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Essential System Administration, 3rd Edition

Top Five Open Source Packages for System Administrators

by Æleen Frisch, author of Essential System Administration, 3rd Edition

This is the third installment of a five-part series in which I introduce my current list of the most useful and widely applicable open source administrative tools. In general, these tools can make your job easier, no matter what Unix operating system your computers run.

#3: GRUB

Administrators who take care of Linux systems are undoubtedly familiar with the LILO boot loader. LILO (or Linux Loader) was a great tool in its time, and it enabled you to boot not only the Linux operating system, but also any other operating system that might be running on the same Intel-based PC hardware (including all of the various versions of Windows).

There is a newer, more general and flexible boot loader coming into wide usage. It is named GRUB: the GRand Unified Bootloader. It was originally written by Erich Boleyn and is now part of the GNU project. Current development is overseen and led by Gordon Matzigkeit and Okuji Yoshinori. The project's home page is

The GRUB developers are very enthusiastic about their program (and rightly so), as indicated by this quote from Gordon Matzigkeit:

Some people like to acknowledge both the operating system and kernel when they talk about their computers, so they might say they use "GNU/Linux" or "GNU/Hurd." Other people seem to think that the kernel is the most important part of the system, so they like to call their GNU operating systems "Linux systems." I, personally, believe that [both are] a grave injustice, because the boot loader is the most important software of all.

[Accordingly,] I used to refer to the above systems as either "LILO" or "GRUB" systems. Unfortunately, nobody ever understood what I was talking about; now I just use the word "GNU" as a pseudonym for GRUB. So, if you ever hear people talking about their alleged "GNU" systems, remember that they are actually paying homage to the best boot loader around: GRUB!

In This Series

Number Five: Amanda
The countdown begins with Amanda, an enterprise backup utility.

Number Four: LDAP
The countdown continues with LDAP, a protocol that supports a directory service.

Number Two: Nagios
The countdown continues with Nagios, a feature-rich network monitoring package.

If Gordon has his way, someday all "Linux" systems, "FreeBSD" systems, and so on, will be GRUB systems. In fact, the most recent versions of Red Hat Linux and SuSE Linux install GRUB by default or offer it as an option.

How GRUB Is Better

I prefer GRUB to other boot loaders for the following reasons:

  • It is independent of the operating system or systems to be booted.

  • It has a simple menu interface for normal boot choices.

  • It can function as a complete boot time shell, providing an environment in which you can enter any boot command that you want. Alternatviely, you can choose to modify an existing menu item.

  • GRUB does not require you to reinstall it every time the kernel or system configuration changes.

Related Reading

Essential System Administration
Tools and Techniques for Linux and Unix Administration
By Æleen Frisch

GRUB Components

GRUB includes the following main components:

  • First and second stage boot-loading programs suitable for a variety of operating system environments.

  • Unix utilities for installing and configuring GRUB.

  • The grub.conf configuration file for defining boot processes and their associated menu items.

How GRUB Names Disks

Before we consider the process of configuring GRUB, we need to note how disks are referred to within this package. GRUB defines its own disk notation so that disk partitions and slices can be indicated, regardless of the operating system that they happen to hold. The following example shows the general disk syntax:


where n is the disk number (starting at 0), and p is the partition number (again, starting at 0). For example, the second partition on the third hard disk would be designated as:


For operating systems that further subdivide the hard-disk partition, this syntax adds a third field consisting of the (sub)partition letter within the slice (physical partition). For example, the a partition in the first slice on the first hard disk under FreeBSD would be designated as:


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