How Xen Boots

This is an at-a-glance reference of Xen's booting capabilities and expectations.

1 Build

A build of xen produces xen.gz and optionally xen.efi as final artefacts.

1.1 Objects

To begin with, most object files are compiled and linked. This includes the Multiboot 1 and 2 headers and entrypoints, including the Multiboot 2 tags for EFI extensions. When CONFIG_PVH_GUEST is selected at build time, this includes the PVH entrypoint and associated ELF notes.

Depending on whether the compiler supports __attribute__((__ms_abi__)) or not, either an EFI stub is included which nops/fails applicable setup and runtime calls, or full EFI support is included.

1.2 Protocols and entrypoints

All headers and tags are built in xen/arch/x86/boot/head.S

The Multiboot 1 headers request aligned modules and memory information. Entry is via the start of the binary image, which is the start symbol. This entrypoint must be started in 32bit mode.

The Multiboot 2 headers are more flexible, and in addition request that the image be loaded as high as possible below the 4G boundary, with 2M alignment. Entry is still via the start symbol as with MB1, and still in 32bit mode.

Headers for the EFI MB2 extensions are also present. These request that ExitBootServices() not be called, and register __efi_mb2_start as an alternative entrypoint, entered in 64bit mode.

If CONFIG_PVH_GUEST was selected at build time, an Elf note is included which indicates the ability to use the PVH boot protocol, and registers __pvh_start as the entrypoint, entered in 32bit mode.

1.3 xen.gz

The objects are linked together to form xen-syms which is an ELF64 executable with full debugging symbols. xen.gz is formed by stripping xen-syms, then repackaging the result as an ELF32 object with a single load section at 2MB, and gzip-ing the result. Despite the ELF32 having a fixed load address, its contents are relocatable.

Any bootloader which unzips the binary and follows the ELF headers will place it at the 2M boundary and jump to start which is the identified entry point. However, Xen depends on being entered with the MB1 or MB2 protocols, and will terminate otherwise.

The MB2+EFI entrypoint depends on being entered with the MB2 protocol, and will terminate if the entry protocol is wrong, or if EFI details aren't provided, or if EFI Boot Services are not available.

1.4 xen.efi

When a PEI-capable toolchain is found, the objects are linked together and a PE32+ binary is created. It can be run directly from the EFI shell, and has efi_start as its entry symbol.


xen.efi does contain all MB1/MB2/PVH tags included in the rest of the build. However, entry via anything other than the EFI64 protocol is unsupported, and won't work.

2 Boot

Xen, once loaded into memory, identifies its position in order to relocate system structures. For 32bit entrypoints, this necessarily requires a call instruction, and therefore a stack, but none of the ABIs provide one.

Overall, given that on a BIOS-based system, the IVT and BDA occupy the first 5/16ths of the first page of RAM, with the rest free to use, Xen assumes the top of the page is safe to use.