Disk images

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Disk image basics

A disk device in gem5 gets its initial contents from a file called a disk image. This file stores all the bytes present on the disk just as you would find them on an actual device. Some other systems also use disk images which are in more complicated formats and which provide compression, encryption, etc. gem5 currently only supports raw images, so if you have an image in one of those other formats, you'll have to convert it into a raw image before you can use it in a simulation. There are often tools available which can convert between the different formats.

Because a disk image represents all the bytes on the disk itself, it contains more than just a file system. For harddrives on PC and Alpha systems, the image starts with a partition table. Each of the partitions in the table (typically only one) is also in the image. If you want to manipulate the entire disk you'll use the entire image, but if you want to work with just one partition and/or the file system on it, you'll need to specifically select that part of the image. The losetup command (discussed below) has a -o option which lets you specify where to start in an image.

Loopback devices

Linux supports loopback devices which are devices backed by files. By attaching one of these to your disk image, you can use standard Linux commands on it which normally run on real disk devices. You can use the mount command with the "loop" option to set up a loopback device and mount it somewhere. Unfortunately you can't specify an offset into the image, so that would only be useful for a file system image, not a disk image which is what you need. You can, however, use the lower level losetup command to set up a loopback device yourself and supply the proper offset. Once you've done that, you can use the mount command on it like you would on a disk partition, format it, etc. If you don't supply an offset the loopback device will refer to the whole image, and you can use your favorite program to set up the partitions on it.

Creating an empty image

To create an empty image from scratch, you'll need to create the file itself, partition it, and format (one of) the partition(s) with a file system.

Create an empty image

First, decide how large you want your image to be. It's a good idea to make it large enough to hold everything you know you'll need on it, plus some breathing room. If you find out later it's too small, you'll have to create a new larger image and move everything over. If you make it too big, you'll take up actual disk space unnecessarily and make the image harder to work with. Once you've decided on a size you'll want to actually create the file. Basically, all you need to do is create a file of a certain size that's full of zeros. One approach is to use the dd command to copy the right number of bytes from /dev/zero into the new file. Alternatively you could create the file, seek in it to what you want to be the last byte to be, and write one zero byte. All of the space you skipped over will become part of the file and is defined to read as zeroes, but because you didn't explicitly write any data there, most file systems are smart enough to not actually store that to disk. You can create a large image that way but take up very little space on your physical disk. Once you start writing to the file later that will change, and also if you're not careful, copying the file may expand it to its full size.


First, find an available loopback device using the losetup command with the -f option.

losetup -f

Next, use losetup to attach that device to your image. If the available device was /dev/loop0 and your image is foo.img, you would use a command like this.

losetup /dev/loop0 foo.img

/dev/loop0 (or whatever other device you're using) will now refer to your entire image file. Use whatever partitioning program you like on it to set up one (or more) paritions. For simplicity it's probably a good idea to create only one parition that takes up the entire image. We say it takes up the entire image, but really it takes up all the space except for the partition table itself at the beginning of the file, and possibly some wasted space after that for DOS/bootloader compatibility.

From now on we'll want to work with the new partition we created and not the whole disk, so we'll free up the loopback device using losetup's -d option

losetup -d /dev/loop0


First, find an available loopback device like we did in the partitioning step above using losetup's -f option.

losetup -f

We'll attach our image to that device again, but this time we only want to refer to the partition we're going to put a file system on. For PC and Alpha systems, that partition will typically be one track in, where one track is 63 sectors and each sector is 512 bytes, or 63 * 512 = 32256 bytes. The correct value for you may be different, depending on the geometry and layout of your image. In any case, you should set up the loopback device with the -o option so that it represents the partition you're interested in.

losetup -o 32256 /dev/loop0 foo.img

Next, use an appropriate formating command, often mke2fs, to put a file system on the partition.

mke2fs /dev/loop0

You've now successfully created an empty image file. You can leave the loopback device attached to it if you intend to keep working with it (likely since it's still empty) or clean it up using losetup -d.

losetup -d /dev/loop0

Mounting an image

To mount a file system on your image file, first find a loopback device and attach it to your image with an appropriate offset as described in the "Formatting" section above.

losetup -f
losetup -o 32256 /dev/loop0 foo.img

Now simply use the "mount" command to mount the loopback device somewhere.

mount /dev/loop0 ~/gem5_image


To unmount an image, use the umount command like you normally would. Don't forget to clean up the loopback device attached to your image with the losetup -d command.

losetup -d /dev/loop0


It's a good idea to understand how to build an image in case something goes wrong or you need to do something in a particular way. You can, however, use the gem5img.py script which will go through the process described above for you. You can use the "init" command to create an empty image, "new", "partition", or "format" to perform those actions independently, and "mount" or "umount" to mount or unmount an existing image.