Remote reboots with encrypted disks

Tavian Barnes Twitter

I've been using LUKS for full disk encryption on all my computers for many years. The main benefit is that if someone steals my computer, they don't get access to any of my personal data (unless they are very smart or have a $5 wrench). The main downside is that every time I reboot my computer, I have to type in the disk encryption password so it can actually boot.

That's usually not too annoying. Normally it just means I can't do other things while my computer reboots, since it won't finish until I type in the password. But it's very annoying if I'm not at home, since I physically can't type in the password. I spend a fair bit of time at school/on vacation/etc. ssh'd into my home computer, since it has more CPU cores than I can comfortably carry around with me, and while it doesn't happen often, sometimes I'd really like to be able to reboot it.

I use Arch™, so the exact solution I came up with is somewhat specific to Arch Linux and some specific details of my setup, but idea applies more generally. The early boot process that unlocks the encrypted disks is part of the initrd ("initial ramdisk"), so that's what I'll have to mess with to enable remote access at that point. Arch uses a tool called mkinitcpio to build the initrd, and it supports various hooks for adding custom functionality. So it looks like I'll have to write a hook.

Writing a hook

A mkinitcpio hook is really just a bash script. I called mine remote, so it goes in /etc/initcpio/install/remote:


build() {
    figlet "Hello world!"

help() {
    cat <<EOF
Enables remote access into the initrd to unlock encrypted disks.

mkinitcpio will automatically invoke the help() function when you ask:

# mkinitcpio -H remote
==> Help for hook 'remote':
Enables remote access into the initrd to unlock encrypted disks.

To actually use the hook, I added it to the HOOKS array in /etc/mkinitcpio.conf. I also added the hostdata hook so my hostname would be shared with the initrd. And just in case I broke everything, I edited /etc/mkinitcpio.d/linux.preset to disable the new hook in the fallback initrd image:

-fallback_options="-S autodetect"
+fallback_options="-S autodetect,remote"

Now when we regenerate the initrd, we see our hook invoked!

# mkinitcpio -p linux
==> Building image from preset: /etc/mkinitcpio.d/linux.preset: 'default'
  -> Running build hook: [remote]
 _   _      _ _                            _     _ _
| | | | ___| | | ___   __      _____  _ __| | __| | |
| |_| |/ _ \ | |/ _ \  \ \ /\ / / _ \| '__| |/ _` | |
|  _  |  __/ | | (_) |  \ V  V / (_) | |  | | (_| |_|
|_| |_|\___|_|_|\___/    \_/\_/ \___/|_|  |_|\__,_(_)
==> Image generation successful


The next step is to get internet access in the initrd. I already use the systemd hook, which means the early boot process in the initrd is managed by systemd just like my normal boot process. I use systemd-networkd for networking already, so it should also work in the initrd:

build() {
    # Add systemd-networkd.service and enable it
    add_systemd_unit systemd-networkd.service
    add_symlink /etc/systemd/system/ \
    # Copy the host configuration
    add_full_dir /etc/systemd/network
    # Add the necessary modules
    add_checked_modules /drivers/net
    add_module bridge

This almost worked, but it was missing the systemd-network user. I made some helper functions to copy users and groups from the host:

add_user() {
    getent passwd "$1" >>"$BUILDROOT/etc/passwd"
    getent shadow "$1" >>"$BUILDROOT/etc/shadow"
    getent group "$(id -Gn "$1")" >>"$BUILDROOT/etc/group"

build() {
    # Add the networking user
    add_user systemd-network


Just having the network up in the initrd would let me reboot my desktop from home without getting up off of the couch, but since I don't expose ssh to the public internet, it's not enough for real remote access. For that, I've been using the Tailscale mesh VPN. Let me add it to the initrd too:

build() {

    # Add tailscaled.service and enable it
    add_systemd_unit tailscaled.service
    add_systemd_unit tailscaled.socket
    add_symlink /etc/systemd/system/ \
    # Add the tailscale CLI tool
    add_binary tailscale
    # Add tun
    add_module tun
    # Add iptables
    map add_binary ip{,6}tables
    add_full_dir /usr/lib/xtables
    add_all_modules netfilter
    # Add tailscale configuration
    add_file /etc/default/tailscaled
    add_file /var/lib/tailscale/tailscaled.state

WARNING! This copies /var/lib/tailscale/tailscaled.state, which contains the node key, to /boot, which is not encrypted in this setup. If someone stole my computer, they'd be able to impersonate me to my tailscale network from the initrd. A better approach would be to generate separate machine/node keys just for the initrd, and use ACLs to limit what it can do.

Another problem with this approach is that it doesn't work. Tailscale didn't start before the boot process paused waiting for my password. So I tried to force it to start early:

build() {


    # Force tailscale to start early
    add_systemd_drop_in tailscaled.service order <<EOF

And that immediately broke everything due to a dependency cycle: Found ordering cycle on Found dependency on Found dependency on tailscaled.service/start Found dependency on Job deleted to break ordering cycle starting

It turns out that systemd units get an implicit dependency on by default. If you check the flowchart from man bootup, you'll see that happens long after, forming a cycle. To fix it, I just had to disable the default dependencies by adding DefaultDependencies=no.


The last piece of the puzzle is to enable SSH so I can actually log in remotely. Many ssh-in-initrd tutorials use alternative implementations like Dropbear or TinySSH, but I have plenty of space left in /boot so I just used OpenSSH:

build() {

    # Add sshd.service and enable it
    add_systemd_unit sshd.service
    add_symlink /etc/systemd/system/ \
    # Force sshd to start early
    add_systemd_drop_in sshd.service order <<EOF
    # Required for sshd isolation
    add_user nobody
    add_dir /var/empty
    # Add ssh host keys and configuration
    add_full_dir /etc/ssh
    # Permit root logins in the initrd
    sed -Ei 's/^#?(AllowUsers).*/\1 root/' "$BUILDROOT/etc/ssh/sshd_config"
    sed -Ei 's/^#?(PermitRootLogin).*/\1 yes/' "$BUILDROOT/etc/ssh/sshd_config"
    # No PAM in the initrd
    sed -Ei 's/^#?(UsePAM).*/\1 no/' "$BUILDROOT/etc/ssh/sshd_config"
    # Share authorized_keys with my normal user
    add_file /home/tavianator/.ssh/authorized_keys /root/.ssh/authorized_keys

With SSH set up, everything is good to go! We can reboot the machine, then ssh back in to input the password:

$ ssh root@tachyon
~ # systemctl start
🔐 Please enter passphrase for disk Samsung SSD 970 EVO 500GB (cryptslash1): *******
~ # Connection to tachyon closed.

I put the whole mkinitcpio hook up as a Gist here. Feel free to try it out and tweak it for your needs.