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Aug 152014

This post is likely to change frequently after it first appears as experiments/research/etc. occurs to me.

To get to grips with it, let’s first define the software that is in control of your PC when it first starts as the system firmware rather than the BIOS, as system firmware is a generic term which can refer to BIOS, EFI, UEFI, OpenFirmware, or anything else that someone comes up with.

UEFI (and the older EFI) is a replacement for the legacy BIOS that we’ve been stuck with for decades. Despite advances in almost every aspect of the “PC standard”, the BIOS has hardly advanced at all. To be fair, the user interface has gotten a bit less 1980s, and it of course deals with hardware devices that weren’t even imagined decades ago. But there are still some rather nasty limitations, which UEFI is supposed to resolve.

Of course there are those who claim that UEFI is a complete mess with no redeeming qualities, but the truth is probably somewhere between it being that and the neatest bit of system firmware ever invented.

This posting are my working notes (with the addition of a bit of pointless waffling) on UEFI, given that I’m likely to be found staring at a UEFI shell on a broken server at some point in the future. All experiments (so far) have been carried out with a VirtualBox-powered virtual machine (with UEFI turned on) running Ubuntu server.


The boot process looks a little different … unsurprisingly. And there’s an error in relation to missing UEFI stuff from the hard disk. But once the CD is booted the process looks the same …

Partitioning: Initially “Guided – use entire disk and set up LVM”

Doesn’t give an opportunity to review the partitioning, but :-

  1. EFISystem (/boot/efi) is roughly 512Mbytes
  2. /boot is roughly 256Mbytes
  3. LVM Volume Group

The Ubuntu installation uses grub as the boot loader, although it’s hardly the only option and there are hints that grub has been known to have issues with EFI. Although this could be “early adopters pain”, and not applicable currently.

GPT Partitions

See the Wikipedia article, but basically GPT replaced the old Master Boot Record partitions. The main advantage is that there are fewer dumb limits with GPT – there is no limit of 4 primary partitions (and no hacks to support extended partitions), but instead a minimum maximum of 128 partitions, which basically translates as the required minimum size of a partition table allows for up to 128 partitions but the partition table can be bigger.  More than you’re likely to need anyway.

Cleverly (if you want to put it that way), GPT can live alongside the old MBR partitions as the GPT starts at block 1 rather than block 0. This has been used by Apple to keep two partition tables so that OSX can use GPT whilst Windows still uses MBR.

Keeping two partition tables in sync is perhaps not the best idea for stability and given the need for backwards compatibility has only a limited useful lifetime, I’d rather live without it. In fact it would be nice if I could fill up the old MBR with stuff that told all MBR tools not to mess around with the partition tables.

In theory, (U)EFI and GPT are independent of each other, but in practice, GPT implies booting from UEFI and MBR implies booting from BIOS (some UEFI implementation switch to a BIOS-compatibility mode when they see an MBR).

The EFI System Partition

(U)EFI requires that to boot, a disk must have an EFI System Partition formatted as FAT. This is used as effectively a replacement for the BIOS boot method of loading code from block 0. This file system is usually mounted under Linux as /boot/efi and contains various files that allow Linux to be booted (more details to be added).

It is perhaps a shame that the EFI standards people didn’t suggest making the EFI system partition part of the on-board firmware. It wouldn’t be impossible (or very expensive) to incorporate a small writeable FAT file system into the motherboard to avoid the need for the EFI partition on one of the storage disks. It is not as if the EFI system partition needs to be very big – Ubuntu configured one as 512Mbytes in size which is vastly larger than required for what is actually installed which adds up to less than 4Mbytes.


The tool efibootmgr is for interacting with the EFI boot manager and the EFI variables that control what gets booted in which order :-

# efibootmgr
BootCurrent: 0003
BootOrder: 0003,0000,0001,0002
Boot0001* EFI Hard Drive
Boot0002* EFI Internal Shell
Boot0003* ubuntu

The command has plenty of other options …

You can set the boot order with: efibootmgr -o 0002,0003,0001,0000. So I’ve set the preferred boot order to include the internal shell first … the purpose here is to look into EFI after all.

I also somehow managed to erase the “ubuntu” so re-created that with: efibootmgr -c -L UbuntuServer -l “\EFI\ubuntu\shimx64.efi” (yes unfortunately they use the wrong path separator).

EFI Shell

Is surprisingly limited. And rather too DOS-like for me.

Command Description
help Displays a list of the commands available … which very unhelpfully doesn’t pause at the end of the screen. Can also display additional details of a command if you try help command.
mode Displays a list of the available screen mode commands.
mode x y Sets the screen mode to the size specified (as listed with mode).
cls Clears the screen.
cls ${n} Clears the screen and sets the colours to a set specified by the number (0-7). Don’t bother; most of the choices are nasty.
map Displays teh mapping table showing the block devices (BLK${n}) and the recognised file systems (FS${n}). If you don’t have fs0 you’ve got problems!
fs0: Sets the specified file system as the current file system. This will change the prompt appropriately.
cd ${directory} Changes to the specified directory. Remember that the path separator is the DOS preferred character (\).
ls Lists files in the current directory.
edit ${filename} Edits the specified file (^S saves, ^Q quits), but don’t try editing files ending in .efi!
${filename}.efi Runs the EFI binary from the current directory, and yes that does mean you can boot Ubuntu Server by browsing to the \EFI\ubuntu directory and entering shimx64.efi (as I discovered after breaking the ubuntu boot option).
Oct 232013

Crazy experiment time. What happens when you have a disk with 100 partitions? The replacement for the old MBR standard for partitions on PC hardware is slowly being replaced with GUID partitions. The later increased the maximum number of partitions to 128 which is probably far more than anyone needs, but what happens when you have a disk with 100 partitions?

As it happens, I had a spare external drive to play with, so set something up :-

for x in {1..99}     
  parted /dev/sdc mkpart FAT $(($x * 100)) $((x * 100 + 99))
  mkfs -t vfat /dev/sdc${x} 

This took a surprising amount of time to run with two interesting effects :-

  1. The mkfs tool refused to make a filesystem on /dev/sdc16 and /dev/sdc80 as it claimed it would be creating a filesystem on a full disk device. I suspect that this is a bug due to simplistic assumption of what constitutes a full disk device based on minor device numbers (/dev/sdc16 happened to be 0 and /dev/sdc80 happened to be 64). This could probably be solved by using device nodes within /dev/disk/by-${something}/${whatever}.
  2. The Unity Launcher appeared to attempt to populate itself with the new filesystems as they were being created, but very rapidly decided not to bother. This happened several times.

Once the creation process was complete, I reconnected the external drive to my Ubuntu machine, and yes the launcher does contain a ton of hard disk icons. The launcher is still full functional, but having a hundred (or so) devices below the normal icons does make using it a little clumsy.

Fortunately it did not mount all the filesystems automatically – closing that many windows would be very tedious. Mounting them all via a file manager window was pretty tedious, but it worked :-

/dev/sdc56             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8663-39C5
/dev/sdc65             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8673-0919
/dev/sdc71             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/873E-FEE7
/dev/sdc72             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8741-47B3
/dev/sdc79             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/874D-4B53
/dev/sdc81             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/874E-D280
/dev/sdc82             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8752-1ACE
/dev/sdc83             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8754-2562
/dev/sdc84             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8755-D262
/dev/sdc86             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8759-0D82
/dev/sdc87             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/875A-E5C5
/dev/sdc89             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/875E-035B
/dev/sdc92             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8763-8FB5
/dev/sdc93             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8765-7A2F
/dev/sdc94             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8767-1DBC
/dev/sdc95             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8768-D314
/dev/sdc96             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/876A-A46E
/dev/sdc97             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/876B-F064
/dev/sdc98             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/876D-9D90
/dev/sdc58             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8666-B9AA
/dev/sdc61             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/866B-8EFA
/dev/sdc62             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/866D-1726
/dev/sdc64             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8671-5EE1
/dev/sdc66             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8736-C2F5
/dev/sdc67             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8737-EE95
/dev/sdc68             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8739-7213
/dev/sdc69             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/873B-181F
/dev/sdc70             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/873C-E80C
/dev/sdc73             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8743-11E7
/dev/sdc74             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8745-28A8
/dev/sdc75             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8746-CA94
/dev/sdc77             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/874A-1D30
/dev/sdc78             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/874B-C1C7
/dev/sdc85             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8757-77A0
/dev/sdc88             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/875C-6DF9
/dev/sdc90             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8760-8FD5
/dev/sdc91             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/8762-01DA
/dev/sdc99             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/8770-0F74
/dev/sdc1              93M     0   93M   0% /media/mike/8609-229A
/dev/sdc17             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8621-921D
/dev/sdc21             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8628-8CDB
/dev/sdc22             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/862A-2217
/dev/sdc23             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/862B-8EF9
/dev/sdc25             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/862F-0BE5
/dev/sdc27             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8633-1F9D
/dev/sdc28             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8634-A26F
/dev/sdc34             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/863E-14EB
/dev/sdc37             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8643-1F63
/dev/sdc4              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/860D-2753
/dev/sdc40             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8647-8E49
/dev/sdc41             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8649-033D
/dev/sdc42             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/864A-A12A
/dev/sdc43             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/864C-6EEF
/dev/sdc44             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/864E-3469
/dev/sdc45             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8650-8796
/dev/sdc46             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8652-64DF
/dev/sdc47             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8653-F743
/dev/sdc48             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8655-B14B
/dev/sdc49             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8657-34FF
/dev/sdc5              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/860E-EBD7
/dev/sdc50             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/8658-A04A
/dev/sdc51             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/865A-D4D3
/dev/sdc52             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/865C-33D1
/dev/sdc53             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/865D-FA56
/dev/sdc54             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8660-6C95
/dev/sdc55             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8661-D456
/dev/sdc57             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8665-0AFD
/dev/sdc59             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8668-3D53
/dev/sdc6              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8610-F9B0
/dev/sdc60             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/866A-0A0E
/dev/sdc63             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/866E-F6E7
/dev/sdc76             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8748-8D02
/dev/sdc10             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8616-B29F
/dev/sdc11             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8618-6462
/dev/sdc12             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/861A-5208
/dev/sdc13             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/861B-BA6E
/dev/sdc14             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/861D-5133
/dev/sdc15             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/861E-C384
/dev/sdc18             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8623-BFCF
/dev/sdc19             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8625-9D85
/dev/sdc2              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/860A-504E
/dev/sdc20             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/8627-1391
/dev/sdc24             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/862D-457F
/dev/sdc26             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8631-5F8A
/dev/sdc29             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8636-2F58
/dev/sdc3              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/860B-8C77
/dev/sdc30             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8637-F726
/dev/sdc31             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/8639-6B19
/dev/sdc32             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/863A-FBBC
/dev/sdc33             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/863C-AE68
/dev/sdc35             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8640-3A10
/dev/sdc36             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8641-93A6
/dev/sdc38             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8644-AFCF
/dev/sdc39             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/8646-1BAE
/dev/sdc7              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8612-54E8
/dev/sdc8              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8613-C38C
/dev/sdc9              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8615-3522

Yes I have cut the “interesting” filesystems out of that output.

Windows (7) does deal quite so well with the situation. After rebooting into Windows with the disk plugged in, the login process seemed to take longer than usual (although I don’t boot Windows enough to be sure).

Once logged in, everything seemed fine including the little popup window by the status bar saying it was configuring the plugged in disk drive. However that took longer than expected – after clicking on it for details, it took around 5 minutes to complete. At which point it stuck a red cross by the “Disk Drive” whilst it popped up an Autoplay window for drives E: through Z:. With an offer to format drive T: – so it could at least use the drive that Linux refused (by default) to format.

However except for that little red cross, there was no clear warning that it failed to do anything with nearly 80 partitions. And closing all those popup Autoplay windows was pretty tedious.

OSX (10.9) dealt a little better with the disk; it at least recognised all of the disks, and stuck up little icons for each one. And mounted them all.  However Finder didn’t seem to respond to attempts to unmount the disks … I had to resort to the command-line. Perhaps I wasn’t patient enough.

And the moral of this little crazy experiment? Whilst we can perhaps throw a little mud at Microsoft, the main lesson learnt is that you too can annoy someone using Windows by handing them an external hard disk with 100 partitions. Especially if the information they want is not in the first 20-odd partitions <Evil Grin>

Oh! And just stating the obvious – it’s a good idea to remove the partitions before putting the spare disk away, or you may encounter a nasty surprise later!


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