Pure EFI Linux Boot on Macbooks

My company was really kind to get me a Macbook Pro (the 13.3-inch “5.5” variant). It is an awesome piece of hardware! (especially after my own PoS HP laptop I’ve been cussing at for a while now)

That said, I still don’t like the idea of running a proprietary operating system on it (as beautiful as OS X is ;)), so I continue to happily use Gentoo. The standard amd64 install works just fine with some minor hiccups (keyboard doesn’t work on the LiveCD, kernel only shows a console with vesafb).

The one thing that did bother me is BIOS-emulation. For those coming from the PC world, Macs don’t have a BIOS. They run something called EFI which is significantly more advanced (though I think the jury’s out on quirkiness issues and Linus certainly doesn’t approve of the added complexity).

Anyway, in order to support booting other OSes (=> Windows) exactly as they would on PCs, Apple has added a BIOS emulation layer. This is how Ubuntu (at least as of 9.10) boots on Macbooks. Given that both the bootloader (be it Grub2 or elilo) and the Linux kernel support booting in an EFI environment, it rubbed me the wrong way to take the easy way out and just boot them in BIOS mode. There is a reasonable technical argument for this – I see no good reason to add one more layer of software (read bugs) when there is no need at all. After a lot of pain, I did manage do make Linux boot in EFI-only mode. There is not enough (accurate, easily-findable) documentation out there, so this is hard-won knowledge. :) I’m putting this up to help others avoid this pain.

Here’s what I did (I might be missing some stuff since this was done almost a month ago). The basic boot steps look something like this:

  1. EFI firmware starts on boot
  2. Starts rEFIt, a program that extends the default bootloader to provide a nice bootloader menu, shell, etc.
  3. Scans FAT/HFS partitions (no ext* support, despite some claims on the Internet) for bootable partitions (i.e. having a /efi/… directory with valid boot images)
  4. Runs the Grub2 EFI image from a FAT partition
  5. Loads the Linux kernel (and initrd/initramfs if any) from /boot
  6. Kernel boots normally with whatever your root partition is

Now you could use elilo instead of Grub2, but I found this it to not work well (or at all) for me, so I just used a Grub2 (1.97.1, with some minor modifications) (just adds an “efi” USE-flag to build with --with-platform=efi). While I could make /boot a FAT partition, this would break the installkernel script (it’s run by make install in your kernel source directory), which makes symlinks for your latest/previous kernel image.

Instructions for installing the Grub2 EFI image are here. Just ignore the “bless” instructions (that’s for OS X), and put the EFI image and other stuff in something like /efi/grub (the /efi is mandatory). You can create a basic config file using grub-mkconfig and then tweak it to taste. The Correct Way™ to do this, though, is to edit the files in /etc/grub.d/.

Of course, you need to enable EFI support in the kernel, but that’s it. With this, you’re all set for the (slightly obsessive-compulsive) satisfaction of not having to enable yet another layer to support yet another proprietary interface, neither of which you have visibility or control over.