Arch Linux rescue image with mkosi

Published January 28th, 2024, 9 min read, #archlinux

In this post we'll build a small single-file Arch Linux rescue image for EFI systems.

We will end up with a single EFI executable of about 400 MiB (further optimization can get it down to about 200MiB) which embeds a fully-fledged Arch Linux system. We can then put this image on the EFI partition and sign it for secure boot, which gives us a rescue single-file rescue system to boot into in case the main Arch installation does not boot anymore. From that rescue system we can then chroot into the main installation to repair it.

The image will include metadata which enables systemd-boot to automatically discover the image and add it to its menu when we place in /efi/EFI/Linux (the bootloader specification calls these "type 2 entries", see Type #2 EFI Unified Kernel Images).

You can find my personal version of the image built in this post at

I got the idea from a recent post by the mkosi maintainer at which I recommend reading for more information about mkosi. The post calls what we're building here a Unified System Image (USI).


We'll need a few packages:

# pacman -S mkosi
# pacman -S --asdeps systemd-ukify

mkosi builds the image, and uses systemd-ukify to build a UKI.

Configure mkosi

We configure the image in mkosi.conf:





We also tell mkosi to install some essential packages into the image. We add

Define the systemd preset

We customize the systemd preset to enable the iwd daemon automatically, and disable a few standard systemd services which have no use in a single-user rescue image:

new file mode 100644
index 0000000..4f00b6f
--- /dev/null
+++ b/mkosi.extra/etc/systemd/system-preset/10-rescue-image.preset
@@ -0,0 +1,4 @@
+disable systemd-homed.service
+disable systemd-userdbd.socket
+disable systemd-boot-update.service
+enable iwd.service

mkosi automatically copies the file system tree in the mkosi.extra directory to the image. Hence, our preset file will end up in /etc/systemd/system-preset/10-rescue-image.preset inside the image, where mkosi will pick it up from when it applies the preset as one of its last steps in the build process.

Configure networking

In addition to our custom preset file the default systemd preset applies, which enables systemd-resolved and systemd-networkd and thus provides us with a small yet capable network management stack in the rescue system. However, we still need to configure this stack a bit for proper networking when booting the image on real hardware.

We first put systemd-resolved into the recommended stub mode for the resolv.conf file, to make sure all DNS resolution goes through resolved, by placing the resolv.conf symlink to /run/systemd/resolve/stub-resolv.conf into the mkosi.extra directory (the diff actually describes a symlink in Git):

new file mode 120000
index 0000000..3639662
--- /dev/null
+++ b/mkosi.extra/etc/resolv.conf
@@ -0,0 +1 @@

From there mkosi copies the symlink itself to the image literally.

By default, systemd-networkd only manages virtual network interfaces of containers and virtual machines, which implies that we automatically have a network connection when testing the image with mkosi qemu. On real hardware however we have real Ethernet and wireless interfaces which we also want systemd-networkd to handle in our rescue image:

new file mode 100644
index 0000000..09fdddf
--- /dev/null
+++ b/mkosi.extra/etc/systemd/network/
@@ -0,0 +1,8 @@
+# SPDX-License-Identifier: MIT-0
new file mode 100644
index 0000000..0896e7a
--- /dev/null
+++ b/mkosi.extra/etc/systemd/network/
@@ -0,0 +1,9 @@
+# SPDX-License-Identifier: MIT-0
+# Enable DHCPv4 and DHCPv6 on all physical ethernet links

Configure pacman

With networking set up we can now configure pacman. This enables us to install additional software while booted in the rescue image, to handle any kind of recovery task:

new file mode 100644
index 0000000..3bd39de
--- /dev/null
+++ b/mkosi.extra/etc/pacman.d/mirrorlist
@@ -0,0 +1,2 @@
+Server =$repo/os/$arch
+Server =$repo/os/$arch
new file mode 100755
index 0000000..b4db6db
--- /dev/null
+++ b/mkosi.postinst.chroot
@@ -0,0 +1,6 @@
+#!/usr/bin/env bash
+set -euo pipefail
+echo "Populating pacman keyring"
+pacman-key --init
+pacman-key --populate

We add a mirrorlist using Arch's worldwide geolocating mirrors, to avoid the hassle of setting up a mirror list for the occasional package installation during recovery.

We also initialize the pacman key ring within the image in a post-installation script. mkosi runs this postinst script after package installation, but before configuration and image cleanup. The .chroot extension tells mkosi to run the script while chrooted into the image.

Initialize manpage database

In this post-installation script we also initialize the manpage database now, as mandoc does not do this automatically after package installation:

diff --git a/mkosi.postinst.chroot b/mkosi.postinst.chroot
index b4db6db..03ece97 100755
--- a/mkosi.postinst.chroot
+++ b/mkosi.postinst.chroot
@@ -4,3 +4,6 @@ set -euo pipefail
echo "Populating pacman keyring"
pacman-key --init
pacman-key --populate
+echo "Updating manpage database"
+makewhatis /usr/share/man

Now we can use man in the image to read documentation.

Set OS metadata

A UKI image contains release metadata which systemd-boot uses to create a menu entry for the UKI. So far, our image contains the default release metadata of Arch Linux, and thus appears as a regular Arch system in the systemd-boot menu. We add a custom /etc/os-release file to change the identification of the rescue image:

new file mode 100644
index 0000000..4c47e89
--- /dev/null
+++ b/mkosi.extra/etc/os-release
@@ -0,0 +1,6 @@
+NAME="Arch Linux"
+VARIANT="Rescue Image"
new file mode 100755
index 0000000..abe3a3e
--- /dev/null
+++ b/mkosi.finalize
@@ -0,0 +1,6 @@
+#!/usr/bin/env bash
+set -euo pipefail
+echo "Finalizing /etc/os-release"
+source "${BUILDROOT}/etc/os-release"
+echo "PRETTY_NAME=\"${NAME} (${VARIANT} ${IMAGE_VERSION:-n/a})\"" >> "${BUILDROOT}/etc/os-release"

We add a custom /etc/os-release to the image with the mkosi.extra tree, and then use a finalize script, which mkosi runs at the very end of the build process, to generate the $PRETTY_NAME, which systemd-boot uses as the menu label. By generating $PRETTY_NAME dynamically we can include the $IMAGE_VERSION in the name, which mkosi sets from the --image-version argument.

This allows us to build the image with e.g. --image-version=$(git rev-parse --short=10 HEAD)-$(date --utc +%Y%m%d%H%M) to have the git hash and timestamp appear in the menu name, to quickly see how old the rescue image is.

Set a root password

To prevent unauthorized access to the rescue image we set a root password. mkosi reads a plain text or hashed password from the mkosi.rootpw file. We can use openssl passwd to generate a hashed password.

$ touch mkosi.rootpw
$ chmod 600 mkosi.rootpw
$ echo -n hashed: >>mkosi.rootpw
$ openssl passwd -6 >>mkosi.rootpw
Verifying - Password:

For testing, we can use mkosi -f --autologin qemu to start a VM without having to type the root password.

Build the image

We're now ready to build the image, but before we do so we create two additional directories for mkosi:

$ mkdir mkosi.cache mkosi.output

mkosi writes the generated image to the mkosi.output directory if it exists. We create this directory to move the generated images out of the way, and make it easier to gitignore the build artifacts.

If mkosi.cache exists mkosi will use it for the package manager cache, and re-use the cached package artifacts for subsequent rebuilds which reduces strain on the Arch mirrors a bit and speeds up subsequent builds of the image.

Now, let's build the image:

$ mkosi -f --image-version=$(date --utc +%Y%m%d%H%M%S)
‣  […]/mkosi.output/archlinux-rescue_20240128082906.efi size is 560.4M, consumes 560.4M.

The image builds successfully. It's fairly large though. To test it with qemu we need to give the VM more memory than the default 2GB mkosi gives to it:

$ mkosi -f --autologin --qemu-mem=6G qemu
Arch Linux 6.7.1-arch1-1 (ttyS0)

archlinux-rescue login: root (automatic login)

Last login: […] on tty1
[root@archlinux-rescue ~]#

Before we install our image, let's check the metadata:

$ ukify inspect mkosi.output/archlinux-rescue_20240128082906.efi
  size: 227 bytes
  sha256: 94d2621c5426c1041d463f64c97a41d5d927599d648d4c09438f93f5243b4eb6
    NAME="Arch Linux"
    VARIANT="Rescue Image"
    PRETTY_NAME="Arch Linux (Rescue Image 20240128082906)"

Our metadata is there; systemd-boot will show this image under the above PRETTY_NAME.

If size is no concern, i.e. if the EFI system partition or the XBOOTLDR partition are sufficiently large to hold this image, we can now install it to the EFI partition and (optionally) sign it for secure boot:

# install -m644 mkosi.output/archlinux-rescue_20240128082906.efi \
> /efi/EFI/Linux/archlinux-rescue.efi
# sbctl sign /efi/EFI/Linux/archlinux-rescue.efi

We can however also shrink the image by removing files we do not need.

Shrink the image

Let's first try a few simple cleanups:

index 08d7d01..40ee5a1 100644
--- a/mkosi.conf
+++ b/mkosi.conf
@@ -21,3 +21,9 @@ Packages=
+    /usr/include/
+    /usr/share/include
+    /usr/share/pkgconfig
+    /usr/lib/**/*.a
+    /usr/share/locale

We remove all headers and pkg-config files, and all static libraries. These files are for compiling programs, and we're quite unlikely to do that in a rescue image. We also remove all locales, because we use C.UTF-8 in the image instead of localized messages.

This gets the image down by a bit:

$ mkosi -f
‣  […]/mkosi.output/archlinux-rescue.efi size is 528.7M, consumes 528.7M.

To make a real difference, however, we need to shrink the biggest contributors to the size of the image: Kernel modules and firmware. mkosi has builtin support for shrinking the kernel module tree along with firmware:

+    fs/
+    hid/
+    input/
+    usb/
+    dm-.*
+    crypto/
+    tpm/
+    virtio

We first default to excluding all kernel modules: mkosi does not touch kernel modules by default, so excluding all modules is necessary to make the subsequent include rules take effect.

With these include rules we first include all kernel modules currently used on the host system: We'd like to use the image to boot into our hardware, so the set of loaded modules is a good baseline. Then we include a couple of additional driver hierarchies, including all filesystems, all HID, input, and USB devices (to make sure we can plug a USB disk with e.g. an NTFS file system, even if none was plugged into the running system so far). We also include device mapper drivers and the crypto hierarchy to support all kinds of encrypted disks, optionally TPM locked. Finally, we also include all virtio drivers, to still be able to test the image in qemu.

mkosi then removes all modules not matching any of these includes, and also removes all firmware binaries not used by any retained modules.

The resulting image will likely not work on other hardware, but it became a lot smaller:

$ mkosi -f
‣  […]/mkosi.output/archlinux-rescue.efi size is 244.2M, consumes 244.2M.


I used to keep a rescue image based on GRML around (see GRML on ESP), but stopped doing so once I had a working secure boot setup: GRML ships its initrd and its squash disk image separately, and there were no easy means to combine them into a single image for signing, or sign each part separately.

With mkosi, I finally have a viable alternative which supports secure boot, and allows me to leave my Arch ISO thumb drive at home.

Further reading

Building USIs with mkosi has a bit more background information, and some helpful tips for more thorough cleanup to shrink the image.