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Is it possible to mount a loopback file as read-only, and redirect all writes to RAM?

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3 Answers

It is possible using a union filesystem layer like aufs.


Create a filesystem image

# dd if=/dev/zero of=/tmp/image bs=1024 count=1024
1024+0 records in
1024+0 records out
1048576 bytes (1.0 MB) copied, 0.0028428 s, 369 MB/s
# mke2fs /tmp/image 

Mount it, populate it

# mkdir /tmp/imgmnt
# mount -o loop /tmp/image /tmp/imgmnt
# echo hello > /tmp/imgmnt/hello.txt
# umount /tmp/imgmnt

Mount it read-only

# mount -o loop,ro /tmp/image /tmp/imgmnt
# echo blah > /tmp/imgmnt/hello.txt 
-su: /tmp/imgmnt/hello.txt: Read-only file system

A small RAM filesystem

# mkdir /tmp/rammnt
# mount -t tmpfs -o size=1M none /tmp/rammnt

Combine both

# mkdir /tmp/combined
# mount -t aufs -o br:/tmp/rammnt:/tmp/imgmnt=ro none /tmp/combined

That mount option to create a new "branch" (br) by stacking /tmp/rammnt (read-write) on top of /tmp/imgmnt (read-only). This "branch" is made visible as a (read-write) filesystem on /tmp/combined.

(See the aufs(5) man page for all the details.)

Now all that's done, here's what you have:

# ls /tmp/combined
hello.txt  lost+found
# cat /tmp/combined/hello.txt 
# echo bye > /tmp/combined/hello.txt 
# cat /tmp/combined/hello.txt 

# cat imgmnt/hello.txt 
# cat rammnt/hello.txt 

So the writes "stop" in the tmpfs filesystem, they do not attempt to propagate back to the loop-mounted image file.

You could have used a plain directory (on a read/write filesystem), or possibly a directory under /dev/shm if that works for you, instead of creating a specific tmpfs for that.

This technique (or variations thereof) is used by some distribution LiveCD. The Wikipedia aufs entry lists a few.

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+1 thanks! A question: (1) is it possible to do this with fstab, such that the mount point is /? (i.e. so the system boots from a discardable image, pretty much.) –  Mehrdad Dec 22 '11 at 23:29
I don't think so. If you want to do that for /, I believe you're better off with an initrd (that's how it is done for livecds I believe). You might be able to do it from an init script though that sounds tricky. –  Mat Dec 23 '11 at 7:11
Ok thanks for the answer! –  Mehrdad Dec 23 '11 at 7:19
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up vote 3 down vote accepted

I finally figured out how to do this with the root filesystem (in Ubuntu 11.04)!

The steps for making a system bootable are simple. I used this guide in combination with this guide and a bunch of web searches to figure out how to get it working properly, without bugs.


  1. Run:

    sudo apt-get install fsprotect apparmor-utils
  2. Save this to /etc/initramfs-tools/scripts/init-bottom/__rootaufs. I don't think the name actually matters, but the beginning __ might be used for ordering purposes, so if you change the name, you might want to keep the underscores. (This is a copy of this file.)

    #!/bin/sh -e
    case $1 in
        exit 0
    for x in $(cat /proc/cmdline); do
      case $x in
        case $UNION in
    if [ -z "$UNION" ]; then
        exit 0
    # make the mount points on the init root file system
    mkdir /aufs /ro /rw
    # mount read-write file system
    if [ "$UNION" = "tmpfs" ]; then
      mount -t tmpfs rw /rw -o noatime,mode=0755
      mount $UNION /rw -o noatime
    # move real root out of the way
    mount --move ${rootmnt} /ro
    mount -t aufs aufs /aufs -o noatime,dirs=/rw:/ro=ro
    # test for mount points on union file system
    [ -d /aufs/ro ] || mkdir /aufs/ro
    [ -d /aufs/rw ] || mkdir /aufs/rw
    mount --move /ro /aufs/ro
    mount --move /rw /aufs/rw
    # strip fstab off of root partition
    grep -v $ROOTNAME /aufs/ro/etc/fstab > /aufs/etc/fstab
    mount --move /aufs /root
    exit 0
  3. In /etc/default/grub, find the line that starts with GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX_DEFAULT, and inside the quotes that follow, add the parameter aufs=tmpfs.

    Bonus: If you need to occasionally turn off the redirection temporarily, simply remove this argument from the kernel parameter list. You can probably do this by holding the Shift key when the system is booting, to show the GRUB menu; then press e to edit the parameters, and just erase the aufs=... parameter from the list.

  4. Append these lines to /etc/sysctl.conf. (Warning: Potential security risk.)

    kernel.yama.protected_nonaccess_hardlinks = 0
    kernel.yama.protected_sticky_symlinks = 0
  5. Run these lines:

    sudo aa-complain dhclient3
    sudo chmod 0755 /etc/initramfs-tools/scripts/init-bottom/__rootaufs
    sudo update-initramfs -k all -u
    sudo update-grub

If everything went well, when you reboot, you will be doing so into a temporary file system. The RAM part will be at /rw, and the disk image will be at /ro, but of course it will be read-only.

Nevertheless, if you have booted into a temporary system but need to make a permanent change, you can re-mount the /ro file system by saying

sudo mount -o remount,rw /ro

to make it writable, and then you can make whatever modifications needed to that directory.

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Yes, by unionfs, see unionfs.filesystems.org. You have mount first read-only filesystem, and as second read-write RAM filesystem through unionfs.

In Ubuntu you can find the unionfs-fuse package, which is another implementation of the same things, but in user space, not as a kernel module.

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