elektito programming & stuff

LRFS Part 2: Adding a shell and packages

This is part of a series of articles. You can find the first part here.

In this first part of this series we built a kernel and ran it with a very minimal (and useless) init program. That’s not very useful. Let’s add a shell.

But before that, let’s backtrack a bit. Remember we briefly talked about repeatability in the last post. Let’s get back to that and later see what it has to do with us wanting to add a shell to our distro.


So what’s repeatability and why is it important? Repeatability is the quality of a quality of a process to assures us we arrive at the same results every time we follow it, whether we do it now or ten years later.

How are we supposed to do that? By documenting a record of every little thing that has a meaningful impact on our results. This includes configuration, build options, patches, environment, etc.

I am going to put everything in a git repository. Every piece (which we are going to call a package) will be in its own sub-directory. In that sub-directory, we’ll have a file named pkg.json which describes the package, and a Makefile that contains build and installation instructions. The pkg.json file will look something like this:

    "version": "1.0.0",
    "source": {
        "type": "local"

This tells the build script what the current package version number and how to obtain the source code (local in this case, since the code is included right there in the package directory).

The Makefile should contain at least the following targets: all which will be used for building the package, and install which will install the package files to a path determined in the INSTDIR environment variable.

But this is not all that is needed for repeatable builds. Another factor that might affect the build in longer periods of time, is the tools in use. It might so happen, for example, that a warning added in a new version of gcc breaks a build in which all warnings are considered errors.

However, it sounds a bit impractical to me, to have tools like compilers and linkers as part of the package. A better approach, could be to use the same version of tools for all the packages at every point in time. In order to do so, we’ll simply describe the build environment for all packages in the root of the pkgs directory. We’ll use a build.json file like this:

    "env": {
        "name": "ubuntu",
        "version": "18.04"

Given that there are generally no breaking changes in development tools in a single version of Ubuntu, this should work for now.

The directory tree looks like this at the moment:


As you can see, we have two packages right now, kernel and hello, both of which are in the pkgs directory. We’ll also have a top-level tools directory, which contains a script for building the packages, a script for building a root file system from a list of packages, and a script to run everything in qemu.

The build script

The build script (aptly named build), located in the /tools directory, builds one or more packages, according to the instructions in the pkg.json file and the Makefile. Apart from “local” source code, it also supports downloading a source tarball or obtaining it from a git repository.

The build script also supports applying one or more patches to the code before building it. For each package, a .tar.xz file is created which contains all the files needed for installation.

The script needs a number of tools to run:

  • jq: A versatile, command-line JSON parser.
  • awk: For text processing.
  • lsb_release: For getting information about the build environment.
  • fakeroot: Runs another program in an environment with fake root privilege for file manipulation. This is needed because sometimes install scripts need to do change a file’s group, something that only root can do, but we do not want our build system to run as root, hence we use fakeroot for creating the package. Extracting the packages, however, will obviously need root permissions.

In order to build the hello package, for example, go the tools directory and run ./build hello. When the script is done running, you should have a hello-1.0.0.tar.xz package in your current directory.

And a shell

Here we are at last. We are going to build bash as our shell. This is the pkg.json file to use:

    "version": "4.4.23",
    "source": {
        "type": "dl",
        "location": "https://ftp.gnu.org/gnu/bash/bash-4.4.tar.gz",
        "inner_dir": "bash-4.4"
    "patches": {
        "options": "-p0",
        "apply_dir": ".",
        "files": [

This is a bit more complicated than the one we saw before. Let’s see what it does. First, we are saying this is the 4.4.23 release of bash, which happens to be the latest release at the moment. You can find all bash releases here.

After that, we determine how the source code is to be obtained. The value dl for type means that a tarball is going to be downloaded. The location field determines the download address and the inner_dir field tells the build system where in the tarball the source code resides.

We then have a list of patches, twenty-three of them, that need to be applied to the 4.4 release, so that we arrive at 4.4.23 (all of these are downloaded from the bash release page mentioned before).

Then there’s the Makefile:

    cd ../_src_ && ./configure --prefix=/usr --exec-prefix= --enable-static-link && $(MAKE)

    $(MAKE) -C ../_src_ install DESTDIR=${INSTDIR}

.PHONY: all install

(Yes, my code coloring tool messes up the colors for this make snippet. Ugly, but can’t do nuffing about that right now!)

As you can see the all target configures and builds the code, while the install target actually installs the files. There are a few points to explain:

  • For building every package, a temporary directory created and the package directory is copied here and renamed to pkg. The source code, if obtained from an external source, is fetched and put in an _src_ directory inside the temporary directory.

  • We configure bash so that it is linked statically. We still don’t have glibc or any of the other shared libraries needed.

  • We use the $(MAKE) special variable instead of running make directly. This way, some of the properties of the parent make are communicated to the sub-makes (like the -j argument, so that the right number of parallel jobs are used).

In order to actually run the built shell, you need to add the contents of the package file (the one built by the build script) to the image file we created before. After that, run the VM like this:

qemu-system-x86_64 -kernel /path/to/bzImage \
              -append "root=/dev/sda init=/bin/bash console=ttyS0" \
              -hda /path/to/image.img \
              -enable-kvm \
              -nographic \
              -serial mon:stdio

Note the init parameter passed to the kernel. Here, we are telling the kernel to use bash as the init program.

The source

Everything I’ve talked about in this article can be found in this repository on Github.