The GNU GRand Unified Boot loader (GRUB) is a program which enables the selection of the installed operating system or kernel to be loaded at system boot time. It also allows the user to pass arguments to the kernel.
This section discusses the specific role GRUB plays when booting an x86 system. For a look at the overall boot process, refer to Section 1.2 A Detailed Look at the Boot Process.
GRUB loads itself into memory in the following stages:
The Stage 1 or primary boot loader is read into memory by the BIOS from the MBR. The primary boot loader exists on less than 512 bytes of disk space within the MBR and is capable of loading either the Stage 1.5 or Stage 2 boot loader.
The Stage 1.5 boot loader is read into memory by the Stage 1 boot loader, if necessary. Some hardware requires an intermediate step to get to the Stage 2 boot loader. This is sometimes true when the /boot/ partition is above the 1024 cylinder head of the hard drive or when using LBA mode. The Stage 1.5 boot loader is found either on the /boot/ partition or on a small part of the MBR and the /boot/ partition.
The Stage 2 or secondary boot loader is read into memory. The secondary boot loader displays the GRUB menu and command environment. This interface allows the user to select which kernel or operating system to boot, pass arguments to the kernel, or look at system parameters.
The secondary boot loader reads the operating system or kernel as well as the contents of /boot/sysroot/ into memory. Once GRUB determines which operating system or kernel to start, it loads it into memory and transfers control of the machine to that operating system.
The method used to boot Red Hat Enterprise Linux is called direct loading because the boot loader loads the operating system directly. There is no intermediary between the boot loader and the kernel.
The boot process used by other operating systems may differ. For example, the Microsoft® Windows® operating system, as well as other operating systems, are loaded using chain loading. Under this method, the MBR points to the first sector of the partition holding the operating system, where it finds the files necessary to actually boot that operating system.
GRUB supports both direct and chain loading boot methods, allowing it to boot almost any operating system.
During installation, Microsoft's DOS and Windows installation programs completely overwrite the MBR, destroying any existing boot loaders. If creating a dual-boot system, it is best to install the Microsoft operating system first.
GRUB contains several features that make it preferable to other boot loaders available for the x86 architecture. Below is a partial list of some of the more important features:
GRUB provides a true command-based, pre-OS environment on x86 machines. This feature affords the user maximum flexibility in loading operating systems with specified options or gathering information about the system. For years, many non-x86 architectures have employed pre-OS environments that allow system booting from a command line.
GRUB supports Logical Block Addressing (LBA) mode. LBA places the addressing conversion used to find files in the hard drive's firmware, and is used on many IDE and all SCSI hard devices. Before LBA, boot loaders could encounter the 1024-cylinder BIOS limitation, where the BIOS could not find a file after the 1024 cylinder head of the disk. LBA support allows GRUB to boot operating systems from partitions beyond the 1024-cylinder limit, so long as the system BIOS supports LBA mode. Most modern BIOS revisions support LBA mode.
GRUB can read ext2 partitions. This functionality allows GRUB to access its configuration file, /boot/grub/grub.conf, every time the system boots, eliminating the need for the user to write a new version of the first stage boot loader to the MBR when configuration changes are made. The only time a user needs to reinstall GRUB on the MBR is if the physical location of the /boot/ partition is moved on the disk. For details on installing GRUB to the MBR, refer to Section 2.3 Installing GRUB.
For more on the system BIOS and the MBR, refer to Section 1.2.1 The BIOS.