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This one had me ripping my hair out for two days straight. Anyone who has tried to create a Linux bootable CD for a PowerPC system has either run into this problem, followed some kind of magic set of directions that don’t explain the details that could cause this problem, or do something crummy like using the CD as the root filesystem.

PowerPC systems are very different from i386/i686/x86_64 systems in how they boot, and because they are much less common, they garner less interest and also have less available documentation and Internet forum assistance. The specific problem that I ran into is this: using the Tritech Service System’s construction for x86 as a template, and gleaning information from other PPC bootable CD images, I was able to create a CD that would properly boot the iBook G3 I used for testing into yaboot, the PowerPC Linux loader. The process of figuring out how to pull this off took many hours of reading and dissection, and I could easily chalk a full day’s work up as wasted on this process due to the fact that it’s not well-documented. From there, yaboot was configured to load my kernel and initrd (in this case, an initramfs, not an initrd, but the loading process is the same.) However, I was greeted every single time with kernel output that showed no indication of any initrd/initramfs being loaded and handed off to the kernel. I was stumped. It seemed as if I had done everything that the others do, yet it didn’t work. I tried these things to resolve the problem, to no avail:

  • Copying the map.hfs file from another Linux distribution that seemed more complete
  • Editing yaboot.conf to add and remove things like ramdisk_size=16384 or device=cd: to the options
  • Recompiling the PPC32 kernel with initrd turned on (shouldn’t be needed for initramfs, but I was quite annoyed and desperate)
  • Playing with the ofboot.b text file to see if anything inside could make a difference (CHRP is becoming a dirty word in my book)
  • Booting the G3 to Open Firmware and typing excessively cryptic and obnoxious commands that make learning “sed” look like a cakewalk
  • Pondering the consumption of potent alcoholic beverages while at work to defer blame for not figuring this nonsense out

So, after two days of trying to go from a collection of packages and a kernel to a real-world bootable Tritech Service System 2.7.6 ISO for PowerPC Macs, and nearly losing my sanity in the process, I finally hit upon an obscure, nasty, rarely discussed, extremely STUPID, yet horribly important fact:

yaboot doesn’t load initrd or initramfs if the kernel image is compressed.

Yes, that’s it. That’s the source of my ills. The godforsaken bootloader will detect a compressed kernel and simply and quietly ignore the “initrd=/boot/initrd1.gz” parameter. The even simpler solution? Instead of using the compiled kernel at arch/powerpc/boot/zImage.pmac, one must use the compiled kernel at…well, you might not believe this…just plain vmlinux. The uncompressed raw kernel image produced immediately under the Linux kernel folder you build in. That’s all that I had to do, and I have never been so pissed off over such a small detail in my life.

All too often in the computer world, I see the “user” aspects of things documented repeatedly and done to death; entire volumes have been written just to explain how to perform basic functions or configure a program to the liking of the user. Even the process of compiling a Linux kernel is so thoroughly documented and explained that it’s fairly hard to fail to do it if you use a decent guide. Why is it, though, that these crucial points involving low-level details and bootloader quirks are overlooked and go largely undocumented? If I type “yaboot initramfs” into Google or Yahoo or Bing, why doesn’t the very first page that appears scream at me in bold text “YABOOT WILL NOT LOAD INITRD IMAGES IF THE KERNEL IMAGE IS COMPRESSED!” I know of approximately ZERO bootloaders that have this obnoxiously non-standard behavior. I’ve messed with LILO, SILO, GRUB, SYSLINUX, ISOLINUX, PXELINUX, BootX, and U-Boot on a $99 WM8650 ARM-based netbook, and not once have I run into this problem with ANY of those bootloaders AT ALL.

I hope that this information helps anyone trying to master a Linux on PowerPC bootable ISO to not waste two days and use their CD burner to create ten useless shiny silver coasters in the process. Also, could someone explain to me WHY the yaboot bootloader can’t load both images as compressed images?


One Comment

  1. Wasted a few nights trying to figure out why my iMac won’t boot up. Thanks for that! Repeating for good measure:


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