The better way to make an Ubuntu 20.04 ISO that will boot on UEFI systems

November 26, 2020

Yesterday I wrote about how I made a 20.04 ISO that booted on UEFI systems. It was a messy process with some peculiar things that I didn't understand and places where I had to deviate from Debian's excellent documentation on Repacking a Debian ISO. In response to my entry, Thomas Schmitt (the author of xorriso) got in touch with me and very generously helped me figure out what was really going on. The short version is that I was confused and my problems were due to some underlying issues. So now I have had some learning experiences and I have a better way to do this.

First, I've learned that you don't want to extract ISO images with 7z, however tempting and easy it seems. 7z has at least two issues with ISO images; it will quietly add the El Torito boot images to the extracted tree, in a new subdirectory called '[BOOT]', and it doesn't extract symlinks (and probably not other Rock Ridge attributes). The Ubuntu 20.04.1 amd64 live server image has some symlinks, although their presence isn't essential.

The two reliable ways I know of to extract the 20.04.1 ISO image are with bsdtar (part of the libarchive-tools package in Ubuntu) and with xorriso itself. Bsdtar is easier to use but you probably don't have it installed, while you need xorriso anyway and might as well use it for this once you know how. So to unpack the ISO into our scratch tree, you want:

xorriso -osirrox on -indev example.iso -extract / SCRATCH-TREE

(See the Debian wiki for something you're going to want to do afterward to delete the tree. Substitute whatever is the correct ISO name here in place of example.iso.)

As I discovered due to my conversation with Thomas Schmitt, it can be important to re-extract the tree any time you think something funny is going on. My second issue was that my tree's boot/grub/efi.img had been quietly altered by something in a way that removed its FAT signature and made UEFI systems refuse to recognize it (I suspect some of my experimentation with mkisofs did it, but I don't know for sure).

In a re-extracted tree with a pristine boot/grub/efi.img, the tree's efi.img was valid as an El Torito EFI boot image (and the isolinux.bin is exactly what was used for the original 20.04.1 ISO's El Torito BIOS boot image). So the command to rebuild an ISO that is bootable both as UEFI and BIOS, both as a DVD image and on a USB stick, is:

xorriso -as mkisofs -r \
  -V 'Our Ubuntu 20.04 UEFI enabled' \
  -o cslab_ubuntu_20.04.iso \
  -isohybrid-mbr isohdpfx.bin \
  -J -joliet-long \
  -b isolinux/isolinux.bin -c isolinux/ \
  -boot-load-size 4 -boot-info-table -no-emul-boot \
  -eltorito-alt-boot -e boot/grub/efi.img -no-emul-boot \
  -isohybrid-gpt-basdat \

(The isohdpfx.bin file is generated following the instructions in the Debian wiki page. This entire command line is pretty much what the Debian wiki says to do.)

If xorriso doesn't complain that some symlinks can't be represented in a Joliet file name tree, you haven't extracted the 20.04.1 ISO image exactly; something has dropped the symlinks that should be there.

If you're modifying the ISO image to provide auto-installer data, you need to change both isolinux/txt.cfg and boot/grub/grub.cfg. The necessary modifications are covered in setting up a 20.04 ISO image to auto-install a server (for isolinux) and then yesterday's entry (for GRUB). You may also want to add various additional files and pieces of data to the ISO, which can be done by dropping them into the unpacked tree.

(It's also apparently possible to update the version of the installer that's in the ISO image, per here, but the and scripts it points to in the subiquity repo are what I would call not trivial and so are beyond what I want to let monkey around in our ISO trees. I've already done enough damage without realizing it in my first attempts. I'll just wait for 20.04.2.)

On the whole this has been a learning experience about not questioning my assumptions and re-checking my work. I have the entire process of preparing the extracted ISO's scratch tree more or less automated, so at any time I could have deleted the existing scratch tree, re-extracted the ISO (even with 7z), and managed to build a working UEFI booting ISO with boot/grub/efi.img. But I just assumed that the tree was fine and hadn't been changed by anything, and I never questioned various oddities until later (including the '[BOOT]' subdirectory, which wasn't named like anything else on the ISO image).

Written on 26 November 2020.
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Last modified: Thu Nov 26 23:39:15 2020
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