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Ubuntu Desktop 20.04 with btrfs-luks full disk encryption

If you have followed me here, you know I am a big fan of BTRFS and luks based full disk encryption. I used to use Arch Linux in the past, however recently I have started using Ubuntu LTS as main OS mainly for simplicity and easy availability of numerous tricks online!

The main reason I want to to take this little complex route of installation than simple easy way that Ubuntu provides:

  • A luks-based full disk encryption for data safety, specially since I work a lot with medical data!
  • An un-encrypted EFI partition for the GRUB bootloader
  • a btrfs-inside-luks partition for the root filesystem (including /boot) containing a subvolume @ for / and a subvolume @home for /home with only one passphrase prompt from GRUB!
  • automatic system snapshots and easy rollback similar to zsysc using:
    • Timeshift, which will regularly take (almost instant) snapshots of the system
    • grub-btrfs, which will automatically create GRUB entries for all your btrfs snapshots

This tutorial is made with Ubuntu 20.04 Focal Fossa copied to an installation media (usually a USB Flash device but may be a DVD or the ISO file attached to a virtual machine hypervisor). This has been adapted from this Blog.

Step 1: Boot the install, check UEFI mode and open an interactive root shell

Since most modern PCs have UEFI, I will cover only the UEFI installation. So, boot the installation medium in UEFI mode, choose your language and click Try Ubuntu. Once the Live Desktop environment has started we need to use a Terminal shell command-line to issue a series of commands to prepare the target device before executing the installer itself.

Now, open a terminal (CTRL+ALT+T) and run the following command:

to detect whether we are in UEFI mode. Now switch to an interactive root session:

You might find maximizing the terminal window is helpful for working with the command-line. Do not close this terminal window during the whole installation process until we are finished with everything.

Step 2: Prepare partitions manually

Create partition table and layout

First find out the name of your drive. For me the installation target device is called nvme01n1:

We'll now create the following partition layout on nvme0n1:

  1. a 512 MiB FAT32 EFI partition for the GRUB bootloader
  2. a 4 GiB partition for encrypted swap use
  3. a luks1 encrypted partition which will be our root btrfs filesystem

Some remarks:

  • /boot will reside on the encrypted luks1 partition. The GRUB bootloader is able to decrypt luks1 at boot time. Alternatively, you could create an encrypted luks1 partition for /boot and a luks2 encrypted partition for the root filesystem.
  • With btrfs I do not need any other partitions for e.g. /home, as we will use subvolumes instead.

Let's use parted for this (feel free to use gparted accordingly):

Do not set names or flags, as in my experience the Ubiquity installer has some problems with that.

Create luks1 partition

The default luks (Linux Unified Key Setup) format used by the cryptsetup tool has changed since the release of Ubuntu 18.04 Bionic. 18.04 used version 1 (luks1) but more recent Ubuntu releases default to version 2 (luks2) and check that /boot is not located inside an encrypted partition. GRUB is able to decrypt luks version 1 at boot time, but Ubiquity does not allow this by default. Note that if you want to use luks version 2 you should create an encrypted /boot partition using version 1, whereas the root filesystem can then be formatted using version 2. Either way, we need to prepare the luks1 partition or else GRUB will not be able to unlock the encrypted device. Note that most Linux distributions also default to version 1 if you do a full disk encryption (e.g. Manjaro Architect).

Use a very good password here. Now map the encrypted partition to a device called cryptdata, which will be our root filesystem:

Create filesystems for root and EFI System partitions

Create a filesystem for the EFI System partition. If there was e.g. an NTFS filesystem at the beginning of the drive, the Ubiquity installer will be unable to mount the filesystem otherwise.

We need to pre-format cryptdata because, in my experience, the Ubiquity installer messes something up and complains about devices with the same name being mounted twice.

cryptdata is our root partition which we'll use for the root filesystem.

Step 3 (optional): Optimize mount options for SSD or NVME drives

Unfortunately, the Ubiquity installer does not set good mount options for btrfs on SSD or NVME drives, so you should change this for optimized performance and durability. I have found that there is some general agreement to use the following mount options:

  • ssd: use SSD specific options for optimal use on SSD and NVME
  • noatime: prevent frequent disk writes by instructing the Linux kernel not to store the last access time of files and folders
  • space_cache: allows btrfs to store free space cache on the disk to make caching of a block group much quicker
  • commit=120: time interval in which data is written to the filesystem (value of 120 is taken from Manjaro)
  • compress=zstd: allows to specify the compression algorithm which we want to use. btrfs provides lzo, zstd and zlib compression algorithms. Based on some Phoronix test cases, zstd seems to be the better performing candidate.
  • Lastly the pass flag for fschk in the fstab is useless for btrfs and should be set to 0.

We need to change two configuration files:

  • /usr/lib/partman/mount.d/70btrfs

  • /usr/lib/partman/fstab.d/btrfs

    So let's use an editor to change the following:

Step 4: Install Ubuntu using the Ubiquity installer without the bootloader

Now let's run the installation process, but without installing the bootloader, as we want to put /boot on an encrypted partition which is actually not allowed by Ubiquity. So we need to run the installer with:

Choose the installation language, keyboard layout, Normal or Minimal installation, check the boxes of the Other options according to your needs. In the "Installation type" options choose "Something Else" and the manual partitioner will start:

  • Select /dev/nvme0n1p1, press the Change button. Choose Use as 'EFI System Partition'.
  • Select /dev/nvme0n1p2, press the Change button. Choose Use as 'swap area' to create a swap partition. We will encrypt this partition later in the crypttab.
  • Select the root filesystem device for formatting (/dev/mapper/cryptdata type btrfs on top), press the Change button. Choose Use as 'btrfs journaling filesystem', check Format the partition and use '/' as Mount point.
  • If you have other partitions, check their types and use; particularly, deactivate other EFI partitions.

Recheck everything, press the Install Now button to write the changes to the disk and hit the Continue button. Select the time zone and fill out your user name and password. If your installation is successful choose the Continue Testing option.

DO NOT REBOOT!, but return to your terminal.

Step 5: Post-Installation steps

Create a chroot environment and enter your system

Return to the terminal and create a chroot (change-root) environment to work directly inside your newly installed operating system:

Now you are actually inside your system, so let's mount all other partitions and have a look at the btrfs subvolumes:

Looks great. Note that the subvolume @ is mounted to /, whereas the subvolume @home is mounted to /home.

Create crypttab

We need to create the crypttab manually:

Note that the UUID is from the luks partition /dev/nvme0n1p3, not from the device mapper /dev/mapper/cryptdata! You can get all UUID using blkid.

Encrypted swap

There are many ways to encrypt the swap partition, a good reference is dm-crypt/Swap encryption. For the sake of this guide, I will only show how to set up it as an encrypted swap partition.

Swap partition

As I have no use for hibernation or suspend-to-disk, I will simply use a random password to decrypt the swap partition using the crypttab:

We also need to adapt the fstab accordingly:

The sed command simply replaced the UUID of your swap partition with the encrypted device called /dev/mapper/cryptswap. There you go, you have an encrypted swap partition.

The device holding the kernel (and the initramfs image) is unlocked by GRUB, but the root device needs to be unlocked again at initramfs stage, regardless whether it’s the same device or not, so you'll get a second prompt for your passphrase. This is because GRUB boots with the given vmlinuz and initramfs images; in other words, all devices are locked, and the root device needs to be unlocked again. To avoid extra passphrase prompts at initramfs stage, a workaround is to unlock via key files stored into the initramfs image. This can also be used to unlock any additional luks partitions you want on your disk. Since the initramfs image now resides on an encrypted device, this still provides protection for data at rest. After all for luks the volume key can already be found by user space in the Device Mapper table, so one could argue that including key files to the initramfs image – created with restrictive permissions – doesn’t change the threat model for luks devices. Note that this is exactly what e.g. the Manjaro architect installer does as well.

Long story short, let's create a key-file, secure it, and add it to our luks volume:

Note that "Key Slot 0" contains our passphrase, whereas "Key Slot 1" contains the key-file. Let's restrict the pattern of keyfiles and avoid leaking key material for the initramfs hook:

These commands will harden the security options in the intiramfs configuration file and hook.

Next, add the keyfile to your crypttab:

Install the EFI bootloader

Now it is time to finalize the setup and install the GRUB bootloader. First we need to make it capable to unlock luks1-type partitions by setting GRUB_ENABLE_CRYPTODISK=y in /etc/default/grub, then install the bootloader to the device /dev/nvme0n1 and lastly update GRUB. Just in case, I also reinstall the generic kernel ("linux-generic" and "linux-headers-generic") and also install the Hardware Enablement kernel ("linux-generic-hwe-20.04" "linux-headers-generic-hwe-20.04"):

Lastly, double-check that the initramfs image has restrictive permissions and includes the keyfile:

Note that cryptsetup-initramfs may rename key files inside the initramfs.

Step 6: Reboot, some checks, and update system

Now, it is time to exit the chroot - cross your fingers - and reboot the system:

If all went well you should see a single passphrase prompt (YAY!) from GRUB:

where you enter the luks passphrase to unlock GRUB, which then either asks you again for your passphrase or uses the key-file to unlock /dev/nvme0n1p3 and map it to /dev/mapper/cryptdata. If you added a key-file you need to type your password only once. Note that if you mistyped the password for GRUB, you must restart the computer and retry.

Now let's click through the welcome screen and open up a terminal to see whether everything is set up correctly:

Look's good. Note that in this tutorial I installed both a swapfile and a swap partition. Normally you would choose one or the other.

Let's update the system and reboot one more time:

Also enable fstrim.timer as we did not add discard to the crypttab. This is due to the fact that Btrfs Async Discard Support Looks To Be Ready For Linux 5.6 is quite new, but 20.04 still runs kernel 5.4, it is better to enable the fstrim.timer systemd service:

Now reboot:

Step 7: Install Timeshift and grub-btrfs

Open a terminal and install some dependencies:

Install Timeshift and configure it directly via the GUI:

  • Select “BTRFS” as the “Snapshot Type”; continue with “Next”
  • Choose your BTRFS system partition as “Snapshot Location”; continue with “Next”
  • "Select Snapshot Levels" (type and number of snapshots that will be automatically created and managed/deleted by Timeshift), my recommendations:
    • Activate "Monthly" and set it to 1
    • Activate "Weekly" and set it to 3
    • Activate "Daily" and set it to 5
    • Deactivate "Hourly"
    • Activate "Boot" and set it to 3
    • Activate "Stop cron emails for scheduled tasks"
  • continue with "Next"
  • I also include the @home subvolume (which is not selected by default). Note that when you restore a snapshot Timeshift you get the choice whether you want to restore it as well (which in most cases you don't want to).
  • Click "Finish"
  • "Create" a manual first snapshot & exit Timeshift

Timeshift will now check every hour if snapshots ("hourly", "daily", "weekly", "monthly", "boot") need to be created or deleted. Note that "boot" snapshots will not be created directly but about 10 minutes after a system startup.

Timeshift puts all snapshots into /run/timeshift/backup. Conveniently, the real root (subvolid 5) of your BTRFS partition is also mounted here, so it is easy to view, create, delete and move around snapshots manually.

Note that /run/timeshift/backup/@ contains your / folder, /run/timeshift/backup/@home contains your /home folder, /run/timeshift/backup/@swap contains your /swap folder.

Now let's install timeshift-autosnap-apt and grub-btrfs from GitHub

After this, optionally, make changes to the configuration files:

For example, as we don't have a dedicated /boot partition, we can set snapshotBoot=false in the timeshift-autosnap-apt-conf file to not rsync the /boot directory to /boot.backup. Note that the EFI partition is still rsynced into your snapshot to /boot.backup/efi. For grub-btrfs, I change GRUB_BTRFS_SUBMENUNAME to "MY BTRFS SNAPSHOTS".

Check if everything is working:

Now, if you run sudo apt install|remove|upgrade|dist-upgrade, timeshift-autosnap-apt will create a snapshot of your system with Timeshift and grub-btrfs creates the corresponding boot menu entries (actually it creates boot menu entries for all subvolumes of your system).

For example:

Hopefully this is of help to some of you who want to have a stable and reliable system! Let me know you thoughts in comments below.


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