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Even after many years, I'm still an 'arms-length' user of linux. I switched to Mint when XP stopped, use the default configuration, and have not had to interact with Grub before. I use it to get the job done (office and python), rather than fiddling with the OS if possible. I do fiddle with the hardware though.

Colleagues keep telling me to 'try different distros', and as I've been running Mint for a few years, thought I would see if there was any significant difference. However the slow experience of running one off a stick does not make for a fair comparison.

I happen to have a pile of discarded SATA HDs from previous desktops and the kids' discarded/broken laptops. I bought a cheap eSATA PCI card, so that I could switch HDs without opening the case, and there would be something expendable between me and my mobo when plugging a different HD in. The idea was to install different OSs on different discs, and use the BIOS to boot the one I wanted.

I installed a different flavour of Mint on the first HD, and that all seemed to work OK. In the BIOS, I could choose to boot from my normal SSD with Mint 20.1, or the external HD, and all was well. With the external HD removed, it just booted to my SSD.

Then I installed Kubuntu 20.04 to another HD. It chose to put both the external disc and the SSD into a grub menu, with it first. This is OK with the disc attached, I can boot into either from grub. However, if I remove the external HD, and tell the BIOS to boot the SSD, I just get a grub shell prompt, no menu of options, so it sounds like it put the important stuff on my removable drive and changed the boot data on the SSD.

How would I confirm whether this guess is correct, or indeed find out what happened? If this is correct, is it possible to move the grub business files to my internal SSD, and if I do that, will grub handle the external drive being missing without error, and behave correctly when different external HDs are present?

A nuclear workaround springs to mind, which is to nuke and rebuild with only the internal SSD there. I have good backups so it's only time and hassle. Then when I install different OSs to external HDs, to unplug my SSD so there's only the install and the target media in the machine at the time.

Will either of these work? I guess what I'm trying to do is a sort of hardware VirtualBox. I have used that, but it's substantially slower, and I'm distrustful of the layers of configuration that I have to set.

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  • With multiple drives, you have to use the Something Else install option & choose where to install the grub boot loader. You typically want it on the same drive as your install. Ubuntu & flavors default to first drive. This only works with the old BIOS type installs. With UEFI the choice does not work & Ubuntu only installs grub to first drive. There are work arounds or ways to later repair, if UEFI.
    – oldfred
    Apr 28, 2021 at 13:47

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Your hunch is quite reasonable. It is very possible to have GRUB installed on one disk while its configuration files are on another disk. I do not know any reliable way of checking for this situation, but you can fix it.

When you run sudo grub-install /dev/sdx, GRUB stage 1 will be installed into the MBR of /dev/sdx. By default, this installation of GRUB stage 1 will implicitly be configured look for GRUB stage 2 and the configuration files in /boot/grub of the system it was installed from. So if / is located on /dev/sdxy, everything is normal.

However, if you manage to execute sudo grub-install /dev/sda while the currently booted system is located on /dev/sdb1, you will end up with a situation like yours.

One possible solution is to boot the system you want to keep using. Execute mount or lsblk to verify the location of /. Then run sudo grub-install targeting that device (not the partition).

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