Installing a Linux system

This document aims at providing the main steps in installing a Linux system. When installing a specific Linux distribution, the documentation available on the distribution’s wiki often provides very detailed steps:

Booting a live media to a live system

The first steps of installing a Linux system consist in booting on a Linux system provided as a CD-ROM image (.iso file) or as a live USB key image. Such live media can also be created with tools such as:

Once booted using the live media, the keyboard layout needs to be configured:

# Enumerate the available console keymaps, provided by:
# * package kbd on Arch Linux
# * package console-data on Debian
ls /usr/share/kbd/keymaps/**/*.map.gz

# Load a French keymap using loadkeys from:
# * package kbd on Arch Linux
# * package kbd on Debian
loadkeys fr-latin9

For UEFI-based system, it is possible to verify that the live media has been booted in UEFI mode by enumerating the UEFI variables:

ls /sys/firmware/efi/efivars

Then, it is possible to configure the network interfaces. This greatly depends upon the network environment of the installed system. Here are some commands to perform this:

# Using DHCP
dhclient eth0

# Add an static IPv4 address for Ethernet interface eth0 and configure the DNS resolver
ip addr add dev eth0
ip route add default via
echo 'nameserver' >> /etc/resolv.conf

# Check the connectivity with GitHub
curl -v

# Enable time synchronization, on systemd-based distribution
timedatectl set-ntp true

Partitioning the disks

Once a live system is booted, the disks can be partitioned. There does not exist a generic configuration that works for every possible computer: some could use software RAID with much swap, others do not need swap at all, etc.

One major differences between systems is the way a system boot:

  • Legacy systems use BIOS with a MBR partition table. /boot can be split in its own partition but this is not mandatory.

  • Newer systems use UEFI with a GPT partition table. This requires a EFI system partition which is nowadays the /boot partition. Allocating 400 MB for such a partition should be more than enough.

When installing GRUB boot manager on a UEFI system, an other dedicated partition needs to be created. Allocating 200 MB to it should be enough.

Here are useful commands for this step:

# Enumerate the available disks and partitions
fdisk -l
ls -l /sys/class/block
ls -l /dev/disk/by-path

# Create partitions on /dev/sda in an interactive way
fdisk /dev/sda

# Format the EFI system partition as FAT32
mkfs.fat -F32 /dev/sda1

# Format a partition as ext4
mkfs.ext4 /dev/sda2

# Format a partition as Swap
mkswap /dev/sda2 && swapon /dev/sda2

# Create a RAID 1 (mirror) between two disks
mdadm --zero-superblock /dev/sda3
mdadm --zero-superblock /dev/sdb3
mdadm --create --verbose --level=1 --metadata=1.2 \
    --raid-devices=2 /dev/md0 /dev/sda3 /dev/sdb3
cat /proc/mdstat
mdadm --detail --scan >> /etc/mdadm.conf
mdadm --assemble --scan
# ... and add to kernel boot command line: root=/dev/md0 md=0,/dev/sda3,/dev/sdb3

# Create an encrypted LUKS partition
cryptsetup -v --cipher aes-xts-plain64 --key-size 512 luksFormat /dev/sda2
cryptsetup open /dev/sda2 system
mkfs.ext4 /dev/mapper/system

# Backup the LUKS header
cryptsetup luksDump /dev/sda2
# Optionally backup the encryption master key
dmsetup ls --target crypt
dmsetup table --showkeys system

# Rescan LVM partitions after a change has been made
# (Physical Volumes, Volume Groups and Logical Volumes)
vgchange --available y  # or: vgchange -ay
vgscan --mknodes

# Mount the partitions on /mnt
mount /dev/mapper/system /mnt
mount /dev/sda1 /mnt/boot

Some documentation:

Installing a base system

Once the disks are ready, bootstrapping a system is often achieved using one command specific to the distribution.

  • Arch Linux use pacstrap:

    pacstrap /mnt base
  • Debian-based system use debootstrap:

    debootstrap --arch amd64 stable /mnt

Once this is done, it is possible to chroot into the bootstrapped system. Before that, the special directories need to be bind-mounted to the live system:

mount --bind /dev /mnt/dev
mount --bind /proc /mnt/proc
mount --bind /sys /mnt/sys
chroot /mnt

Arch Linux provides some helper scripts to minimize the number of commands to type:

genfstab -U /mnt >> /mnt/etc/fstab
arch-chroot /mnt

Configuring the base system before the first boot

Once chrooted into the newly-installed system while still being on the live system, a few things need to be configured.

# Set the console keyboard layout at boot (French keymap is sometimes named fr-pc)
echo 'KEYMAP=fr-latin9' > /etc/vconsole.conf

# Configure the timezone
ln -sf "/usr/share/zoneinfo/${TIMEZONE:-UTC}" /etc/localtime

# Generate /etc/adjtime
hwclock --systohc

# Enable locales in /etc/locale.gen and generate then
sed -i 's/^#\(en_GB.UTF-8 UTF-8\)/\1/' /etc/locale.gen
${EDITOR:-vim} /etc/locale.gen
echo 'LANG=en_GB.UTF-8' > /etc/locale.conf

# Configure the hostname in /etc/hostname and /etc/hosts
echo 'my-new-hostname' > /etc/hostname
echo ' my-new-hostname' > /etc/hosts

# Set the root password

# Create a new user in group adm and with /home/user as $HOME
# Options: -m to create home, -N no user group -G for admin groups
useradd -mN -G adm,wheel user
passwd user

# Install a bootloader
if $USING_GRUB ; then
    grub-mkconfig -o /boot/grub/grub.cfg
    grub-install /dev/sda
if $USING_UEFI ; then
    cat >> /boot/loader/entries/00-arch-linux-hardened.conf
title Arch Linux Hardened kernel
linux /vmlinuz-linux-hardened
initrd /intel-ucode.img
initrd /initramfs-linux-hardened.img
options root=UUID=...

    # Install the systemd-boot EFI boot manager
    bootctl install

# Install the needed firmware, for example for the network interface controller
apt-get -y install firmware-linux-free  # on Debian
pacman -S --noconfirm linux-firmware  # on Arch Linux

If the main system partition is encrypted, the initramfs needs to be regenerated. The hooks need to be modified accordingly in /etc/mkinitcpio.conf:

# Initial line:
#HOOKS=(base udev autodetect modconf block filesystems keyboard fsck)
# New line:
HOOKS=(base udev autodetect modconf block keymap keyboard encrypt filesystems fsck)

And run mkinitcpio -p linux. The kernel boot command line also needs to be adjusted to include information about the encrypted partition:

root=UUID=xxxxxxxx-...-xxxxxxxxxxxx cryptdevice=/dev/disk/by-uuid/xxxxxxxx-...-xxxxxxxxxxxx:system

If the system is supposed to be unlocked remotely (for example by entering the encryption passphrase in a Dropbear SSH server embedded in the initramfs), some actions need to be performed (

  • Configure a SSH public key in /etc/dropbear/root_key or /etc/tinyssh/root_key

  • Add netconf dropbear encryptssh hooks in /etc/mkinitcpio.conf before filesystem

  • Configure cryptdevice and ip parameters in the kernel boot command. For example:


While at it, here are some other useful options:

verbose loglevel=6 kaslr intel_iommu=on audit=1 security=selinux selinux=1

On a local system, it is a good idea to ensure that the USB-HID kernel modules (that handle the keyboard) are always loaded. Otherwise, a USB keyboard cannot be used to enter the disk encryption passphrase upon boot… It is also nice to ensure that the module for FAT filesystems is loaded, in order to be able to plug USB sticks even after disabling the module loading on the system.

echo 'MODULES=(hid-generic vfat)' >> /etc/mkinitcpio.conf

If the system is remotely available through SSH, enable the server:

# On Debian-based systems
systemctl enable ssh
# On Arch Linux
systemctl enable sshd

If the system is a remote one and has an encrypted disk partition, remote unlocking can be achieved by embedding a Dropbear SSH server in the initramfs. Such a configuration is detailed on

The last installation step

Finally, exit the chroot, unmount the system disks and reboot the system. With this, the base system is installed and it is possible to install software, use them, etc. A list of useful packages for some distributions is available on

It is also recommended to configure OpenSSH, sudo, sysctl, iptables, XScreenSaver, etc. provides some help in this regard.

On Debian-based systems, debian.rst (Some information of Debian systems) provides also some advices.

On Arch Linux systems, archlinux-pkg.rst (Notes about Arch Linux packages) has some too. Also, please add ILoveCandy in section [options] in /etc/pacman.conf ;)