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LILO vs. GRUB

June 16, 2004

This article was contributed by Ladislav Bodnar

Up until a few years ago there was no arguing about a Linux distribution's bootloader. With LILO (LInux LOader) as the dominant software for this purpose, many seasoned Linux system administrators had mastered the art of creating a lilo.conf file out of thin air, without having to look through any LILO documentation. Unfortunately for them, the release notes of Red Hat 7.2, released in October 2001, informed us that "we now use GRUB as the default bootloader."

Back in those days, only Caldera OpenLinux was supplying GNU's GRUB (GRand Unified Bootloader) as its preferred bootloader, but this sudden push by Red Hat was about to give GRUB a major boost. Indeed, many distributions soon followed Red Hat's example and started providing GRUB as an option, although few of them displaced LILO altogether. Then in March 2003, the just-released Red Hat Linux 9 re-emphasized Red Hat's commitment to GRUB by placing LILO on a list of deprecated packages that may be removed from a future Red Hat release. Although this has yet to happen, the fact is that Red Hat (as well as Fedora) have not updated their LILO version since August 2000.

Does this mean that LILO is dead? Well, not quite. Firstly, LILO has been around for so many years (I was unable to find out exactly how many, but LILO version 15 was released in October 1994), that it is firmly entrenched in many a sysadmin's arsenal of tools. Secondly, GRUB is still considered alpha software - even its most recent release, version 0.95, is only available from alpha.gnu.org, rather than from GNU's stable directory. As for the Linux distributions, most of the major ones seem to be slowly moving towards GRUB as their preferred bootloader, although this has not happened across the board. While SUSE's installation program does default to GRUB, Mandrake's still defaults to LILO. The Debian installer that came with Woody did not provide GRUB at all, but the recent Sarge beta installers now use GRUB by default. Gentoo used to demonstrate a clear preference for GRUB, but its most recent installation documentation gives equal exposure to both bootloaders. This leaves Slackware as the only major distribution that does not provide GRUB, but this is hardly surprising given its target market and its reputation for staying with well-established UNIX/Linux tools.

The LILO versus GRUB argument is one of those never-ending and passionate discussions that resurface from time to time on various public forums, not too different from the notorious vi vs. emacs or KDE vs. GNOME verbal battles. Although we all know that these debates are pointless and that the choice of software is a simple matter of personal taste, few of us are able to control the urge to reply as soon as we read a derogatory comment ridiculing our preferred piece of software.

So what exactly makes GRUB better than LILO? Here is a list of some of GRUB's frequently cited advantages:

  • GRUB has a more powerful, interactive command line interface. LILO, on the other hand, only allows one command with arguments.

  • LILO stores information about the location of the kernel or other operating system on the Master Boot Record (MBR). Every time a new operating system or kernel is added to the system, the Stage 1 LILO bootloader has to be manually overwritten, otherwise there is no way to boot the new OS or kernel. This method is more risky than the method used by GRUB because a mis-configured LILO configuration file may leave the system unbootable (a popular way to fix this problem is to boot from Knoppix or another live CD, chroot into the partition with mis-configured lilo.conf and correct the problem). On the other hand, correcting a mis-configured GRUB is comparatively simple as GRUB will default to its command line interface where the user can boot the system manually. This flexibility is probably the main reason why many users nowadays prefer GRUB over LILO.

  • Unlike LILO, GRUB has a web site. It also has a manual, FAQ, a bug tracker, a developer mailing list and a logo. LILO has none of those.
Here is a short list of some advantages of LILO over GRUB:
  • With more than a decade of development behind it, LILO is one of the most widely-used, well-tested and dependable Linux applications ever written. Most experienced system administrators are well-versed in configuring the LILO and skilled enough to deal with any emergency situation.

  • The Red Hat Linux Reference Guide claims that GRUB may have difficulties booting certain hardware. It does not provide any further details, though.

  • GRUB is, according to its developers, alpha-quality software. Use at your own risk.
Finally, a mind-opening quote by one of the GRUB developers Gordon Matzigkeit, as published in O'Reilly's Essential System Administration:

Some people like to acknowledge both the operating system and kernel when they talk about their computers, so they might say they use 'GNU/Linux' or 'GNU/Hurd'. Other people seem to think that the kernel is the most important part of the system, so they like to call their GNU operating systems 'Linux systems'. I, personally, believe that [both are] a grave injustice, because the boot loader is the most important software of all. I used to refer to the above systems as either 'LILO' or 'GRUB' systems. Unfortunately, nobody ever understood what I was talking about; now I just use the word 'GNU' as a pseudonym for GRUB. So, if you ever hear people talking about their alleged 'GNU' systems, remember that they are actually paying homage to the best boot loader around: GRUB!

Some distributors - and their users - may continue to disagree for some time, however.

Comments (24 posted)

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