Linux Ramdisk mini-HOWTO
by Van Emery
What is a RAM disk? A RAM disk is a portion of RAM which is being used as if it were a disk drive. RAM disks have fixed sizes, and act like regular disk partitions. Access time is much faster for a RAM disk than for a real, physical disk. However, any data stored on a RAM disk is lost when the system is shut down or powered off. RAM disks can be a great place to store temporary data.
The Linux kernel version 2.4 has built-in support for ramdisks. Ramdisks are useful for a number of things, including:
Why did I write this document? Because I needed to setup a 16 MB ramdisk for viewing and creating encrypted documents. I did not want the unencrypted documents to be written to any physical media on my workstation. I also found it amazing that I could easily create a "virtual disk" in RAM that is larger than my first hard drive, a 20 MB Winchester disk. At the time, that disk was so large that I never even considered filling it up, and I never did!
This document should take you step-by-step through the process of creating and using RAM disks.
I was using Red Hat 9 for this test, but it should work with other GNU/Linux distributions running 2.4.x kernels. I am also assuming that the distribution you are using already has ramdisk support compiled into the kernel. My test machine was a Pentium 4 and had 256 MB of RAM. The exact version of the kernel that I used was: 2.4.20-20.9
Step 1: Take a look at what has already been created by your system
Red Hat creates 16 ramdisks by default, although they are not "active" or using any RAM. It lists devices ram0 - ram 19, but only ram0 - ram15 are usable by default. To check these block devices out, use the following command:
[root]# ls -l /dev/ram* lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 4 Jun 12 00:31 /dev/ram -> ram1 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 0 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram0 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 1 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram1 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 10 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram10 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 11 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram11 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 12 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram12 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 13 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram13 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 14 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram14 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 15 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram15 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 16 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram16 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 17 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram17 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 18 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram18 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 19 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram19 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 2 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram2 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 3 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram3 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 4 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram4 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 5 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram5 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 6 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram6 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 7 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram7 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 8 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram8 brw-rw---- 1 root disk 1, 9 Jan 30 2003 /dev/ram9 lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 4 Jun 12 00:31 /dev/ramdisk -> ram0
Now, grep through dmesg output to find out what size the ramdisks are:
[root]# dmesg | grep RAMDISK RAMDISK driver initialized: 16 RAM disks of 4096K size 1024 blocksize RAMDISK: Compressed image found at block 0
As you can see, the default ramdisk size is 4 MB. I want a 16 MB ramdisk, so the next step will be to configure Linux to use a larger ramdisk size during boot.
Step 2: Increase ramdisk size
Ramdisk size is controlled by a command-line option that is passed to the kernel during boot. Since GRUB is the default bootloader for Red Hat 9, I will modify /etc/grub.conf with the new kernel option. The kernel option for ramdisk size is: ramdisk_size=xxxxx, where xxxxx is the size expressed in 1024-byte blocks. Here is what I will add to /etc/grub.conf to configure 16 MB ramdisks:
# grub.conf generated by anaconda # # Note that you do not have to rerun grub after making changes to this file # NOTICE: You have a /boot partition. This means that # all kernel and initrd paths are relative to /boot/, eg. # root (hd0,0) # kernel /vmlinuz-version ro root=/dev/hda5 # initrd /initrd-version.img #boot=/dev/hda default=0 timeout=10 splashimage=(hd0,0)/grub/splash.xpm.gz title Red Hat Linux (2.4.20-20.9) root (hd0,0) kernel /vmlinuz-2.4.20-20.9 ro root=LABEL=/ hdc=ide-scsi ramdisk_size=16000 initrd /initrd-2.4.20-20.9.img
Once you save the file, you will need to reboot your system. After the reboot, a look at the dmesg output should confirm the change has taken effect:
[root]# dmesg | grep RAMDISK RAMDISK driver initialized: 16 RAM disks of 16000K size 1024 blocksize RAMDISK: Compressed image found at block 0
Step 3: Format the ramdisk
There is no need to format the ramdisk as a journaling file system, so we will simply use the ubiquitous ext2 file system. I only want to use one ramdisk, so I will only format /dev/ram0:
[root]# mke2fs -m 0 /dev/ram0 mke2fs 1.32 (09-Nov-2002) Filesystem label= OS type: Linux Block size=1024 (log=0) Fragment size=1024 (log=0) 4000 inodes, 16000 blocks 0 blocks (0.00%) reserved for the super user First data block=1 2 block groups 8192 blocks per group, 8192 fragments per group 2000 inodes per group Superblock backups stored on blocks: 8193 Writing inode tables: done Writing superblocks and filesystem accounting information: done This filesystem will be automatically checked every 22 mounts or 180 days, whichever comes first. Use tune2fs -c or -i to override.
The -m 0 option keeps mke2fs from reserving any space on the file system for the root user, which is the default behavior. I want all of the ramdisk space available to a regular user for working with encrypted files.
Step 4: Create a mount point and mount the ramdisk
Now that you have formatted the ramdisk, you must create a mount point for it. Then you can mount your ramdisk and use it. We will use the directory /mnt/rd for this operation.
[root]# mkdir /mnt/rd [root]# mount /dev/ram0 /mnt/rd
Now verify the new ramdisk mount:
[root]# mount | grep ram0 /dev/ram0 on /mnt/rd type ext2 (rw) [root]# df -h | grep ram0 /dev/ram0 16M 13K 16M 1% /mnt/rd
You can even take a detailed look at the new ramdisk with the tune2fs command:
[root]# tune2fs -l /dev/ram0 tune2fs 1.32 (09-Nov-2002) Filesystem volume name: none Last mounted on: not available Filesystem UUID: fbb80e9a-8e7c-4bd4-b3d9-37c29813a5f5 Filesystem magic number: 0xEF53 Filesystem revision #: 1 (dynamic) Filesystem features: filetype sparse_super Default mount options: (none) Filesystem state: not clean Errors behavior: Continue Filesystem OS type: Linux Inode count: 4000 Block count: 16000 Reserved block count: 0 Free blocks: 15478 Free inodes: 3989 First block: 1 Block size: 1024 Fragment size: 1024 Blocks per group: 8192 Fragments per group: 8192 Inodes per group: 2000 Inode blocks per group: 250 Filesystem created: Mon Dec 8 14:33:57 2003 Last mount time: Mon Dec 8 14:35:39 2003 Last write time: Mon Dec 8 14:35:39 2003 Mount count: 1 Maximum mount count: 22 Last checked: Mon Dec 8 14:33:57 2003 Check interval: 15552000 (6 months) Next check after: Sat Jun 5 14:33:57 2004 Reserved blocks uid: 0 (user root) Reserved blocks gid: 0 (group root) First inode: 11 Inode size: 128
In my case, I need the user "van" to be able to read and write to the ramdisk, so I must change the ownership and permissions of the /mnt/rd directory:
[root]# chown van:root /mnt/rd [root]# chmod 0770 /mnt/rd [root]# ls -ald /mnt/rd drwxrwx--- 2 van root 4096 Dec 8 11:09 /mnt/rd
The ownership and permissions on the ramdisk filesystem/directory should be tailored to your particular needs.
Step 5: Use the ramdisk
Now that it has been created, you can copy, move, delete, edit, and list files on the ramdisk exactly as if they were on a physical disk partiton. This is a great place to view decrypted GPG or OpenSSL files, as well as a good place to create files that will be encrypted. After your host is powered down, all traces of files created on the ramdisk are gone.
To unmount the ramdisk, simply enter the following:
[root]# umount -v /mnt/rd /dev/ram0 umounted
Note: If you remount the ramdisk, your data will still be there. Once memory has been allocated to the ramdisk, it is flagged so that the kernel will not try to reuse the memory later. Therefore, you cannot "reclaim" the RAM after you are done with using the ramdisk. For this reason, you will want to be careful not to allocate more memory to the ramdisk than is absolutely necessary. In my case, I am allocating < 10% of the physical RAM. You will have to tailor the ramdisk size to your needs. Of course, you can always free up the space with a reboot!
Automating Ramdisk Creation
If you need to create and mount a ramdisk every time your system boots, you can automate the process by adding some commands to your /etc/rc.local init script. Here are the lines that I added:
# Formats, mounts, and sets permissions on my 16MB ramdisk /sbin/mke2fs -q -m 0 /dev/ram0 /bin/mount /dev/ram0 /mnt/rd /bin/chown van:root /mnt/rd /bin/chmod 0750 /mnt/rd
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