Arch Linux on BTRFS

Posted on 28 Dec 2012 | Back to Bitloom home

During the holidays, at the end of the year, I usually spend some time cleaning up my system and experimenting with new technologies. This often boils down to starting from scratch with a complete reinstallation of my laptop.

Last year I switched to Arch Linux (which turned out to be one of the best Linux distribution I have ever used); this year I got interested in advanced file systems like ZFS (and its Linux incarnation).

So I opted for reinstalling Arch Linux using one of those filesystems.

After several unsuccessful attempts to install Arch Linux on ZFS (there is a nice article on the Arch Linux wiki) I managed to finally boot it, using ZFS as the root filesystem.

However, since the ZFS kernel modules are not (yet) part of the standard Linux kernel, it was quite painful to finish such an installation… I was experimenting in a QEmu virtual machine, and re-doing the same steps on my actual system would have been even more painful.

Finally, Kernel upgrades would have been too tricky because the corresponding ZFS modules must be correctly recompiled at each upgrade in order to make the system boot… Too risky.

So I turned to another advanced filesystem that is gaining momentum, has several features comparable to ZFS and is already included in the standard Kernel: BTRFS

After several installation attempts, I finally had a fine-tuned Arch Linux installation with the root filesystem completely on BTRFS.

In the following sections I will describe how I did it and some tricks I implemented in order to have a nice way of keeping track of system upgrades and make it possible to easily roll back to the previous system state in the case of a broken upgrade.


The BTRFS home page describes it in this way:

“a new copy on write (CoW) filesystem for Linux aimed at implementing advanced features while focusing on fault tolerance, repair and easy administration.”

You can have a look at a detailed list of all its features on the BTRFS home page. However what captured my interest was the following:

Just to give you a little more details about the previous items, here it is a quick overview of some of the BTRFS concepts.

A BTRFS-formatted partition contains by default a single subvolume where users can store files. A subvolume can be thought as an independent filesystem that is attached to some parent (another subvolume).

The interesting thing is that subvolumes can be mounted as root filesystems. When this is the case, users can only “see” what is inside the subvolume and not what is contained in the parent subvolume.

Only by mounting the toplevel subvolume you can have access to all the data stored in a BTRFS filesystem.

Subvolumes appear as directories in the filesystem hierarchy. You can distinguish between them and “vanilla” directories by using the btrfs subvolume list command.

Another interesting thing about subvolumes is that they can be snapshotted. A snapshot is an exact copy of a subvolume that has an independent life. A snapshot uses a copy-on-write policy which makes snapshots quite space-efficient. The initial snapshot, in fact, doesn’t take any additional space. Only what is modified is then copied and starts to occupy actual disk space.

Snapshots can be writable and are actually subvolumes that can be used as such.

Snapshots and subvolumes can be renamed and moved using the standard mv command. They can also be deleted using the rm -rf command (like if they were standard directories), but a more efficient way to do it is by using the btrfs subvolume delete command.

When mounting a subvolume, all the child-subvolumes are recursively mounted as well. However snapshotting is not recursive. So when you take a snapshot of a subvolume X that has a child Y, only X is snapshotted.

BTRFS also has a ton of advanced features such as adding other devices to the filesystem, handling RAIDn setup, resizing volumes, etc. Many of them can be done on-the-fly which means that no downtime/reboot is needed.

The setup

My goal was to have the whole SSD allocated to BTRFS, and having a setup that allowed me to take snapshots of the relevant part of the system.

This would allow to do the following operations:

The problem was to identify what were the the relevant parts of the system. I ended up with considering relevant everything except /home, /opt and /var which are basically the three subdirectories that you usually mount on separate filesystems.

With this setup, by snapshotting / I would end up with a subvolume containing everything that was needed for booting a complete system with all its functionalities and their configurations.

Since I have 8GB of memory I didn’t create a swap partition, and even if I would have needed it I could have used a swap file instead. If you want to create also a swap partition you should create it as a separate partition (and not as a BTRFS subvolume).

Also, I didn’t create a separate /boot partition because, otherwise, I would not have had the kernel images in a BTRFS subvolume and, hence, in the snapshots. Rolling back to a previous system state would have been more difficult.


The following is the annotated step-by-step transcription of what I did to install Arch Linux on BTRFS.

The parameters written there may not completely match your system (e.g., /dev/sda), so change them to as you see fit.

0. Download and boot the installation medium

We need the ISO image of the Arch Linux installation medium. You can find it here. The version I used is 2012.12.01.

Follow the instructions in the Beginners’ guide up to section 2.2 in order to have a suitable environment.

In my case, I just set up the WiFi by doing

$ ip link set wlan0 up
$ wifi-menu wlan0

1. Partition and format the disk

$ fdisk /dev/sda

Create a partition as big as the whole disk and save. For performance reasons, make sure that it is correctly aligned if you have a 4Kb-sector disk. fdisk should give you default values that take into account partition alignment.

I used fdisk to setup a plain-old MBR because my system (a Dell XPS L502x) doesn’t seem to support booting from a GPT (UEFI standard). I tried, but I had an “Operation system not found” error when I rebooted (yes, operation was actually mispelled in the error message :))

If your computer supports booting from a GPT you might consider to partition the disk using it.

However, be careful… UEFI, GTP, booting, supporting multiple operating systems are quite tricky to handle so make sure to read the documentation before proceeding.

Then we can format the partition using BTRFS:

$ mkfs.btrf -L "Arch Linux" /dev/sda1

And finally mount the partition:

$ mkdir /mnt/btrfs-root
$ mount -o defaults,relatime,discard,ssd /dev/sda1 /mnt/btrfs-root

The mount options are used to speed-up BTRFS:

2. Create subvolumes

In this step we are going to create subvolumes for our filesystems. We will create 4 subvolumes:

This is a fairly standard way to partition the system.

We will mount home, opt, var in the corresponding directories of the ROOT subvolume.

But there’s a catch: the var subvolume will contain the lib directory where pacman, the Arch Linux package manager, stores information about the installed packages. In order to have a complete snapshot of the system we must include this directory. So we have to make sure that the var/lib directory (and only this) is on the ROOT subvolume.

We will achieve this by binding the var/lib directory on the ROOT subvolume to the one on the var subvolume:

mkdir -p /mnt/btrfs/__snapshot
mkdir -p /mnt/btrfs/__current
btrfs subvolume create /mnt/btrfs-root/__current/ROOT
btrfs subvolume create /mnt/btrfs-root/__current/home
btrfs subvolume create /mnt/btrfs-root/__current/opt
btrfs subvolume create /mnt/btrfs-root/__current/var

The __snapshot and __current directories are created in the top-level subvolume of the BTRFS partition, and are used to distinguish between the subvolumes that are snapshots and those that are currently used as active subvolumes.

You can see the newly created subvolumes with the following command:

$ btrfs subvolume list -p /mnt/btrfs-root/
ID 256 gen 5 parent 5 top level 5 path __current/ROOT
ID 259 gen 5 parent 5 top level 5 path __current/home
ID 260 gen 5 parent 5 top level 5 path __current/opt
ID 261 gen 5 parent 5 top level 5 path __current/var

3. Mount subvolumes

In this step we will mount the __current/ROOT, in a given location so that we can install the base system on it. We will also mount __current/home, __current/opt, and __current/var on the corresponding directories in the __current/ROOT subvolume.

First let’s create a directory where to mount __current/ROOT:

$ mkdir -p /mnt/btrfs-current

Then we mount __current/ROOT and create the mount points for mounting the other subvolumes:

$ mount -o defaults,relatime,discard,ssd,nodev,subvol=__current/ROOT /dev/sda1 /mnt/btrfs-current
$ mkdir -p /mnt/btrfs-current/home
$ mkdir -p /mnt/btrfs-current/opt
$ mkdir -p /mnt/btrfs-current/var/lib

Finally we mount the other subvolumes on the corresponding mount points:

$ mount -o defaults,relatime,discard,ssd,nodev,nosuid,subvol=__current/home /dev/sda1 /mnt/btrfs-current/home
$ mount -o defaults,relatime,discard,ssd,nodev,nosuid,subvol=__current/opt /dev/sda1 /mnt/btrfs-current/opt
$ mount -o defaults,relatime,discard,ssd,nodev,nosuid,noexec,subvol=__current/var /dev/sda1 /mnt/btrfs-current/var

At this point we have all the filesystems mounted. However the /var/lib directory resides on the __current/var subvolume, while we would like to use the var/lib directory on __current/ROOT.

In order to do so, we do the following:

$ mkdir -p /mnt/btrfs-current/var/lib
$ mount --bind /mnt/btrfs-root/__current/ROOT/var/lib /mnt/btrfs-current/var/lib

Now, the /var/lib on the __current/var subvolume will be bound to the /var/lib in the __current/ROOT subvolume, and whatever is written there will end up in the right location on the __current/ROOT subvolume.

4. Install the base system

After having chosen the mirror to be used, we can bootstrap the base system:

$ nano /etc/pacman.d/mirrorlist 
$ pacstrap /mnt/btrfs-current base base-devel

Before continuing we need to generate the /etc/fstab for the installed system, based on the previously created subvolumes:

$ genfstab -U -p /mnt/btrfs-current >> /mnt/btrfs-current/etc/fstab

At this point we have an initial /etc/fstab but we have to edit it because the bound /var/lib is not recognized correctly by genfstab. We should end-up with the following:

tmpfs						/tmp		tmpfs		rw,nodev,nosuid 				0 0
tmpfs						/dev/shm	tmpfs		rw,nodev,nosuid,noexec 				0 0

# /dev/sda1 LABEL=Arch Linux
UUID=...	/         	btrfs     	rw,nodev,relatime,ssd,discard,space_cache,subvol=__current/ROOT			0 0
UUID=...	/home     	btrfs     	rw,nodev,nosuid,relatime,ssd,discard,space_cache,subvol=__current/home		0 0
UUID=...	/opt      	btrfs     	rw,nodev,nosuid,relatime,ssd,discard,space_cache,subvol=__current/opt		0 0
UUID=...	/var      	btrfs     	rw,nodev,nosuid,noexec,relatime,ssd,discard,space_cache,subvol=__current/var	0 0
UUID=...	/run/btrfs-root	btrfs     	rw,nodev,nosuid,noexec,relatime,ssd,discard,space_cache				0 0
/run/btrfs-root/__current/ROOT/var/lib		/var/lib	none		bind 						0 0

The options specified for all the BTRFS subvolumes contain the parameters we mentioned before. We also add nodev, nosuid and noexec in order to further secure our installation, and we do the same for the temporary filesystems. This practice is described with more details here

5. Configure the system

At this point we have a base system installed. The steps to be performed here are basically those described in the Beginners’ Guide starting from section 2.8.

You need to start by chrooting to /mnt/btrfs-current and not to /mnt as written in the guide, since the filesystem where to install Arch Linux (i.e., the __current/ROOT subvolume) is mounted there.

When you generate the initial ramdisk environment, make sure to edit the /etc/mkinitcpio.conf and to do the following:

Then do, as usual:

$ mkinitcpio -p linux

6. Installing the bootloader

In order to boot the system I used the GRUB bootloader. It detects the /boot directory on a BTRFS subvolume and correctly boots the system. I didn’t test Syslinux. Probably with this setup it would work as well.

You might want to edit the /etc/default/grub file before generating the grub.cfg file using grub-mkconfig:

pacman -S grub-bios
grub-install --target=i386-pc --recheck /dev/sda
grub-mkconfig -o /boot/grub/grub.cfg

7. Unmount and reboot

At this point we have a ready-to-boot Arch Linux installation. We will first exit from the chroot environment, unmount all the filesystem and then reboot into our newly installed Arch Linux.

$ exit

$ umount /mnt/btrfs-current/home
$ umount /mnt/btrfs-current/opt
$ umount /mnt/btrfs-current/var/lib
$ umount /mnt/btrfs-current/var
$ umount /mnt/btrfs-current
$ umount /mnt/btrfs-root



Once the system is rebooted we will have __current/ROOT mounted as / and the whole BTRFS filesystem accessible from /run/btrfs-root.

We can take a snapshot of this initial state and keep it for reference. We could use it, for example, for restoring configuration files or checking what has changed in subsequent upgrades.

In order to take a snapshot we will first create a SNAPSHOT file in the subvolume root directory containing the current time and a comment. This file will become part of the snapshot and will help us to identify what this snapshot refers to. We will remove it from / after the snapshot has been created:

echo `date "+%Y%m%d-%H%M%S"` > /run/btrfs-root/__current/ROOT/SNAPSHOT
echo "Fresh install" >> /run/btrfs-root/__current/ROOT/SNAPSHOT

btrfs subvolume snapshot -r /run/btrfs-root/__current/ROOT
                            /run/btrfs-root/__snapshot/ROOT@`head -n 1 /run/btrfs-root/__current/ROOT/SNAPSHOT`

rm /run/btrfs-root/__current/ROOT/SNAPSHOT

The -r parameter will take a read-only snapshot, otherwise the snapshot will be writable as the original __current/ROOT subvolume.

We can see that the created snapshot is actually listed as a subvolume:

$ btrfs subvolume list -p /run/btrfs-root/
ID 256 gen 1372 parent 5 top level 5 path __current/ROOT
ID 259 gen 1373 parent 5 top level 5 path __current/home
ID 260 gen 7 parent 5 top level 5 path __current/opt
ID 261 gen 1373 parent 5 top level 5 path __current/var
ID 263 gen 68 parent 5 top level 5 path __snapshot/ROOT@20121227-163413

Rolling back to a previous system state

Let’s suppose that we started to install some packages and that at some point we did something wrong and we want to start over. We can do that by rebooting the system after changing the __current/ROOT subvolume. To do so, we will rename the __current/ROOT subvolume, and take a writable snapshot of the fresh-install snapshot we took earlier.

$ mv /run/btrfs-root/__current/ROOT /run/btrfs-root/__current/ROOT.old
$ btrfs subvolume snapshot /run/btrf-root/__snapshot/ROOT@20121227-163413 /run/btrfs-root/__current/ROOT
$ reboot

When the system reboots, it will be like if it was just installed. Of course the /home, /opt and /var (except /var/lib) might contain additional stuff because they were not part of the snapshot. But the system will be in its pristine state because all its relevant parts and configurations were included in the snapshot.

Now, if we want, we can also remove the __current/ROOT.old subvolume.

Safely upgrading the system

A snapshot of __current/ROOT could be taken just before every system upgrade. If the upgrade succeeds, then we can remove it otherwise we can roll back to the previous system state and retry the upgrade, maybe after having fixed what made the upgrade fail.

This process could be also automated with a simple script which basically does something similar to what we described in the previous section.

Using snapshots for improving system security

Snapshots can be very useful to understand what changed in a system and whether our system has been compromised. For example, if we have a “trusted” snapshot, like the one taken just after the system has been installed, we can compare the current state of the system against that previous state and check if binaries, configuration files or libraries have changed when they shouldn’t.

Comparing directories
Comparing files

In the previous pictures (click on them for a larger version), I used a diff tool called Meld to compare directories and files. We can see that many things changed in /etc/, including groups.

This could be quite alarming because usually this file should not be touched. Looking at the actual changes we see that groups for gdm, avahi, etc. were added: that’s OK if we have installed GNOME. So everything is fine.

This diff-check can also be automated because we have all the metadata associated with the installed packages. So a script could check which packages have been installed, which files have been affected and report only the files that weren’t touched by any package installation but that still have changes. In this case, spotting anomalies would be easier.

User created subvolumes

With BTRFS users can also create subvolumes (though only root can delete them). This is very useful if we want to take advantage of the snapshotting mechanism for user data.

Usually revision control systems like Git are more suitable for doing this kind of tracking, but if we have to manage a lot of binary data BTRFS snapshotting could be a valid alternative.

Think for example to video editing. A user might want to track the state of her work, so she can put all the files related to a given project in a separate subvolume and take regular snapshots as her work progresses.

Snapshotting can also be useful when dealing with virtual machines. Online cloud services, like Amazon EC2, already have this kind of feature for incrementally building virtual machine images by taking subsequent snapshots of it. With BTRFS a user can apply the same principle by putting the virtual machine image in a separate subvolume and incrementally install the system by taking intermediate snapshots.


BTRFS is a very nice filesystem and as far as I see it performs quite well. It is not yet marked as completely stable, so you might want to do frequent backups of your data if you decide to use it. There is also a lot of criticism about its implementation, but it is evolving fast and it is going to be adopted as the main filesystem in many mainstream distributions. So many shortcomings should be addressed and solved.

For your information, this is the complete step-by-step sequence I used to setup my system. It contains also some extra stuff about power management, firewall and TCP/IP configuration. It’s mostly a “note to self”, but you can use it if you want to install Arch Linux on your own.