You read that right - systemd is “in the trees… It’s coming!” *

If you pay attention to things happening in the world of Linux, you probably know that systemd will be replacing sysvinit for Debian systems.

In the last couple of days I’ve switched 5 Debian testing/Jessie systems from sysvinit to systemd. Overall, it’s been a smooth transition, with just a couple of problems I ran into which were not ultimately systemd issues.

It’s easy to test out, because you can selectively boot with systemd as long as you don’t install systemd-sysv, which enables systemd by default. I think this is a good way to test, and if the system boots OK and everything works as expected, you can then go all-in and enable systemd by default.

I also discovered the debian systemd implementation doesn’t run /etc/rc.local by default, but that’s easy to solve as well. (IMPORTANT: This is no longer the case.)

The debian wiki has excellent documentation on systemd and includes links for other common distributions as well.

As far as the two (non systemd related) issues I ran into:

  • On one server system, any USB related operations would hang with a kernel call stack dumped to dmesg. It turned out that this was some issue related to upgrading to the 3.13 kernel and had nothing to do with systemd. I verified this because I ran into the same issue when booting with sysvinit under the kernel. I was able to workaround this problem by unplugging a certain USB device (an external hard drive) until after the system booted. This system is working fine with systemd, and the external drive, I just have to unplug it if I need to reboot. Had I simply rebooted before trying out systemd I would have found this issue and not been debugging the wrong thing.

  • On my Acer C720 chromebook (yes, it runs Debian), the kernel would panic when I attempted to boot with init=/bin/systemd. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit what the cause was… Well, I forgot one little important step in this process: I forgot to install systemd!

Installing systemd

Make sure your system is fully up to date and running the latest kernel. I.e.

$ sudo aptitude full-upgrade

At this point you should reboot if any major updates, such as a new kernel, were installed. You only want to be debugging one problem, not two as I described in my issues above!

Now is a really good time to make a full backup of your system, as well.

To start with, we’ll install systemd alongside sysvinit:

$ sudo aptitude install systemd

This will likely bring along a few dependencies, such as libpam-systemd, libsystemd-daemon0, libsystemd-journal0, and libsystemd-login0.

Testing systemd

Now you’ll need to reboot and manually edit the boot line in grub to enable systemd. To do this, hit ‘e’ at the grub boot menu for your kernel, and append init=/bin/systemd to the line that starts with linux. It might look something like the following, depending on the options for your specific kernel:

linux   /vmlinuz-3.13-1-amd64 root=/dev/mapper/root-root ro quiet init=/bin/systemd

Press F10 or ctrl+x to boot. If all goes well, and it should, your system will boot and run like normal. You can tell if systemd is in use if PID 1 is systemd* and not **init, for example:

$ ps -p1
  1 ?        00:00:01 systemd

Watch out! some ps options will show it as /sbin/init, so be careful not to confuse yourself.

At this point, we can also use systemctl:

$ systemctl status
[long output deleted]

The nice thing about testing this way is that the systemd switch is not persistent. If you reboot again, you are back to sysvinit.

If you are happy at this point, and your system is stable, you can install systemd-sysv, which will remove sysvinit. You can also run in this testing configuration for a week or so if you prefer.

Enabling systemd by default

Once you do this, there’s no going back! If your system started ok with systemd, it should be safe to do this - just be aware that you absorb some risk…

$ sudo aptitude install systemd-sysv

This will remove sysvinit and make systemd the default. Next, reboot:

$ sudo shutdown -r now

Your system should reboot cleanly with systemd. Once again, you can use systemctl status to verify that everything looks good.

Longer term testing

If you aren’t ready to commit to systemd, you can always modify your grub configuration so that it boots with systemd by default, but if you run into trouble you can always disable it again. Note that if you have a non-booting system due to systemd you’ll have to boot a rescue livecd/liveusb and modify /boot/grub/grub.cfg manually.

To configure grub to boot with systemd by default, add init=/bin/systemd to the GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX_DEFAULT line of /etc/default/grub such that it looks something like:

GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX_DEFAULT="quiet init=/bin/systemd"

Note that yours may look different.

Configuring rc.local under systemd

IMPORTANT: The following section should no longer be necessary now that this functionality is there by default. If you are using an older version of systemd, or you find that there is no built-in service for rc.local, the following is still useful. Not sure if you already have an rc.local service? Run the systemctl status command shown below - if you have the service, it will be running, if you don’t then that command will result in error.

Finally, let’s get rc.local working under systemd.

Create the following file as /etc/systemd/system/rc-local.service:

#  This file is part of systemd.
#  systemd is free software; you can redistribute it and/or modify it
#  under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by
#  the Free Software Foundation; either version 2 of the License, or
#  (at your option) any later version.

Description=/etc/rc.local Compatibility

ExecStart=/etc/rc.local start


(Note: In a previous version of systemd service files needed to be executable. This is no longer the case, so this article has been updated to reflect this).

$ sudo systemctl enable rc-local

After rebooting, you can use systemctl to check that everything worked as expected:

$ systemctl status rc.local
rc-local.service - /etc/rc.local Compatibility
   Loaded: loaded (/etc/systemd/system/rc-local.service; enabled)
   Active: active (exited) since Sat 2014-03-29 15:49:01 PDT; 1h 15min ago
  Process: 1097 ExecStart=/etc/rc.local start (code=exited, status=0/SUCCESS)

And that’s all there is to it! So far, systemd is a rather nice upgrade over the aging sysvinit. It will take some time for all your various services and programs to get updated with systemd init scripts, but until then the default systemd compatibility mode will still start all those scripts for you.

* Yes, this is a reference to the Kate Bush lyric from Hounds of Love, originating in the movie Curse of the Demon aka Night of the Demon. Since systemd is about managing system daemons, somehow the line “It’s in the trees… It’s coming!” popped into my head as I was thinking about a good title for this article.