Partitioning hard disk drives for BIOS-MBR, BIOS-GPT and UEFI-GPT in Linux

Introduction

This post was prompted by recent threads in the Gentoo Linux Forums such as the following:

  • partition MBR/GPT fdisk question‘ in which two people asked how to partition a HDD using GPT. One has a computer that only has BIOS firmware; the other has a computer with firmware that supports UEFI and BIOS (user-selectable) and who apparently wanted to boot using BIOS.
  • [SOLVED] installing on UEFI system‘ in which someone asked how to partition a HDD for a computer with UEFI firmware.

These Gentoo Linux users were confused by the instructions in the Gentoo Installation Guide – Preparing the disks. In my opinion the Gentoo Installation Guide is confusing. You do not need a BIOS boot partition (Code EF02) if you want to use a GPT-partitioned HDD with a UEFI computer; you only need a BIOS boot partition on a GPT-partitioned HDD if you want to use it with a BIOS computer. You do not need an ESP (EFI System Partition) if you want to use a GPT-partitioned HDD with a BIOS computer; you only need an ESP (Code EF00) — which must be formatted as FAT32 — if you want to use UEFI.

Coincidentally, recently an Ubuntu user also told me he finds GPT partitioning for UEFI confusing.

So, in the hope of helping people having trouble understanding how to partition a HDD for Linux, I decided to post some information on the two firmware designs and the two partitioning designs, plus list a few (of the many) partitioning schemes that can be used. The purpose of this post is to provide an overview of the designs and possible schemes, not to explain how to use the various partitioning tools or to list the precise steps you must follow. I have tried to avoid going into fine detail (for example the oft-quoted limit of 2TiB for MBR-partitioned HDDs is contigent on 512B sectors).

Firstly, let’s get the terminology straight: you should say ‘UEFI firmware’, not ‘UEFI BIOS’. The latter is an oxymoron. I know that some computer manufacturers and third-party firmware providers use the term ‘UEFI BIOS’, but it is incorrect. The ‘BIOS’ (a.k.a. ‘PC BIOS’) and the UEFI are two different designs of firmware used during the booting process. BIOS firmware and MBR partitioning are older (‘legacy’) designs; UEFI firmware and GPT partitioning are the latest designs, intended to replace BIOS and MBR. See the end of this post for links to articles regarding BIOS, MBR, UEFI and GPT that I recommend you also read.

I personally have not come across computers that support solely UEFI; all the computers I have used allow the user to configure the firmware at boot via the Setup menu to use either UEFI or BIOS. Some UEFI firmware manufacturers show the BIOS support option in the Setup menu as ‘Compatibility Support Module’ (CSM) or ‘Legacy Mode’.

‘Secure Boot’ is one of the touted UEFI features not present in BIOS. Linux expert Roderick W. Smith explains Secure Boot in his article ‘Linux on UEFI: A Quick Installation Guide‘:

One optional feature of UEFI deserves mention: Secure Boot. This feature is designed to minimize the risk of a computer becoming infected with a boot kit, which is a type of malware that infects the computer’s boot loader. Boot kits can be particularly difficult to detect and remove, which makes blocking them a priority. Microsoft requires that all desktop and laptop computers that bear a Windows 8 logo ship with Secure Boot enabled. This type of configuration complicates Linux installation, although some distributions handle this problem better than do others. Do not confuse Secure Boot with EFI or UEFI, though; it’s possible for an EFI computer to not support Secure Boot, and it’s possible to disable Secure Boot even on x86-64 EFI computers that support it. Microsoft requires that users can disable Secure Boot for Windows 8 certification on x86 and x86-64 computers; however, this requirement is reversed for ARM computers—such computers that ship with Windows 8 must not permit the user to disable Secure Boot. Fortunately, ARM-based Windows 8 computers are currently rare. I recommend avoiding them.

GPT-partitioned HDDs have become the norm these days for two principal reasons:

  • the MBR design limits the amount of disk space accessible to a maximum of 2TiB but HDDs larger than 2TiB are now common;
  • Microsoft has standardised on UEFI, and UEFI will not boot an MBR-partitioned HDD (Section 5.2.1 of Version 2.6 of the UEFI Specification specifies that UEFI firmware shall not execute the boot code in an MBR located at the first logical block of a disk with the MBR disk layout).

The ‘Protective MBR’ at the beginning of every GPT-partitioned disk (in the same location on the disk as a legacy MBR would be) is designed to prevent MBR-based disk utilities misrecognising and possibly overwriting GPT-partitioned disks. A fake (i.e. it does not really exist) single partition called the ‘GPT Protective Partition’ (Code EE00) is specified in the Protective MBR to occupy as much of the drive as can be represented in an MBR, namely a maximum of 2TiB in the case of a disk with 512B sectors. Operating systems and tools not designed for GPT disks will read the Protective MBR and detect that the disk contains a single partition of unknown type and with no empty space, and will refuse to modify the disk unless the user deletes this partition. This design (i.e. the Protective MBR and GPT Protective Partition) was devised in order to minimise the possibility of a) legacy software accidentally overwriting a GPT-partitioned HDD; b) GPT-aware software accidentally overwriting an MBR-partitioned HDD (the absence of a partition of type EEh defined in the Protective MBR would indicate to GPT-aware operating systems and tools that the HDD is not GPT-partitioned).

You can use an MBR-partitioned HDD with BIOS; you can use a GPT-partitioned HDD with BIOS; you can use a GPT-partitioned HDD with UEFI; you cannot use an MBR-partitioned HDD with UEFI. If the firmware in your computer has an option to select BIOS mode (some firmware manufacturers refer to this as ‘Compatibility Support Module’ or ‘Legacy Mode’) instead of UEFI and you want to use an MBR on the HDD, you will have to use BIOS. In summary, for Linux your options are BIOS-MBR, BIOS-GPT or UEFI-GPT. I will discuss these three options and provide some possible partitioning schemes in each case.

The layout of a GPT-partitioned HDD is as follows:

The beginning of a GPT-partitioned disk
Protective MBR 512B
Primary GPT Header 512B
Primary Partition Table entries Up to 16KiB (maximum of 128 partitions)

Therefore the unpartitioned space at the beginning of the HDD should be at least 17KiB.

Unlike in the MBR design, the end of a GPT-partitioned disk stores a backup of the partition table:

The end of a GPT-partitioned disk
Secondary Partition Table entries Up to 16KiB (maximum of 128 partitions)
Secondary GPT Header 512B

Therefore the upartitioned space at end of a GPT-partitioned disk should be at least 16.5KiB.

The remainder of a GPT-partitioned disk between the above two areas can contain up to 128 partitions. One partition — normally the first partition is used — must be the ‘ESP’ (EFI System Partition), which should be formatted as FAT32 and have the ‘esp’ and ‘boot’ flags set. The partition code must be EF02. The minimum possible size of a FAT32 partition is 33,549,824B (~32MiB). The required size of the ESP will depend on what is stored in it (for example the now-orphaned ELILO boot loader stored the Linux kernel images in it, whereas the GRUB boot loader does not). The Ubuntu Community Help Wiki specifies a minimum of 100MiB and recommends 200MiB. The Gentoo Installation Guide recommends 128MB.

The versions of GParted and KDE Partition Manager I have used to partition HDDs seem to want to reserve at least 2048 512B sectors of empty space before the first partition (sometimes these two utilities force me to have 4096 512B sectors of empty space before the first partition), so I suggest leaving at least 1MiB of unpartitioned space at the beginning and end of the HDD if you want to partition a disk for GPT using those tools. Actually, for peace of mind you may as well leave 1MiB of empty space at the beginning and end of the disk whatever GUI tools or console commands (parted, fdisk, gdisk, etc.) you use to partition the disk.

By the way, if you wanted to use MBR instead of GPT, the MBR (512B) plus the GRUB embedding area after the MBR (~31KiB) means that 1MiB would also be more than enough for an MBR HDD (see GNU GRUB Manual – 3.4 BIOS installation).

Thus my suggestions for HDD partitioning would be as shown below. Note that the order of the partitions I have adopted below is not obligatory; you can change the order if you wish. I prefer to specify precise sizes for the swap and root partitions, and put /home on the last partition so it can occupy the remainder of the disk, whatever size that may be.

UEFI-GPT

Option 1

This is my preferred option because I can edit /etc/fstab and specify that /boot must not be mounted at boot, thus reducing the possibility of the files in /boot getting corrupted.

UEFI-GPT Option 1
1.00 MiB of empty space at the beginning of the disk.
/dev/sda1
Size: 512 MiB
File system: FAT32
Flags: boot & esp
Code: EF00
Label: ESP
Mount point: /boot/efi
/dev/sda2
Size: 16 GiB for a computer with 16 GiB of RAM*
File system: linux-swap
Flags: None
Code: 8200
Label: SWAP
Mount point: None
/dev/sda3
Size: 512 MiB
File system: ext2
Flags: None
Code: 8300
Label: BOOT
Mount point: /boot    Therefore /boot/grub/ will be on this partition if you use GRUB.
/dev/sda4
Size: e.g. 64 GiB (128 GiB if the drive is big)
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Code: 8300
Label: ROOT
Mount point: / (root)
/dev/sda5
Size: 1.00 MiB less than the remaining disk space
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Code: 8300
Label: HOME
Mount point: /home
1.00 MiB of empty space at the end of the disk.

* You will often see recommendations to make the size of the swap partition the same as the size of the RAM if you want to be able to put the computer into hibernation. In fact, the Linux kernel is normally configured to compress the contents of the RAM image for hibernation, and I personally have seen the disk image of 4GB of RAM compressed to 23% of that size. Nevertheless, if you have a large HDD you may as well just take the easy route and allocate the size of the swap partition to be the same as the RAM size, even if all of the swap partition will never be used in practice. That way you are guaranteed to be able to put the computer into hibernation.

Below is an example of the above partitioning scheme on a virtual UEFI machine with a 64GiB virtual GPT-partitioned HDD:

root # gdisk -l /dev/sda
GPT fdisk (gdisk) version 1.0.1

Partition table scan:
  MBR: protective
  BSD: not present
  APM: not present
  GPT: present

Found valid GPT with protective MBR; using GPT.
Disk /dev/sda: 134217728 sectors, 64.0 GiB
Logical sector size: 512 bytes
Disk identifier (GUID): 54B3C38F-1C55-4A19-9BAA-499C4D0D8DD0
Partition table holds up to 128 entries
First usable sector is 34, last usable sector is 134217694
Partitions will be aligned on 2048-sector boundaries
Total free space is 4029 sectors (2.0 MiB)

Number  Start (sector)    End (sector)  Size       Code  Name
   1            2048         1050623   512.0 MiB   EF00
   2         1050624         5244927   2.0 GiB     8200
   3         5244928         6293503   512.0 MiB   8300
   4         6293504        72353791   31.5 GiB    8300
   5        72353792       134215679   29.5 GiB    8300

root # fdisk -l /dev/sda
Disk /dev/sda: 64 GiB, 68719476736 bytes, 134217728 sectors
Units: sectors of 1 * 512 = 512 bytes
Sector size (logical/physical): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
I/O size (minimum/optimal): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
Disklabel type: gpt
Disk identifier: 54B3C38F-1C55-4A19-9BAA-499C4D0D8DD0

Device        Start       End  Sectors  Size Type
/dev/sda1      2048   1050623  1048576  512M EFI System
/dev/sda2   1050624   5244927  4194304    2G Linux swap
/dev/sda3   5244928   6293503  1048576  512M Linux filesystem
/dev/sda4   6293504  72353791 66060288 31.5G Linux filesystem
/dev/sda5  72353792 134215679 61861888 29.5G Linux filesystem

root # parted /dev/sda print
Model: ATA VBOX HARDDISK (scsi)
Disk /dev/sda: 68.7GB
Sector size (logical/physical): 512B/512B
Partition Table: gpt
Disk Flags:

Number  Start   End     Size    File system     Name  Flags
 1      1049kB  538MB   537MB   fat32                 boot, esp
 2      538MB   2685MB  2147MB  linux-swap(v1)
 3      2685MB  3222MB  537MB   ext2
 4      3222MB  37.0GB  33.8GB  ext4
 5      37.0GB  68.7GB  31.7GB  ext4

root # blkid
/dev/sda4: LABEL="ROOT" UUID="174ac3e8-f105-4606-bed1-7a1aa22c3631" TYPE="ext4" PARTUUID="01d9c139-fe70-415a-abc6-2351fad33384"
/dev/sda1: UUID="B4C1-7EA5" TYPE="vfat" PARTUUID="d941f728-c386-4f4c-b0c3-aa76f4290774"
/dev/sda2: LABEL="SWAP" UUID="e3ddf9b5-2ae3-4469-a121-0a1a78aa6702" TYPE="swap" PARTUUID="a4daec88-da44-4ae3-8119-01cc81325f03"
/dev/sda3: LABEL="BOOT" UUID="1e24ea9d-5358-4e9b-8667-d7a42e7b6ad7" TYPE="ext2" PARTUUID="b5369ce3-4b44-4d19-be6f-1d226dc71cb3"
/dev/sda5: LABEL="HOME" UUID="87f6a0af-dbed-4587-b810-efca8f269618" TYPE="ext4" PARTUUID="19fd7d00-2d89-4653-af03-e81618a3b70d"

Option 2

You could use this scheme if you are not interested in having /boot on its own partition.

UEFI-GPT Option 2
1.00 MiB of empty space at the beginning of the disk.
/dev/sda1
Size: 512 MiB
File system: FAT32
Flags: boot & esp
Code: EF00
Label: ESP
Mount point: /boot/efi
/dev/sda2
Size: 16 GiB for a computer with 16 GiB of RAM*
File system: linux-swap
Flags: None
Code: 8200
Label: SWAP
Mount point: None
/dev/sda3
Size: e.g. 64 GiB (128 GiB if the drive is big)
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Code: 8300
Label: ROOT
Mount point: / (root)    Therefore /boot and /boot/grub/ will on this partition too.
/dev/sda4
Size: 1.00 MiB less than the remaining space on the disk
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Code: 8300
Label: HOME
Mount point: /home
1.00 MiB of empty space at the end of the disk.

* See my earlier note regarding hibernation.

Below is an example of the above scheme on a virtual UEFI machine with a 64GiB virtual GPT-partitioned HDD:

root # gdisk -l /dev/sda
GPT fdisk (gdisk) version 1.0.1

Partition table scan:
  MBR: protective
  BSD: not present
  APM: not present
  GPT: present

Found valid GPT with protective MBR; using GPT.
Disk /dev/sda: 134217728 sectors, 64.0 GiB
Logical sector size: 512 bytes
Disk identifier (GUID): 54B3C38F-1C55-4A19-9BAA-499C4D0D8DD0
Partition table holds up to 128 entries
First usable sector is 34, last usable sector is 134217694
Partitions will be aligned on 2048-sector boundaries
Total free space is 4029 sectors (2.0 MiB)

Number  Start (sector)    End (sector)  Size       Code  Name
   1            2048         1050623   512.0 MiB   EF00
   2         1050624         5244927   2.0 GiB     8200
   3         5244928        72353791   32.0 GiB    8300
   4        72353792       134215679   29.5 GiB    8300

root # fdisk -l /dev/sda
Disk /dev/sda: 64 GiB, 68719476736 bytes, 134217728 sectors
Units: sectors of 1 * 512 = 512 bytes
Sector size (logical/physical): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
I/O size (minimum/optimal): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
Disklabel type: gpt
Disk identifier: 54B3C38F-1C55-4A19-9BAA-499C4D0D8DD0

Device        Start       End  Sectors  Size Type
/dev/sda1      2048   1050623  1048576  512M EFI System
/dev/sda2   1050624   5244927  4194304    2G Linux swap
/dev/sda3   5244928  72353791 67108864   32G Linux filesystem
/dev/sda4  72353792 134215679 61861888 29.5G Linux filesystem

root # parted /dev/sda print
Model: ATA VBOX HARDDISK (scsi)
Disk /dev/sda: 68.7GB
Sector size (logical/physical): 512B/512B
Partition Table: gpt
Disk Flags:

Number  Start   End     Size    File system     Name  Flags
 1      1049kB  538MB   537MB   fat32                 boot, esp
 2      538MB   2685MB  2147MB  linux-swap(v1)
 3      2685MB  37.0GB  34.4GB  ext4
 4      37.0GB  68.7GB  31.7GB  ext4


root # blkid
/dev/sda3: LABEL="ROOT" UUID="fdf2b11a-8c6b-4bb3-9534-477c3ed49d95" TYPE="ext4" PARTUUID="f393129f-ab32-40fb-bf78-3aead3dd4af0"
/dev/sda1: UUID="C024-8A30" TYPE="vfat" PARTUUID="d941f728-c386-4f4c-b0c3-aa76f4290774"
/dev/sda2: LABEL="SWAP" UUID="1f752a05-a1fb-4c5f-ab2e-079715207b4d" TYPE="swap" PARTUUID="a4daec88-da44-4ae3-8119-01cc81325f03"
/dev/sda4: LABEL="HOME" UUID="041e4ab2-d54c-4092-b445-779997ac09ce" TYPE="ext4" PARTUUID="7e1b8dc0-2f38-4260-95af-fbb80bb72156"

Option 3

You could use this scheme if you are not interested in having /boot and /home on their own partitions.

UEFI-GPT Option 3
1.00 MiB of empty space at the beginning of the disk.
/dev/sda1
Size: 512 MiB
File system: FAT32
Flags: boot & esp
Code: EF00
Label: ESP
Mount point: /boot/efi
/dev/sda2
Size: 16 GiB for a computer with 16 GiB of RAM*
File system: linux-swap
Flags: None
Code: 8200
Label: SWAP
Mount point: None
/dev/sda3
Size: 1.00 MiB less than the remaining space on the disk
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Code: 8300
Label: ROOT
Mount point: / (root)    Therefore /boot (and /boot/grub/) and /home will on this partition too.
1.00 MiB of empty space at the end of the disk.

* See my earlier note regarding hibernation.

BIOS-GPT

If you have partitioned a large drive correctly then a computer with BIOS firmware will be able to access partitions larger than 2TiB. One of my computers has BIOS firmware only but can access its 3TiB GPT-partitioned HDDs.

Option 1

This is my preferred option because I can edit /etc/fstab and specify that /boot must not be mounted at boot, thus reducing the possibility of the files in /boot getting corrupted.

BIOS-GPT Option 1
1.00 MiB of empty space at the beginning of the disk.
/dev/sda1   This is the BIOS boot partition
Size: 1.00 MiB
File system: Unformatted
Flags: bios_grub
Code: EF02
Label: Not applicable
Mount point: Not applicable
/dev/sda2
Size: 512 MiB
File system: ext2
Flags: None
Code: 8300
Label: BOOT
Mount point: /boot
/dev/sda3
Size: 16 GiB for a computer with 16 GiB of RAM*
File system: linux-swap
Flags: None
Code: 8200
Label: SWAP
Mount point: None
/dev/sda4
Size: e.g. 64 GiB (128 GiB if the drive is big)
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Code: 8300
Label: ROOT
Mount point: / (root)    Therefore /boot and /boot/grub/ will on this partition too.
/dev/sda5
Size: 1.00 MiB less than the remaining space on the disk
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Code: 8300
Label: HOME
Mount point: /home
1.00 MiB of empty space at the end of the disk.

* See my earlier note regarding hibernation.

Option 2

You could use this scheme if you are not interested in having /boot on its own partition.

BIOS-GPT Option 2
1.00 MiB of empty space at the beginning of the disk.
/dev/sda1   This is the BIOS boot partition
Size: 1.00 MiB
File system: Unformatted
Flags: bios_grub
Code: EF02
Label: Not applicable
Mount point: Not applicable
/dev/sda2
Size: 16 GiB for a computer with 16 GiB of RAM*
File system: linux-swap
Flags: None
Code: 8200
Label: SWAP
Mount point: None
/dev/sda3
Size: e.g. 64 GiB (128 GiB if the drive is big)
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Code: 8300
Label: ROOT
Mount point: / (root)    Therefore /boot (and /boot/grub/) and /home will on this partition too.
/dev/sda4
Size: 1.00 MiB less than the remaining space on the disk
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Code: 8300
Label: HOME
Mount point: /home
1.00 MiB of empty space at the end of the disk.

* See my earlier note regarding hibernation.

Option 3

You could use this scheme if you are not interested in having /boot and /home on their own partitions.

BIOS-GPT Option 3
1.00 MiB of empty space at the beginning of the disk.
/dev/sda1   This is the BIOS boot partition
Size: 1.00 MiB
File system: Unformatted
Flags: bios_grub
Code: EF02
Label: Not applicable
Mount point: Not applicable
/dev/sda2
Size: 16 GiB for a computer with 16 GiB of RAM*
File system: linux-swap
Flags: None
Code: 8200
Label: SWAP
Mount point: None
/dev/sda3
Size: 1.00 MiB less than the remaining space on the disk
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Code: 8300
Label: ROOT
Mount point: / (root)    Therefore /boot and /home will on this partition too.
1.00 MiB of empty space at the end of the disk.

* See my earlier note regarding hibernation.

BIOS-MBR

Option 1

This is my preferred option because I can edit /etc/fstab and specify that /boot must not be mounted at boot, thus reducing the possibility of the files in /boot getting corrupted.

BIOS-MBR Option 1
1.00 MiB of empty space at the beginning of the disk.
/dev/sda1
Size: 512 MiB
Type: Primary
File system: ext2
Flags: boot
Label: BOOT
Mount point: /boot
/dev/sda2
Size: 16 GiB for a computer with 16 GiB of RAM*
Type: Primary
File system: linux-swap
Flags: None
Label: SWAP
Mount point: None
/dev/sda3
Size: e.g. 64 GiB (128 GiB if the drive is big)
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Label: ROOT
Mount point: / (root)
/dev/sda4
Size: remaining space on the disk
Type: Primary
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Label: HOME
Mount point: /home

* See my earlier note regarding hibernation.

Option 2

You could use this scheme if you are not interested in having /boot on its own partition.

BIOS-MBR Option 2
1.00 MiB of empty space at the beginning of the disk.
/dev/sda1
Size: 16 GiB for a computer with 16 GiB of RAM*
Type: Primary
File system: linux-swap
Flags: None
Label: SWAP
Mount point: None
/dev/sda2
Size: e.g. 64 GiB (128 GiB if the drive is big)
Type: Primary
File system: ext4
Flags: boot
Label: ROOT
Mount point: / (root)    Therefore /boot will be on this partition too.
/dev/sda3
Size: remaining space on the disk
Type: Primary
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Label: HOME
Mount point: /home

* See my earlier note regarding hibernation.

Option 3

You could use this scheme if you are not interested in having /boot and /home on their own partitions.

BIOS-MBR Option 3
1.00 MiB of empty space at the beginning of the disk.
/dev/sda1
Size: 16 GiB for a computer with 16 GiB of RAM*
Type: Primary
File system: linux-swap
Flags: None
Label: SWAP
Mount point: None
/dev/sda2
Size: remaining space on the disk
Type: Primary
File system: ext4
Flags: boot
Label: ROOT
Mount point: / (root)    Therefore /boot and /home will be on this partition too.

* See my earlier note regarding hibernation.

Option 4

If you want to have more than four partitions — let’s say you wanted to have a separate NTFS partition, for example — you would need to use an Extended Partition.

BIOS-MBR Option 4
1.00 MiB of empty space at the beginning of the disk.
/dev/sda1
Size: 512 MiB
Type: Primary
File system: ext2
Flags: boot
Label: BOOT
Mount point: /boot
/dev/sda2
Size: 16 GiB for a computer with 16 GiB of RAM*
Type: Primary
File system: linux-swap
Flags: None
Label: SWAP
Mount point: None
/dev/sda3
Size: Remainder of disk
Type: Extended
File system: Not applicable
Flags: None
Label: Not applicable
Mount point: Not applicable
/dev/sda4
Will not exist
/dev/sda5
Size: e.g. 128GiB
Type: Logical
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Label: ROOT
Mount point: / (root)
/dev/sda6
Size: e.g. 256GiB
Type: Logical
File system: ext4
Flags: None
Label: HOME
Mount point: /home
/dev/sda7
Size: remaining space on the disk
Type: Logical
File system: NTFS
Flags: None
Label: NTFS
Mount point: /media/NTFS

* See my earlier note regarding hibernation.

Below is an example of the above scheme (this happens to be the scheme on my main laptop):

root # fdisk -l /dev/sda
Disk /dev/sda: 698.7 GiB, 750156374016 bytes, 1465149168 sectors
Units: sectors of 1 * 512 = 512 bytes
Sector size (logical/physical): 512 bytes / 4096 bytes
I/O size (minimum/optimal): 4096 bytes / 4096 bytes
Disklabel type: dos
Disk identifier: 0x291ba0e7

Device     Boot     Start        End    Sectors   Size Id Type
/dev/sda1            2048     264191     262144   128M 83 Linux
/dev/sda2          264192   33822719   33558528    16G 82 Linux swap / Solaris
/dev/sda3        33822720 1465147391 1431324672 682.5G  5 Extended
/dev/sda5        33824768  302260223  268435456   128G 83 Linux
/dev/sda6       302262272  839133183  536870912   256G 83 Linux
/dev/sda7       839135232 1465147391  626012160 298.5G  7 HPFS/NTFS/exFAT

root # lsblk -o NAME,TYPE,SIZE,FSTYPE,MOUNTPOINT,LABEL,PARTFLAGS /dev/sda
NAME   TYPE   SIZE FSTYPE  MOUNTPOINT  LABEL PARTFLAGS
sda    disk 698.7G                           
├─sda1 part   128M ext2    /boot       BOOT  
├─sda2 part    16G swap    [SWAP]      SWAP  
├─sda5 part   128G ext4    /           ROOT  
├─sda6 part   256G ext4    /home       HOME  
└─sda7 part 298.5G ntfs-3g /media/NTFS NTFS

Notice that the boot flag is not set. Nevertheless the laptop boots fine.

Command-line tools

Below are examples of command-line utilities parted, gdisk and fdisk examining a GPT-partitioned HDD and an MBR-partitioned HDD. The original fdisk utility predates the invention of GPT, but the latest versions of fdisk understand the GPT design (you can check this by using the command ‘man fdisk‘). Personally, to partition GPT HDDs from the command line I would use parted or gdisk before fdisk, and to partition MBR HDDs from the command line I would use parted or fdisk before gdisk. Mind you, I like an easy life and so I tend to use the GUI tools GParted or KDE Partition Manager to partition and format an HDD for Linux.

GPT-partitioned HDD

root # parted /dev/sda print
Model: ATA VBOX HARDDISK (scsi)
Disk /dev/sda: 68.7GB
Sector size (logical/physical): 512B/512B
Partition Table: gpt
Disk Flags: 

Number  Start   End     Size    File system     Name       Flags
 1      2097kB  539MB   537MB   fat32                      boot, esp
 2      539MB   1076MB  537MB   ext2            /boot
 3      1076MB  3223MB  2147MB  linux-swap(v1)  linuxswap
 4      3223MB  37.6GB  34.4GB  ext4            /
 5      37.6GB  68.7GB  31.1GB  ext4            /home

root # gdisk -l /dev/sda
GPT fdisk (gdisk) version 1.0.1

Partition table scan:
  MBR: protective
  BSD: not present
  APM: not present
  GPT: present

Found valid GPT with protective MBR; using GPT.
Disk /dev/sda: 134217728 sectors, 64.0 GiB
Logical sector size: 512 bytes
Disk identifier (GUID): 9807AF0F-8BD5-4727-A3CD-9995B2705732
Partition table holds up to 128 entries
First usable sector is 34, last usable sector is 134217694
Partitions will be aligned on 2048-sector boundaries
Total free space is 8125 sectors (4.0 MiB)

Number  Start (sector)    End (sector)  Size       Code  Name
   1            4096         1052671   512.0 MiB   EF00  
   2         1052672         2101247   512.0 MiB   8300  /boot                                                                    
   3         2101248         6295551   2.0 GiB     8200  linuxswap                                                                
   4         6295552        73404415   32.0 GiB    8300  /                                                                        
   5        73404416       134213631   29.0 GiB    8300  /home                                                                    
root # fdisk -l /dev/sda                                                                                           
Disk /dev/sda: 64 GiB, 68719476736 bytes, 134217728 sectors                                                                       
Units: sectors of 1 * 512 = 512 bytes                                                                                             
Sector size (logical/physical): 512 bytes / 512 bytes                                                                             
I/O size (minimum/optimal): 512 bytes / 512 bytes                                                                                 
Disklabel type: gpt                                                                                                               
Disk identifier: 9807AF0F-8BD5-4727-A3CD-9995B2705732                                                                             
                                                                                                                                  
Device        Start       End  Sectors  Size Type                                                                                 
/dev/sda1      4096   1052671  1048576  512M EFI System
/dev/sda2   1052672   2101247  1048576  512M Linux filesystem
/dev/sda3   2101248   6295551  4194304    2G Linux swap
/dev/sda4   6295552  73404415 67108864   32G Linux filesystem
/dev/sda5  73404416 134213631 60809216   29G Linux filesystem

MBR-partitioned HDD

root # parted /dev/sda print
Model: ATA VBOX HARDDISK (scsi)
Disk /dev/sda: 68.7GB
Sector size (logical/physical): 512B/512B
Partition Table: msdos
Disk Flags: 

Number  Start   End     Size    Type     File system     Flags
 1      1049kB  538MB   537MB   primary  ext2            boot
 2      538MB   2685MB  2147MB  primary  linux-swap(v1)
 3      2685MB  37.0GB  34.4GB  primary  ext4
 4      37.0GB  68.7GB  31.7GB  primary  ext4

root # gdisk -l /dev/sda
GPT fdisk (gdisk) version 1.0.1

Partition table scan:
  MBR: MBR only
  BSD: not present
  APM: not present
  GPT: not present


***************************************************************
Found invalid GPT and valid MBR; converting MBR to GPT format
in memory. 
***************************************************************


Warning! Secondary partition table overlaps the last partition by
33 blocks!
You will need to delete this partition or resize it in another utility.
Disk /dev/sda: 134217728 sectors, 64.0 GiB
Logical sector size: 512 bytes
Disk identifier (GUID): F6E9E53E-33BE-44CB-BEFC-D93E03B79B84                                                   
Partition table holds up to 128 entries                                                                        
First usable sector is 34, last usable sector is 134217694                                                     
Partitions will be aligned on 2048-sector boundaries                                                           
Total free space is 2014 sectors (1007.0 KiB)                                                                  

Number  Start (sector)    End (sector)  Size       Code  Name
   1            2048         1050623   512.0 MiB   8300  Linux filesystem
   2         1050624         5244927   2.0 GiB     8200  Linux swap
   3         5244928        72353791   32.0 GiB    8300  Linux filesystem
   4        72353792       134217727   29.5 GiB    8300  Linux filesystem
root # fdisk -l /dev/sda
Disk /dev/sda: 64 GiB, 68719476736 bytes, 134217728 sectors
Units: sectors of 1 * 512 = 512 bytes
Sector size (logical/physical): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
I/O size (minimum/optimal): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
Disklabel type: dos
Disk identifier: 0x7b9f1623

Device     Boot    Start       End  Sectors  Size Id Type
/dev/sda1  *        2048   1050623  1048576  512M 83 Linux
/dev/sda2        1050624   5244927  4194304    2G 82 Linux swap / Solaris
/dev/sda3        5244928  72353791 67108864   32G 83 Linux
/dev/sda4       72353792 134217727 61863936 29.5G 83 Linux

Notice the gdisk warning that the last partition would not be viable on a GPT-partitioned HDD because there would not be space for the Secondary GPT. However, as this is an MBR-partitioned HDD for use with a BIOS firmware computer, that does not apply.

A warning note if installing Ubuntu on a UEFI computer

When I installed Ubuntu Desktop 16.04.1 in a virtual machine I encountered a bug (in VirtualBox? in the Ubuntu Installer?) which results in subsequent reboots leaving the virtual machine running the UEFI Shell instead of launching GRUB and booting Ubuntu. To fix that, I did the following as soon as Ubuntu booted from the virtual HDD for the first time after I had clicked ‘Restart Now’ in the ‘Installation Complete’ window:

user $ sudo su
root # mount /dev/sda1 /mnt
root # cd /mnt
root # echo "\EFI\ubuntu\grubx64.efi" > startup.nsh
root # exit

This creates the file /boot/efi/startup.nsh required by the UEFI Shell. Then you can reboot and all should work as intended, i.e. the UEFI machine boots to the UEFI Shell which, after a few seconds, launches GRUB.

UPDATE (16 February 2017): A downside to the above approach is the 5-second timeout in the UEFI Shell until startup.nsh is launched. Below is an alternative that avoids having to wait for the 5-second countdown in the UEFI Shell until startup.nsh is launched. The downside is that you must remember to repeat this procedure if a new version of GRUB is installed and there is a new version of /EFI/ubuntu/grubx64.efi.

user $ sudo su
root # mount /dev/sda1 /mnt
root # cd /mnt/EFI/
root # ls
ubuntu
root # ls ubuntu
fw  fwupx64.efi  grub.cfg  grubx64.efi  MokManager.efi  shimx64.efi
root # mkdir BOOT
root # cp ubuntu/grubx64.efi BOOT/BOOTX64.EFI
root # cd
root # umount /dev/sda1
root # exit

See the Arch Linux Wiki article VirtualBox – 2.1 Installation in EFI mode.

A warning note if installing Gentoo on a UEFI computer

To date, the Gentoo Minimal Installation CD does not support UEFI, and therefore I recommend that you use SystemRescueCd instead. It is a Gentoo-based LiveCD with several tools useful for installing Gentoo, including a Web browser so you can access the on-line Gentoo documentation during installation. You can follow the Gentoo Installation Guide verbatim. SystemRescueCd also has a Desktop Environment with various GUI utilities, so you could partition the HDD using GParted instead of the command-line utilities if you wish. SystemRescueCd also comes with various wireless network card drivers and a network manager, so there is a good chance you will be able to connect easily to a wireless network if you prefer (I once used SystemRescueCd to install Gentoo on a laptop using Wi-Fi alone, as a wired connection was not convenient at the time).

How can I find out in Linux if a computer has booted using UEFI?

Check if the RAM-based directory /sys/firmware/efi/ exists. If it does not exist, the computer did not boot using UEFI.

Further Reading

  1. Wikipedia – BIOS

  2. Wikipedia – Master boot record

  3. UEFI Specification Version 2.6, January 2016

  4. Wikipedia – Unified Extensible Firmware Interface

  5. Wikipedia – GUID Partition Table
    Also, the diagram GUID Partition Table Scheme in that article is quite helpful in understanding the layout of a GPT-partitioned HDD.

  6. Wikipedia – BIOS boot partition
    Also, the diagram GNU GRUB 2 in that article is quite helpful in understanding: a) MBR partitioning; b) how GRUB 2 fits on an MBR-partitioned HDD; c) GPT partitioning; d) how GRUB 2 fits on a GPT-partitioned HDD; e) where the BIOS boot partition fits on a GPT-partitioned HDD and how it is used by GRUB 2.

  7. GNU GRUB Manual – 3.4 BIOS installation

  8. Ubuntu Documentation – UEFI

  9. Gentoo Installation Guide – Preparing the disks

  10. Ubuntu Bug Reports – Bug No. 811485 – Ubuntu partman-efi package – EFI SYSTEM PARTITION should be atleast 100 MiB size and formatted as FAT32, not FAT16

  11. Roderick W. Smith’s Web Page
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About Fitzcarraldo
A Linux user with an interest in all things technical.

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