This page describes the what lead us to initially implementing UEFI support in Tails with syslinux. This implementation has been superseded by a GRUB-based one.

Discussion and conclusions

We have conducted an initial research and testing effort, aiming at choosing tools and procedures to add UEFI boot support to Tails. Our goals and non-goals are stated above.

The outcome of this project exceeded our expectations: we now have not only all important design decisions made, but also a prototype implementation that can already be downloaded and tested. It is built from our feature/uefi Git branch.

In this document, we first summarize our findings regarding the choice of a boot loader, and state the conclusions we have reached. Then, we discuss the implementation details that matter most. Finally, we sum up the next steps toward deploying Tails with UEFI support to the masses, and provide an overview of improvements that we may need to make in the future.

Choosing a boot loader

A large number of UEFI boot loader implementations are available. We have limited our selection to the options that meet the following conditions:

  1. available in Debian (excludes Gummiboot and rEFInd);
  2. actively maintained upstream (excludes BURG, ELILO and rEFIt);
  3. easy to integrate into the Debian Live ISO build process;
  4. no requirement to add boot entries to NVRAM;
  5. no requirement to recompile or modify the Linux kernels we install from Debian (excludes the Linux kernel EFISTUB).

So, we have considered two boot loaders, namely GRUB (not to be confused with GRUB Legacy) and syslinux (version 6). There is a lot to say about these two pieces of software, and we will focus on the criteria that seem relevant for a Debian Live system, and for Tails in particular.

GRUB

Pros:

  • GRUB has many features and is highly flexible (e.g. scripting language, many existing modules).
  • GRUB's support for UEFI has been tested in the field for a few years now, by many GNU/Linux distributions that added UEFI support back when syslinux did not support it ⇒ it supports probably more edge cases (aka. buggy firmware), especially for graphics support.
  • GRUB supports UEFI Secure boot, and is used (in various ways) by most GNU/Linux distributions that provide this feature.

Cons:

  • GRUB is complex software. Its many features and configuration options can be slightly overwhelming, and may hinder our potential to attract and welcome new contributors.
  • We would have to create a GRUB version of our menu and graphical theme configuration, and either migrate to GRUB for Legacy BIOS too (which adds quite some risks of regressions that must be evaluated and mitigated), or to maintain this configuration in addition to the existing syslinux one that would still be be used in Legacy BIOS mode.
  • GRUB is not so popular in the Live systems world ⇒ might have issues in this area that major non-Live GNU/Linux distributions did not catch.
  • We lack an evaluation of how hard it would be to backport recent enough versions of GRUB for Squeeze and Wheezy.

syslinux

Pros:

  • Tails has been using syslinux forever, and we are pretty happy with it.
  • syslinux is very popular in Live GNU/Linux distributions ⇒ picking it gives good potential for inter-distro cooperation. Notably, Debian Live systems use syslinux by default.
  • Debian Live's UEFI support will be based on syslinux 6.
  • We were able to trivially backport syslinux 6 for Squeeze.

Cons:

  • syslinux' support for UEFI is quite young; this is slightly mitigated by the fact that at least one high-profile Live system (Knoppix) already uses it, and presumably adding another one into the mix (Tails) might foster upstream development a bit, and result in rapid fixing of the most important remaining glitches.
  • syslinux has limited support for UEFI boot from DVD; this is a non-goal for us in this iteration, but still.
  • Using syslinux with Secure boot is maybe broken, but maybe not. That is, it could use some love and testing, to say the least.
  • syslinux is available in Debian experimental only, and it is hard to know when this might change.

Multiple boot loaders

Technically, it is entirely possible to install multiple UEFI boot loaders onto the Tails system partition (which is, conveniently, the EFI System Partition). This would allow users whose hardware is not supported by the default one, to boot using the other.

However:

  • some hardware is only able to boot the fallback UEFI boot loader, so we have to pick a default one anyway; then, users whose hardware only boots the fallback UEFI boot loader and is not well supported by this one would not be able to boot Tails anyway, without fiddling (in unsupported ways) with boot loader configuration;
  • the resulting user interface in the firmware boot menu would display more entries; hence, the needed documentation would be more complex to write, maintain, and, more importantly, to read and follow.

Conclusions

First, we believe the user experience that would result from installing multiple boot loaders would be much less smooth overall, so we are rejecting this option for now. Still, if broader testing and user feedback showed that none of the other available options is good enough by itself, we might have to reconsider.

Second, in our early testing, GRUB and syslinux appeared to be perfectly on par with each other, as far as hardware support is concerned. To be fair, it must be noted that GRUB was tested in the simpler, and likely more robust text-only mode, while we have taken benefit of our existing configuration and graphical theme to test syslinux a bit more extensively. So, with the data we have at hand, quality of hardware support cannot be used as a criterion in this decision.

We must say that GRUB's flexibility and mature UEFI support is seriously appealing to us. Also, even if Secure boot is not part of this first iteration, it is very tempting to bet on a boot loader that is already in wide use in this area. Still, we feel that continuing to use syslinux both for Legacy BIOS and UEFI boot will make Tails blend better with the surrounding Live operating system environment, particularly Debian Live, which has many advantages both for Tails users and developers. Added to that, the lesser risk of regressions for existing Tails users, and the lesser impact on our project's resources, were decisive.

Our final take on this is to use syslinux 6 as our boot loader of choice, for the initial UEFI boot support in Tails.

To end with, it has to be said that switching boot loaders in the future appears to be pretty easy from a technical standpoint. Of course, the quality assurance effort that would go with it in order to assert the risk for regressions, shall not be overlooked: it is generally bad for user experience to break support for hardware that was previously known-working, even if the very change that causes this breakage allows to support many more systems in total. Regardless, we do not consider the current decision as set in stone. We think it would be perfectly workable to switch to GRUB or another boot loader later on, if it proves to be needed for future developments of Tails, or to adjust our position to match changes in the ecosystem thereabout.

32-bit UEFI

Discarded implementation ideas

syslinux

It's currently impossible with upstream syslinux to have both 32-bit and 64-bit UEFI boot loaders installed in the fallback path, without forcing the user to manually choose between them, which would degrade UX substantially for users who have 64-bit UEFI working fine already.

Once the proposed patches have been merged upstream, we may want to replace our current implementation with a syslinux-based one, for greater UX consistency.

32-bit GRUB2 EFI chainloading 32-bit syslinux EFI

  • syslinux 32-bit EFI installed in EFI/TAILS32
  • GRUB 32-bit EFI installed in EFI/BOOT/BOOTIA32.EFI

=> did not manage to chainload 32-bit syslinux EFI from GRUB. On Tails/Jessie (GRUB 2.02~beta2-22), I get error: unknown error. after typing boot. This likely comes from grub-core/loader/efi/chainloader.c.

32-bit GRUB2 EFI with native configuration

This requires to write/generate and maintain a GRUB2 configuration, either semi-automatically (e.g. with grub-syslinux2cfg) or by hand.