December 2015, “Staff Pick” Project of the Month – rEFInd

By Community Team

For our December “Staff Pick” Project of the Month, we selected rEFInd, an EFI boot manager utility. rEFInd’s lead developer, Rod Smith, shared his thoughts about the project’s history, purpose, and direction.

SourceForge (SF): Tell me about the rEFInd project please.
Rod Smith (Smith): rEFInd is an EFI-mode boot manager program derived from the earlier rEFIt project. As an EFI boot manager, rEFInd enables users to select which OS to boot. (This contrasts with a boot LOADER, which loads an OS kernel into memory, see below.) rEFInd is most often used in Linux/Windows, Linux/OSX, or OSX/Windows dual-boot configurations; although, it can be used on systems that boot multiple Linux distributions or even just a single OS. It’s EFI-based, so it’s useful mainly on newer (mid-2011 and newer) PCs and Intel-based Macs.

Since version 3.3.0, the Linux kernel has included a feature called the EFI stub loader, which enables the kernel to function as its own EFI boot loader. This feature blurs the line between a boot loader and a boot manager; rEFInd can load a Linux kernel into memory and rely on the EFI stub loader to do the rest of the boot loading task.

rEFInd really shines with Linux because it’s less reliant on configuration files than other Linux boot managers and boot loaders, which means it takes less effort to configure and maintain than others. GRUB 2 attempts to ease configuration by using extensive scripts to detect OSs and set up configuration files, which ties success in booting Distribution B to the scripts in Distribution A, which can be awkward. In contrast, rEFInd detects boot loaders (including Linux kernels) on each boot, which makes rEFInd more adaptable to your system.

To help supports its core functionality, rEFInd ships with a number of ancillary tools, including an installation script for Linux and OS X and several EFI filesystem drivers. The drivers, in particular, are very important when multi-booting with Linux, since they enable rEFInd to read kernel files from their natural locations on Linux filesystems rather than from a FAT filesystem, which is all that most EFIs can read.

SourceForge (SF): What made you start this?
Smith: I was impressed with rEFIt’s features and abilities; however, I thought it was in desperate need of a few features and rEFIt’s developer, Christoph Pfisterer, had lost interest in the project. I therefore created a fork to add features to help make the program work seamlessly with the then-new Linux EFI stub boot loader. I also wanted a program that worked better with UEFI-based PCs than did rEFIt, which was originally designed for Macs and suffered from some quirks on UEFI-based PCs.

SourceForge (SF): Has the original vision been achieved?
Smith: Yes, in the sense that rEFInd successfully boots a wide range of boot loaders, including Linux kernels with EFI stub support; and it works very well on both UEFI-based PCs and Macs. That said, there are a wide range of features and improvements I’d still like to implement.

SourceForge (SF): Who can benefit the most from your project?
Smith: People with complex multi-boot configurations. Because traditional boot managers such as GRUB 2 require configuration to know what to boot, they can be hassles to manage when there are many OSs, especially if multiple OSs each try to set up their own boot managers. By contrast, rEFInd requires minimal configuration so it tends to adapt better to system changes, such as kernel updates, which can be the bane of users with multiple Linux distributions.

In addition, rEFInd’s graphical nature makes it appealing to less technically inclined users, who may find it friendlier than text-mode boot managers. This group of users may use rEFInd for just a couple of OSs (or even just one Linux distribution) but prefers to see icons to text for selecting their OSs. rEFInd seems to be popular in college and university computer labs for this reason including my alma mater, Oberlin College.

SourceForge (SF): What core need does rEFInd fulfill?
Smith: The need to manage a multi-boot setup with minimal fuss.

SourceForge (SF): What’s the best way to get the most out of using rEFInd?
Smith: Rely on its OS auto-detection. Whenever rEFInd launches, it scans every filesystem it can read for EFI boot loaders and other programs in standard locations, then builds a menu showing the programs it finds. In most cases this works reasonably well; although, you might want to tweak its menu by removing redundant entries or changing icons. Such tasks are easy to accomplish in various ways that are described in the documentation. Because Linux kernels since 3.3.0 include EFI stub loader support, rEFInd scans kernels and requires no reconfiguration after a kernel update. Many modern Linux distributions seem to require no reconfiguration after kernel updates because they provide scripts that update their boot loaders, but rEFInd’s auto-detection means it needs no per-kernel configuration at all. This may seem strange to users who cut their teeth on lilo.conf files.

Some users attempt to create manual configurations, much like they do with GRUB, LILO or other boot managers. This is almost always harder to get working than rEFInd’s auto-detection and often the result is that users ask for help getting it done. Such manual setups must also be adjusted, as the follow-on boot loaders or Linux kernels are updated, which means more administration effort down the road. Manual boot stanzas seem like the natural way to do things for people coming from the LILO or GRUB Legacy era but, in most cases, they’re sub-optimal for rEFInd.

SourceForge (SF): What has your project team done to help build and nurture your community?
Smith: I try to keep active on rEFInd’s Sourceforge forum, as well as on some other online forums.

SourceForge (SF): Have you all found that more frequent releases helps build up your community of users?
Smith: I’m not sure; I’d need to check with an alternate reality where I make more or less frequent releases. 😉

SourceForge (SF): What was the first big thing that happened for your project?
Smith: After the initial release. I’d say when I started getting significant code contributions; other developers have contributed code for EFI filesystem drivers, for UEFI BIOS/CSM/legacy-mode boot support, and more. The first of these big contributions was of code to support booting BIOS/CSM/legacy-mode boot loaders, which was added to version 0.4.6 in October of 2012.

SourceForge (SF): What helped make that happen?
Smith: The developers who created those tools of course! They’re mentioned in the CREDITS.txt file that comes with rEFInd:  John Bressler, who wrote the BIOS-mode UEFI boot support; Stefan Agner, who contributed the ext4fs driver; Samuel Liao, who submitted Btrfs and NTFS drivers; and Rohan Sehgal, who submitted code for PXE-booting, have all made the most significant contributions. I’ve also adapted code from other projects.

SourceForge (SF): What was the net result for that event?
Smith: New and improved features, of course! 😉

SourceForge (SF): What is the next big thing for rEFInd?
Smith: I’d like to add a loopback driver and a Linux LVM driver. Some of the code is also quite chaotic and needs to be overhauled. In particular, the code for managing the menu is rather constricting. I’d like to simplify and generalize it so that I can create better user-interface elements.

SourceForge (SF): How long do you think that will take?
Smith: I don’t know. rEFInd is a hobby project for me, so major changes occur as time permits.

SourceForge (SF): Do you have the resources you need to make that happen?
Smith: The main resource I need is time, which is always in short supply! In the past, some major improvements came unexpectedly from outside developers and I hope that will happen in the future too.

SourceForge (SF): If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently for rEFInd?
Smith: I might omit the ability to create manual boot stanzas.

SourceForge (SF): Why?
Smith: As noted earlier, some people are attracted to them, but they’re almost never necessary and they seem to create more problems than they solve. At the time, I was thinking in terms of GRUB or LILO configuration and hadn’t yet worked out the Linux kernel auto-detection capabilities that rEFInd now possesses, so manual boot stanzas seemed necessary. Now they seem peripheral at best.

SourceForge (SF): Any reason you can’t do that now?
Smith: Technically, no. Removing a feature is always a tough sell; although, there are people who use this feature and some may even have a real need for it. I’m therefore reluctant to pull it out.

SourceForge (SF): Is there anything else we should know?
Smith: rEFInd’s documentation intimidates some users. The trouble is that I’ve tried to make it COMPLETE, which makes it overwhelming for some. In most cases it’s easy to get started though; just install the RPM or Debian package version in most Linux distributions, which runs the refind-install script automatically. Mac users can download the binary .zip file and run refind-install manually in OS X; however, be aware that OS X 10.11 (“El Capitan”) has a new security feature that must be temporarily disabled to install a new boot loader, as described at http://www.rodsbooks.com/refind/sip.html.

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