.0, we will make a FAT32 parition on BOOT (/dev/nvme0n1p1), and an EXT4 partition on ROOTFS and HOME (/dev/nvme0n1p2 and /dev/nvme0n1p3, respectively):

|                                                                          |
|   $ mkfs.ext4     /dev/nvme0n1p2                                         |
|   $ mkfs.ext4     /dev/nvme0n1p3                                         |
|   $ mkfs.fat -F32 /dev/nvme0n1p1                                         |
|                                                                          |
|   $ mount /dev/nvme0n1p2 /mnt                                            |
|   $ mount /dev/nvme0n1p3 /mnt/home                                       |
|   $ mount /dev/nvme0n1p1 /mnt/boot                                       |
|                                                                          |

[3.2] Swap Partition

To set up a partition as a Linux swap space, the mkswap command is used. Replace X with the drive where the swap partition is located, and Y by the partition on that drive that will be formatted as swap.

|                                                                          |
|   $ mkswap /dev/sdXY                                                     |
|   $ swapon /dev/sdXY                                                     |
|                                                                          |

[3.3] Swap File

As an alternative to creating an entire partition, a swap file offers similar functionality, and the added benefits of being able to vary its size on-the-fly, as well as being more easily removed. This may be especially desirable if disk space is at a premium.

The most straightforward way to create a swap file is to use dd:

|                                                                          |
|   $ dd if=/dev/zero of=$LOCATION bs=$BYTES count=$BLOCKS                 |
|                                                                          |

$LOCATION is where the swapfile should be made. Assume $LOCATION=/swapfile.

$BYTES is the size of each block to be written to the file. Disks have varying supported block sizes; choosing the correct size for the partition where the swapfile will be is important for optimizing read/write throughput. dd defaults to 512 bytes, but this is suboptimal for drives with larger supported block sizes. To determine the block size for your device, you can use stat:

|                                                                          |
|   $ stat -fc %s .                                                        |
|                                                                          |

For instance, if the result is 4096, $BYTES=4k should be chosen.

$BLOCKS is the number of blocks of size $BYTES you wish to write to $LOCATION. $BLOCKS determines the final size of the swapfile.

$BYTES and $BLOCKS can be suffixed by b (512 bytes), kB (1,000 bytes), k (1,024 bytes), MB (a thousand kB), M (a thousand k), GB (a million kB), or G (a million k).

To create a 16G swapfile at /swapfile with a 4k block size,

|                                                                          |
|   $ dd if=/dev/zero of=/swapfile bs=4k count=4M                          |
|                                                                          |

Set the permissions, create the swap filesystem, and activate it as swap,

|                                                                          |
|   $ chmod 600 /swapfile                                                  |
|   $ mkswap    /swapfile                                                  |
|   $ swapon    /swapfile                                                  |
|                                                                          |

To remove a swap file, it's as simple as disabling and deleting it,

|                                                                          |
|  $ swapoff /swapfile                                                     |
|  $ rm -f   /swapfile                                                     |
|                                                                          |

[4.0] fstab

The fstab file contains a list of partitions with their filesystem type, their mount location, and the options they should be mounted with. The mount program will read the fstab file (by default /etc/fstab) and will mount all of the partitions and filesystems for you. This is useful for automatically mounting things like BOOT, HOME, and tmpfs during the init process.

The fstab is NOT required - the kernel location and ROOTFS should be specified in the bootloader entry. If you find yourself mounting the same partitions repeatedly with consistent options, the fstab file serves to automate this prcess for you.

Here is an example fstab, which will mount ROOTFS to /, BOOT to /boot, HOME to /home, enable the swap file, and mount some important virtual filesystems:

|                                                                              |
|   # device      mount-point   type   options         dump  fsck order        |
|                                                                              |
|   /dev/sda2     /             ext4   defaults        0     1                 |
|   /dev/sda1     /boot         vfat   defaults        0     2                 |
|   /dev/sda3     /home         ext4   defaults        0     2                 |
|   /swapfile     none          swap   defaults        0     0                 |
|   tmpfs         /tmp          tmpfs  rw,nodev,nosuid 0     0                 |
|   proc          /proc         proc   defaults        0     0                 |
|   sysfs         /sys          sysfs  defaults        0     0                 |
|   devpts        /dev/pts      devpts gid=4,mode=620  0     0                 |
|                                                                              |

tmpfs, proc, sysfs, and devpts should be mounted during the init process. Therefore, proc, sysfs, and devpts can be left out of the fstab. A reason to keep tmpfs in the fstab is to use it for building packages in RAM.

Devices can be referred to either by their /dev pathname, by a label, by UUID, or by Part-UUID. For systems with multiple drives, it is recommended to use UUIDs or labels instead of /dev pathnames, as these are volatile and could change during each system reboot. See the Arch Wiki for details on identifying disks.
NOTE: busybox does not support mounting disks by Part-UUID.

The dump entry refers to the backup utility, dump.

fsck order gives the order in which a filesystem check should be ran in. ROOTFS should be specified with a 1. All other filesystems should be specified with 2 or 0. swap and virtual filesystems should not be fsck'd.

There are a large number of options that you can choose from for mounting partitions. 'defaults' is a basic, filesystem-independent option which will mount the partition rw,suid,dev,exec,auto,nouser,async. For an explanation of these options (and far more detailed information on the fstab) see fstab(5).

CAUTION: an improperly configured fstab will result in the user being dumped into an emergency shell! Even a small typo will result in this. If it occurs, simply check the fstab for errors, mount the partitions that failed to be mounted, and exit the emergency shell.