Configuring extlinux's auto-update on Debian (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Thu, 24 Nov 2011

Configuring extlinux's auto-update on Debian

A few days ago, I wrote about how to set up and configure extlinux (syslinux) as a bootloader. But on Debian or Ubuntu, if you make changes to files like /boot/extlinux/extlinux.conf directly, they'll be overwritten.

The configuration files are regenerated by a program called extlinux-update, which runs automatically every time you update your kernel. (Specifically, it runs from the postinst script of the linux-base package: you can see it in /var/lib/dpkg/info/linux-base.postinst.)

So what's a Debian user to do if she wants to customize the menus, add a splash image or boot other operating systems?

First, if you decide you really don't want Debian overwriting your configuration files, you can change disable updates by editing /etc/default/extlinux. Just be aware you won't get your boot menu updated when you install new kernels -- you'll have to remember to update them by hand.

It might be worth it: the automatic update is nearly as annoying as the grub2 updater: it creates two automatic entries for every kernel you have installed. So if you have several distros installed, each with a kernel or two in your shared /boot, you'll get an entry to boot Debian Squeeze with the Ubuntu Oneiric kernel, one for Squeeze with the Natty kernel, one for Squeeze with the Fedora 16 kernel ... as well as entries for every kernel you have that's actually owned by Debian. And then for each of these, you'll also get a second entry, to boot in recovery mode. If you have several distros installed, it makes for a very long and confusing boot menu!

It's a shame that the auto-updater doesn't restrict itself to kernels managed by the packaging system, which would be easy enough to do. (Wonder if they would accept a patch?) You might be able to fudge something that works right by setting up symlinks so that the only readable kernels actually live on the root partition, so Debian can't read the kernels from the other distros. Sounds a bit complicated and I haven't tried it. For now, I've turned off automatic updating on my system.

But if your setup is simpler -- perhaps just one Debian or one Ubuntu partition plus some non-Linux entries such as BSD or Windows -- here's how to set up Debian-style automatic updating and still keep all your non-Linux boot entries and your nice menu customizations.

Debian automatic updates and themes

First, take a quick look at /etc/default/extlinux and customize anything there you might need, like the names of the kernels, kernel boot parameters or timeout. See man extlinux-update for details.

For configuring menu colors, image backgrounds and such, you'll need to make a theme. You can see a sample theme by installing the package syslinux-themes-debian -- but watch out. If you haven't configured apt not to pull in suggested packages, that may bring back grub or grub-legacy, which you probably don't want.

You can make a theme without needing that package, though. Create a directory /usr/share/syslinux/themes/mythemename (the extlinux-update man page claims you can put a theme anywhere and specify it by its full path, but it lies). Create a directory called extlinux inside it, and make a file with everything you want from extlinux.conf. For example:

default 0
prompt 1
timeout 50

ui vesamenu.c32
menu title Welcome to my Linux machine!
menu background mysplash.png
menu color title 1;36 #ffff8888 #00000000 std
menu color unsel 0    #ffffffff #00000000 none
menu color sel   7    #ff000000 #ffffff00 none

include linux.cfg
menu separator
include themes/mythemename/other.cfg

Note that last line: you can include other files from your theme. For instance, you can create a file called other.cfg with entries for other partitions you want to boot:

label oneiric
menu label Ubuntu Oneiric Ocelot
kernel /vmlinuz-3.0.0-12-generic
append initrd=/initrd.img-3.0.0-12-generic root=UUID=c332b3e2-5c38-4c50-982a-680af82c00ab ro quiet

label fedora
menu label Fedora 16
kernel /vmlinuz-3.1.0-7.fc16.i686
append initrd=/initramfs-3.1.0-7.fc16.i686.img root=UUID=47f6b1fa-eb5d-4254-9fe0-79c8b106f0d9 ro quiet

menu separator

LABEL Windows
KERNEL chain.c32
APPEND hd0 1

Of course, you could have a debian.cfg, an ubuntu.cfg, a fedora.cfg etc. if you wanted to have multiple distros all keeping their kernels up-to-date. Or you can keep the whole thing in one file, theme.cfg. You can make a theme as complex or as simple as you like.

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[ 11:26 Nov 24, 2011    More linux/install | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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