Minimal Ubuntu Installation with debootstrap

Minimal Ubuntu Installation with debootstrap

September 17, 2021

I dislike the new Ubuntu installer, subiquity.

Apparently I wanted to do something that was not supported by this new installer (yes, I know there’s an encrypted LVM variant but I didn’t want LVM). And even when I installed the minimal possible package selection, I found myself writing a cleanup script just to remove unwanted packages afterwards.

There may be another guide coming soon on how to convert an existing Ubuntu Server installation into a fully encrypted one, which unlocks automatically on boot through network-bound disk encryption. However, this is a guide on installing a custom Ubuntu server with an encrypted root on a UEFI system using debootstrap – the “hard” way.

In writing this, I was partly following these two guides:

Boot into a Setup Environment #

Either the boot the Desktop or Server ISO. The Desktop variant may be easier to use but is not really necessary. On a Server installation click through the language and network settings, then select [Help] in the top bar and then Enter Shell.

I suspect that you can perform these steps from a Debian image, too; you’ll just need to specify the correct mirrors in that case. Even Arch Linux has a debootstrap package in its community repository, so …

When following along in a virtual machine, make sure to customize the machine before installation and select an UEFI loader. You can also edit an existing machine XML later by adding a loader element:

  <type arch="x86_64" machine="pc-q35-6.1">hvm</type>
  <loader readonly="yes" type="pflash">/usr/share/edk2-ovmf/x64/OVMF_CODE.fd</loader>

Note that I did not specify an nvram element – it appears that virt-manager adds one automatically on next boot.

Install Tools #

Make sure the universe repository is enabled and then install necessary tools:

add-apt-repository universe
apt update && apt install -y debootstrap arch-install-scripts

Partitioning #

I will be rather brief in this part because I assume you know how you want to partition your disk if you’re following this guide. For this example I used two partitions: one small EFI system partition and an encrypted Linux partition.

gdisk /dev/vda
n 1 (default) +512M ef00  # EFI system partition
n 2 (default) -256M 8300  # Linux partition

Next create the filesystems:

mkfs.vfat -F32 -n esp /dev/vda1
cryptsetup luksFormat --label cryptlinux /dev/vda2
cryptsetup open /dev/vda2 cryptlinux
mkfs.ext4 -L linux /dev/mapper/cryptlinux

And mount everything in place under /mnt:

mount /dev/mapper/cryptlinux /mnt
mkdir -p /mnt/boot/efi
mount /dev/vda1 /mnt/boot/efi

You may want to add a swap file. I’d recommend not using a separate swap partition for encrypted systems.

dd if=/dev/zero of=/mnt/swapfile bs=1M count=512
mkswap /mnt/swapfile
chmod 600 /mnt/swapfile
swapon /mnt/swapfile

Bootstrap #

In its simplest form debootstrap only requires the suite (focal for Ubuntu 20.04) and target directory. But you can also specify the architecture and use a different mirror, which is faster or closer to you. Note that the mirror you use will also be written to /mnt/etc/apt/sources.list, so it should be a stable one.

debootstrap focal /mnt

Create a new mounting table for your installation:

genfstab -U /mnt >> /mnt/etc/fstab

Don’t forget to also add an entry to /mnt/etc/crypttab for your encrypted root partition. Otherwise cryptsetup-initramfs will not be able to setup your root partition for unlocking during boot. The name should match what you used during partitioning above.

printf 'cryptlinux UUID=%s none luks\n' >>/mnt/etc/crypttab \
  $(blkid -o value /dev/vda2 | head -1)

apt Preparations #

Before we install anything else, I’d like to make sure that some packages are never considered. Since this is an UEFI system and I’ll be using systemd-boot I don’t need any GRUB packages. Furthermore I would like to avoid installing any of the cloud-centric packages or remote management tools that come with Ubuntu by default. So create the following file in /mnt/etc/apt/preferences.d/ignored-packages:

Package: grub-common grub2-common grub-pc grub-pc-bin grub-gfxpayload-lists
Pin: release *
Pin-Priority: -1

Package: snapd cloud-init landscape-common popularity-contest ubuntu-advantage-tools
Pin: release *
Pin-Priority: -1

Next, edit /mnt/etc/apt/sources.list to add -security and -updates suites and enable the restricted and universe repositories:

deb focal           main restricted universe
deb focal-security  main restricted universe
deb focal-updates   main restricted universe

Enter the new installation for the rest of the steps. If you don’t use arch-chroot, you’ll need to bind-mount /mnt/dev, /mnt/proc and /mnt/sys from your running system.

arch-chroot /mnt

Configure #

First update and add a few more necessary packages:

apt update && apt upgrade -y
apt install -y --no-install-recommends \
  linux-{,image-,headers-}generic linux-firmware \
  initramfs-tools cryptsetup{,-initramfs} efibootmgr

Optionally install some additional useful packages. I like to add the following explicitly:

apt install -y bash vim git tmux

Now you can configure a few things like timezone, locales and keyboard settings:

dpkg-reconfigure tzdata
dpkg-reconfigure locales
dpkg-reconfigure keyboard-configuration

Set a hostname in /etc/hostname and add a localhost mapping in /etc/hosts:

echo "thehostname" > /etc/hostname
echo " thehostname" >> /etc/hosts

Set a root password and optionally add another unprivileged user:

adduser mustermann
usermod -a -G sudo mustermann

Configure your network. There’s so many choices here that I won’t go into much detail either. But if you have a very simple setup with a single ethernet cable, you can just systemctl enable systemd-networkd and add a configuration in /etc/systemd/network/



Install your flavour #

At this point you can install whatever additional packages or desktop flavour you like. For example, ubuntu-server pulls in a lot of useful packages:

apt install -y ubuntu-server

If you would rather have a smaller installation, check its dependencies and pick only a subset of those packages, e.g.:

apt install -y at curl dmidecode firewalld gawk git htop man \
  openssh-server patch software-properties-common tmux vim zstd

Bootloader #

Install systemd-boot to your ESP:

bootctl install

Then copy the latest kernel and initramfs to the ESP:

cp --dereference /boot/{vmlinuz,initrd.img,efi/}

You’ll want to do that every time you update your kernel or something recreates your initramfs – ideally automatically with a hook. One of the guides suggests a script in /etc/kernel/postinst.d/ but in my quick tests that did not work reliably. So I wrote a small script in /boot/copykernels to be called by an APT hook:

#!/usr/bin/env bash
# copy updated kernel and initrd to efi system partition


# kernels: check versions
for kern in vmlinuz{,.old}; do
  if [[ $(file -Lb $b/$kern 2>/dev/null) != $(file -b $e/$kern 2>/dev/null) ]]; then
    cp -fv --preserve $b/$kern $e/$kern

# initrd: check creation time
for init in initrd.img{,.old}; do
  if [[ $b/$init -nt $e/$init ]]; then
    cp -fv --preserve=mode,ownership $b/$init $e/$init

Write the following line to /etc/apt/apt.conf.d/99-copykernels in order to call this hook after every upgrade etc.:

DPkg::Post-Invoke { "/boot/copykernels"; }

Finally, add a simple loader entry in /boot/efi/loader/entries/ubuntu.conf:

title   Ubuntu
linux   /vmlinuz
initrd  /initrd.img
options root=/dev/mapper/cryptlinux

If you want a pretty splash screen that asks for your LUKS password add splash to the options and install plymouth (plus a theme if you want to).

Again, without going into much further detail, you might want to check ansemjo/sbkernelsign or andreyv/sbupdate to bundle and sign kernel and initramfs as a unit and make use of Secure Boot with your own keys.

Reboot #

Feeling lucky? Exit the chroot, unmount everything and reboot!