Cross-Bootstrap Fedora

I recently had to assemble linux distribution images to be run in containers and virtual machines. While most package managers provide tools to bootstrap an entire distribution into a target directory (e.g., debootstrap, dnf --installroot, zypper, pacstrap, …), I needed to do that for foreign architectures. Fortunately, Fedora got me covered!

If you use dnf --installroot=/path, dnf will perform the given operations in a separate directory tree, rather than your file-system root. It is easy to use this with dnf install to install an entire Fedora distribution into some custom directory. Unfortunately, RPM allows scripts to be run as part of the installation process of packages. Those scripts might invoke binaries of the target architecture as part of the installation. Hence, before we can cross bootstrap Fedora, we need one more tool: qemu-user-static

The qemu project provides two kinds of emulators:

  • System Emulators: These are the commonly known emulators used to emulate an entire machine of a given architecture. They can be used to run virtual machines of any kind. The binaries are usually called qemu-system-<arch>.

  • User Emulators: These emulators are much less known. They emulate the linux user-space of your target architecture of choice. That is, they execute binaries of foreign architectures on your machine, translating on the syscall boundary. Hence, you can run MIPS binaries on your x86_64 machine running a normal x86_64 kernel, as long as you use the qemu-user-mips emulator. The binaries are usually called qemu-<arch>.

Fedora provides a package called qemu-user-static, which provides statically linked qemu user-space emulators and hooks them up with the kernel-binfmt configuration. Hence, with the package installed, you can directly execute binaries of foreign architectures, and the kernel will use the qemu emulators to run the binaries. Since the qemu emulators are statically linked, they will work just fine in chroots as well.

With this in mind, you can simply add --forcearch=<arch> to dnf to bootstrap Fedora in a foreign architecture. For instance, this bootstraps just bash and all its dependencies as 32bit ARM targets:

dnf \
        -y \
        --repo=fedora \
        --repo=updates \
        --releasever=27 \
        --forcearch=armv7hl \
        --installroot=/some/path \
        install \

For more information, have a look at Nathaniel McCallum’s introduction of the --forcearch argument to dnf.

Written on January 9, 2018