Mount Ubuntu 22.04 ZFS partitions using live ISO for disaster recovery

ZFS Send and Receive ·

My system runs ZFS and lately has been dropping to the initramfs / busybox prompt on boot. I had a hard time finding a fleshed-out guide on how to mount ZFS in a live environment for performing disaster recovery tasks like chroot and grub repair, so I thought I’d write something up.

My system was dropping to the busybox prompt after GRUB menu. I started experiencing the issue after a routine apt upgrade, I rebooted and wasn’t able to get any of my initramfs to boot. It seems a little strange, because usually the inability to boot will be limited to a new initramfs – e.g. an older version of the kernel will still have the ZFS drivers, or other necessary components to boot, while the newer versions (the ones just installed) will be lacking these necessary components for whatever reason.

First of all, burn yourself a copy of a live USB, and boot into it. Luckily, the newest version of Ubuntu (22.04 – Jammy Jellyfish) has the ZFS drivers and executables installed by default, unlike prior versions where you had to add the multiverse repo manually, download the packages, and enable the ZFS drivers using modprobe.

A peek at lsmod shows the ZFS drivers are indeed loaded, and lo-and-behold, there’s the zpool and zfs executables:

ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ lsmod | grep zfs
zfs                  3751936  29
zunicode              348160  1 zfs
zzstd                 487424  1 zfs
zlua                  155648  1 zfs
zavl                   20480  1 zfs
icp                   319488  1 zfs
zcommon               102400  2 zfs,icp
znvpair                94208  2 zfs,zcommon
spl                   122880  6 zfs,icp,zzstd,znvpair,zcommon,zavl

ubuntu@ubuntu:~$ which {zpool,zfs}

The drive I am diagnosing is the internal NVMe, so there’s no need to attach it. One question I had was how to mount the two pools, and in what order. By default, Ubuntu creates an rpool for the root partition, and a bpool for the boot partition.

Generally, on an EFI system, one would mount the root partition in a clean directory like /mnt first, and subsequently mount boot at /mnt/boot once it is provided by the previously mounted root partition, and then mount efi at /mnt/boot/efi once that’s provided by the boot partition. As you can see, the order of mounting these partitions is therefore of paramount importance, but as there are only 3 options, it’s not too complicated.

You’ll need to be root for basically all these commands. Using sudo su without a password will typically get you to a root prompt (#) in a live environment.

TL;DR – probably way more than you ever wanted to know about an lsblk device list:

First, we should identify the storage devices using lsblk -f (the -f flag includes the filesystem information, which is important for our purposes):

# lsblk -f
     squash 4.0                                                    0   100% /rofs
     squash 4.0                                                    0   100% /snap/bare/5
     squash 4.0                                                    0   100% /snap/core20/1405
     squash 4.0                                                    0   100% /snap/snapd/15177
     squash 4.0                                                    0   100% /snap/snap-store/575
     squash 4.0                                                    0   100% /snap/gtk-common-themes/1534
     squash 4.0                                                    0   100% /snap/firefox/1232
     squash 4.0                                                    0   100% /snap/snapd-desktop-integration/10
     squash 4.0                                                    0   100% /snap/gnome-3-38-2004/99
sda  iso966 Jolie Ubuntu 22.04 LTS amd64
│                       2022-04-19-10-23-19-00                              
│    iso966 Jolie Ubuntu 22.04 LTS amd64
│                       2022-04-19-10-23-19-00                     0   100% /cdrom
│    vfat   FAT12 ESP   8D6C-A9F8                                           
     ext4   1.0   writable
                        bb277d84-75cc-473b-b327-fd885d85889a   24.5G     0% /var/crash
zd0  btrfs              b6239f8a-058b-4a6c-8258-b9a7b50f6c23                
     btrfs              d6074499-b9aa-47e0-a08a-58e27c73e771                
zd32 btrfs              c68aa9ca-933a-48cb-9adb-22fd6a8ca8c8                
     btrfs              f52702bd-c805-4edc-87d1-6fb877ee6738                
│    vfat   FAT32       B045-5C3B                                           
│    swap   1           584b9b78-7d8d-4a5a-9263-d6f6a48adc6b                
│    zfs_me 5000  bpool 11241115695889536197                                
     zfs_me 5000  rpool 16130566787573079380                                
│    vfat   FAT32       EC9D-0344                                           
│    ntfs               A4EEBDB4EEBD7F5C                                    
     ntfs               989EE7E99EE7BDBE

OK, there’s a lot there, so what are we looking at? Well, the first 9 devices that say loop are snaps, since we’re on Ubuntu. Those are responsible for storing some of the programs being run by the OS. Each one gets their own virtual storage device, sometimes referred to as an “overlay”. They create a fair amount of clutter in our device list, but that’s about all. You can ignore them.

Then, /dev/sda is our copy of Ubuntu ISO we booted from – you can see how it says cdrom there, and iso9660 (the cdrom spec). It’s read-only, so we couldn’t do anything with it if we wanted to, and we don’t, so let’s move on…

There’s a device for log and crash log, so that’s kind of interesting. I imagine the live ISO makes those since you can’t write to the USB drive, seeing as the ISO is a virtual CD-ROM, and CD-ROMs are read-only. Then there’s a bunch of what are called “zvols” (the zd0, zd16, etc. devices – see those?). Those are devices created with ZFS that are isolated from the rest of the filesystem. zvols are virtual block devices you can use just like any other block device, but in this context they’re typically either formatted with a different filesystem, or mounted via iSCSI for block-level filesharing (filesystem-sharing?). You can see these ones say btrfs, they were actually created for use with container runtimes, namely podman and systemd-container, both of which support btrfs very well and ZFS either nominally or not at all.

Now we get to nvme1n1 – this is the first NVMe drive listed. Generally 0 would be listed first, but for some reason it’s listed second. n1 is the number of the drive (the second NVMe drive in the laptop), after that the partitions are listed as p1, p2, p3, and so on. Here’s the drive in isolation:

│    vfat   FAT32       B045-5C3B                                           
│    swap   1           584b9b78-7d8d-4a5a-9263-d6f6a48adc6b                
│    zfs_me 5000  bpool 11241115695889536197                                
     zfs_me 5000  rpool 16130566787573079380  

The canonical address for this drive is: /dev/nvme1n1p{1,2,3,4} . The /dev (device) folder, while not listed in this output, is important to reference, as the full path is required for mounting a partition. Typically one would only mount a single partition at a time, but you could conceivably chain them in a single command by using curly braces, as shown. This is not common, as you will probably need to mount different partitions in different locations (e.g. /mnt, /mnt/boot), and usually either in descending order, or with no pattern at all.

If you remember back at the start, I mentioned the rpool and bpool. These are seen on /dev/nvme1n1p4 and /dev/nvme1n1p3 respectively. If the disk were formatted in a block filesystem such as EXT4 (Ubuntu’s default filesystem), the root partition could be mounted by attaching /dev/nvme0n1p4 to an empty folder. The command would therefore be:

# mount /dev/nvme1n1p4 /mnt

And then you’d be able to ls /mnt and see the files contained on your newly mounted root partition. E.g.:

# ls /mnt
Qogir  boot   dev  home  lib32  libx32  mnt  proc  run   snap  sys  usr
bin    cdrom  etc  lib   lib64  media   opt  root  sbin  srv   tmp  var

But this NVMe is formatted using ZFS. So what to do? That’s the process I was having difficulty finding that inspired this blog post.

End TL;DR – here’s the ZFS-specific stuff again:

First, after you confirm that you have your ZFS modules loaded by referencing your list of loaded kernel modules, and confirming that your ZFS executables are available in PATH (here’s the syntax again so you don’t have to scroll back):

# lsmod | grep zfs 
zfs                  3751936  29
zunicode              348160  1 zfs
zzstd                 487424  1 zfs
zlua                  155648  1 zfs
zavl                   20480  1 zfs
icp                   319488  1 zfs
zcommon               102400  2 zfs,icp
znvpair                94208  2 zfs,zcommon
spl                   122880  6 zfs,icp,zzstd,znvpair,zcommon,zavl

# which {zpool,zfs}

Here’s where it’s different than your typical mount. You use zpool to import rpool, but you need to mount it using an alternate root (at /mnt) – otherwise it’ll try to mount itself over your live environment! Then confirm that the import worked.

# zpool import -f rpool -R /mnt

# ls /mnt
Qogir  boot   dev  home  lib32  libx32  mnt  proc  run   snap  sys  usr
bin    cdrom  etc  lib   lib64  media   opt  root  sbin  srv   tmp  var

OK, that went well. You can see that now we have a /mnt/boot folder, which is boot inside rpool – that’s where initramfs lives, but they’re stored in the bpool. We needed that folder to be available to mount our bpool into. So, let’s import bpool into /mnt/boot as an alternate root (if we didn’t, it’d try and overwrite our currently mounted /boot partition:

# zpool import -f bpool -R /mnt/boot

# ls /mnt/boot
config-5.15.32-xanmod1       memtest86+_multiboot.bin
grub                         vmlinuz
initrd.img                   vmlinuz-5.15.32-xanmod1
initrd.img-5.15.32-xanmod1   vmlinuz-5.15.34-xanmod1
initrd.img-5.15.34-xanmod1   vmlinuz-5.15.36-xanmod1
initrd.img-5.17.0-xanmod1    vmlinuz-5.17.0-xanmod1
initrd.img-5.17.1-xanmod1    vmlinuz-5.17.1-xanmod1
initrd.img-5.17.3-xanmod1    vmlinuz-5.17.3-xanmod1
initrd.img-5.17.5-xanmod1    vmlinuz-5.17.5-xanmod1
initrd.img.old               vmlinuz-5.17.9-xanmod1
memtest86+.bin               vmlinuz-5.17.9-xanmod1-x64v2
memtest86+.elf               vmlinuz.old

That looks like a bunch of initramfs files to me! Good, so that means those kickstarter runtimes that load from grub are available.

If you look in that list, you’ll also see both efi and grub folders. Both of those are empty and waiting for storage to be attached. The efi partition lives in the first partition of the same NVMe drive, and is formatted with FAT, and grub is a bind-mount (you can see it in /etc/fstab):

# mount -t msdos /dev/nvme1n1p1 /mnt/boot/efi

Can also use UUID from lsblk if prefer (just use one or other, not both): 
# mount -t msdos UUID=B045-5C3B /mnt/boot/efi

# ls /mnt/boot/efi
efi  grub  system~1  (confirm it's mounted)

# grep grub /mnt/etc/fstab
/boot/efi/grub	/boot/grub	none	defaults,bind	0	0
(we'll bind-mount this in next step)

Then you’ll want to mount a few system folders inside your drive’s filesystem so you can access them inside the chroot (required for things to work OK):

# for i in proc dev sys dev/pts; do mount -v --bind /$i /mnt/$i; done

mount: /proc bound on /mnt/proc.
mount: /dev bound on /mnt/dev.
mount: /sys bound on /mnt/sys.
mount: /dev/pts bound on /mnt/dev/pts.

# mount -v --bind /mnt/boot/efi/grub /mnt/boot/grub
mount: /mnt/boot/efi/grub bound on /mnt/boot/grub.

chrooting”: Now that all 3 partitions are mounted together in a cohesive filesystem tree, and you’ve got all your necessary bind mounts, one of the most effective ways to diagnose issues as if you’re running the affected disk, is to chroot into the filesystem. Run # chroot /mnt and now you’ll see /mnt as / (root), and you can run your programs as if you booted the computer using that drive (from the terminal, anyway):

# chroot /mnt

# apt update (failed)

# cd /etc
# ls -la resolv.conf
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 39 Feb 17 12:09 resolv.conf -> ../run/systemd/resolve/stub-resolv.conf

If your network connection fails inside the chroot like mine did, go to /etc and delete resolv.conf if it’s a symlink to systemd-resolved (as shown above). Then point /etc/resolv.conf to a known good dns forwarder (e.g.,, etc.)

# echo 'nameserver' > resolv.conf

# apt update (works)

# apt list --installed | grep dkms

dkms/jammy,now 2.8.7-2ubuntu2 all [installed,automatic]
zfs-dkms/jammy-proposed,now 2.1.4-0ubuntu0.1 all [installed]

I was really hoping zfs-dkms got uninstalled somehow, because I thought that might have been why my initramfs files didn’t have zfs modules. So unfortunately I still have to keep looking to figure out what’s wrong…

Note, you’ll probably see this error a lot, but it’s safe to ignore:

ERROR couldn't connect to zsys daemon: connection error: desc = "transport: Error while dialing dial unix /run/zsysd.sock: connect: connection refused" 

Let’s try upgrading the packages and see what shakes out:

# apt upgrade 

The following packages were automatically installed and are no longer required:
  linux-headers-5.15.32-xanmod1 linux-headers-5.15.34-xanmod1
  linux-headers-5.15.36-xanmod1 linux-headers-5.17.0-xanmod1
  linux-headers-5.17.1-xanmod1 linux-headers-5.17.3-xanmod1
  linux-headers-5.17.5-xanmod1 linux-image-5.15.32-xanmod1
  linux-image-5.15.34-xanmod1 linux-image-5.15.36-xanmod1
  linux-image-5.17.0-xanmod1 linux-image-5.17.1-xanmod1
  linux-image-5.17.3-xanmod1 linux-image-5.17.5-xanmod1
Use 'sudo apt autoremove' to remove them.

That was … interesting … and then the issue presented itself next while I ran apt autoremove:

Setting up linux-image-5.17.9-xanmod1 (5.17.9-xanmod1-0~git20220518.d88d798) ...
 * dkms: running auto installation service for kernel 5.17.9-xanmod1     [ OK ] 
update-initramfs: Generating /boot/initrd.img-5.17.9-xanmod1
zstd: error 25 : Write error : No space left on device (cannot write compressed 

(emphasis added)

bpool has no space left. That’s almost certainly the problem. I’m going to remove a couple kernels and rebuild all my initramfs, that ought to do it. I’m also noticing my bpool is full of snapshots. List current snapshots with this first command, and then destroy them with the second one:

// This lists the snapshots:
# zfs list -H -o name -t snapshot | grep bpool look like pool/BOOT/ubuntu_pd3ehl@autozsys_xxxx, 
snapshots have @ symbol - no @ symbol, not a snapshot, don't delete it!

// This destroys the snapshots:
# zfs list -H -o name -t snapshot | grep bpool | xargs -n1 zfs destroy -r 
What this does:
(list only snapshots by full name) | (list only bpool) | (delete by ea line)
It's the same as what's above, but with the delete command, destroy. 

Make sure you understand what's going on with this command, as you can delete stuff you don't want to really easily. Please be careful.  

… looks pretty good to me – much more tidy:

# ls /boot
config-5.15.0-33-generic       memtest86+.elf
config-5.15.40-xanmod1-tt      memtest86+_multiboot.bin
initrd.img                     vmlinuz
initrd.img-5.15.0-33-generic   vmlinuz-5.15.0-33-generic
initrd.img-5.15.40-xanmod1-tt  vmlinuz-5.15.40-xanmod1-tt
initrd.img.old                 vmlinuz.old

Install some generic kernel to make sure you have one available, check that zfs-initramfs is installed if all you’re going to use is generic kernel (or zfs-dkms if using xanmod, other 3rd-party kernel). E.g. I got rid of my xanmod kernels just so I wouldn’t have to deal with building custom dkms modules:

# apt list --installed | grep xanmod

linux-headers-5.15.40-xanmod1-tt/unknown,now 5.15.40-xanmod1-tt-0~git20220515.867e3cb amd64 [installed,automatic]
linux-image-5.15.40-xanmod1-tt/unknown,now 5.15.40-xanmod1-tt-0~git20220515.867e3cb amd64 [installed,automatic]
linux-xanmod-tt/unknown,now 5.15.40-xanmod1-tt-0 amd64 [installed]
xanmod-repository/unknown,now 1.0.5 all [installed]

# apt remove linux-headers-5.15.40-xanmod1-tt linux-image-5.15.40-xanmod1-tt xanmod-repository linux-xanmod-tt zfs-dkms
 . . . 
The following packages will be REMOVED:
  linux-headers-5.15.40-xanmod1-tt linux-image-5.15.40-xanmod1-tt
  linux-xanmod-tt xanmod-repository zfs-dkms
Do you want to continue? [Y/n] 
 . . .
# apt autoremove -y

... install a couple kernels...

# apt install -y linux-{image,headers}-5.15.0-28-generic linux-{image,headers}-5.15.0-33-generic

 . . . using versions that are most current & 2nd most current now . . . 

Then update all the initramfs one last time, just in case. I’ll probably re-install grub, too, just bc, but one thing at a time…

# update-initramfs -uvk all  

. . . lots of output . . . that's how you know it's working . . . 

Let’s re-install grub and run update-grub

# grub-install --bootloader-id=ubuntu --recheck --target=x86_64-efi --efi-directory=/boot/efi --no-floppy

Installing for x86_64-efi platform.
grub-install: warning: EFI variables cannot be set on this system.
grub-install: warning: You will have to complete the GRUB setup manually.
Installation finished. No error reported.

When you get this error, it just means you can’t set the UEFI boot order while you’re in a chroot. I also like to run update-grub for good measure (this is grub2-mkconfig -o /boot/grub/grub.cfg on most other systems if that’s more familiar sounding to you). Update-grub rebuilds the entries in your grub menu, along with their parameters detailed in /etc/default/grub.

Speaking of which, you can always take a peek at /etc/default/grub before you run this command – just in case.

# which update-grub

# cat /usr/sbin/update-grub

// update-grub:
set -e
exec grub-mkconfig -o /boot/grub/grub.cfg "$@"

# update-grub
Sourcing file `/etc/default/grub'
Sourcing file `/etc/default/grub.d/init-select.cfg'
Generating grub configuration file ...
Found linux image: vmlinuz-5.15.0-33-generic in rpool/ROOT/ubuntu_pd3ehl
Found initrd image: initrd.img-5.15.0-33-generic in rpool/ROOT/ubuntu_pd3ehl
Found linux image: vmlinuz-5.15.0-28-generic in rpool/ROOT/ubuntu_pd3ehl
Found initrd image: initrd.img-5.15.0-28-generic in rpool/ROOT/ubuntu_pd3ehl
Found linux image: vmlinuz-5.15.0-33-generic in rpool/ROOT/ubuntu_pd3ehl@autozsys_yg50xc
 . . . snapshot menu entries . . . 

Now leave the chroot now, remove the system folder redirects and bind mounts, and reboot, like so:

# exit

# for i in proc dev/pts dev sys boot/grub; do umount -v /mnt/$i; done
umount: /mnt/proc unmounted
umount: /mnt/dev/pts unmounted
umount: /mnt/dev unmounted
umount: /mnt/sys unmounted
umount: /mnt/boot/grub unmounted

# umount -v /dev/nvme1n1p1
umount: /mnt/boot/efi (/dev/nvme1n1p1) unmounted

# zpool export bpool

# zpool export rpool

One last quick thing you can do before rebooting is check out efibootmgr and see which order your system will start up in. This is a little easier and more predictable, as you can make sure you boot from the right efi file, rather than mashing the startup menu button to make sure it loads the correct disk / efi.

Some stuff I was messing with trying cover all the bases. efibootmgr reference:

# efibootmgr -v
Boot0000* ubuntu	HD(1,GPT,544a9120-eef7-4aae-8311-cd6ca6929213,0x800,0x100000)/File(\EFI\ubuntu\shimx64.efi)
 . . . 
# efibootmgr -B Boot0000 -b 0

# efibootmgr --create /dev/nvme1n1 --part 1 --write-signature --loader /EFI/GRUB/grubx64.efi --label "GRUB" --verbose
BootCurrent: 0002
Timeout: 0 seconds
BootOrder: 0000,0001,0002
Boot0001* UEFI: Samsung SSD 980 1TB, Partition 1	HD(1,GPT,6afa5e93-54a5-4628-978f-313a0dcfe27b,0x800,0xfa000)/File(\EFI\Microsoft\Boot\bootmgfw.efi)..BO
Boot0002* UEFI: Samsung Flash Drive DUO 1100, Partition 2	PciRoot(0x0)/Pci(0x14,0x0)/USB(16,0)/HD(2,GPT,a09db2b8-b5f6-43ae-afb1-91e0a90189a1,0x6cc954,0x2130)..BO
Boot0003  Windows Boot Manager	HD(1,GPT,6afa5e93-54a5-4628-978f-313a0dcfe27b,0x800,0xfa000)/File(\EFI\Microsoft\Boot\bootmgfw.efi)WINDOWS.........x...B.C.D.O.B.J.E.C.T.=.{.9.d.e.a.8.6.2.c.-.5.c.d.d.-.4.e.7.0.-.a.c.c.1.-.f.3.2.b.3.4.4.d.}....................
Boot0000* GRUB	HD(1,GPT,a09db2b8-b5f6-43ae-afb2-91e0a90189a1,0x40,0x6cc914)/File(\EFI\GRUB\grubx64.efi)/dev/nvme1n1

A troubleshooting tip: If you have issues using the pool names with zpool for some reason, the UUIDs are listed in lsblk. While technically interchangeable, the UUID can coax some commands into to working correctly when the name can’t.

If it doesn’t boot from the ZFS drive again, boot it into the live ISO and go through everything all over … 😉 Good luck!!

Author: averyfreeman

Recovering zfs evangelist. Random tech tip disseminator. React/Next.JS site developer, but currently only in spare time. Previously resided: Oakland, SF, Tokyo. Now near Seattle, loving vote by mail.

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