Multiple Linux Systems on One ZFS Pool

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ZFS is a volume manager in addition to a filesystem. Traditional volume managers are essentially virtual RAID systems. LVM, for instance, allows you to combine several block devices into one block device, which you can then partition as normal. ZFS’s main filesystem concept, known as “datasets”, are different though. A ZFS pool isn’t a block device that needs to be formatted and partitioned, and datasets aren’t partitions formatted with filesystems. Rather, ZFS abstracts all of that away. A dataset is just a logical filesystem managed by the ZFS pool, and all datasets in the pool share the space provided by all the underlying block devices.

So if you ever need multiple Linux systems on one hard drive (or any group of block devices), they can all share space if you simply install each one in its own dataset in the same ZFS pool. In this post, I’ll be doing this with two NixOS installations, but in theory it would work with any Linux distros that support a ZFS root filesystem.

This post assumes you already have NixOS installed on ZFS. I described how I did this in another post, including encryption and encrypted /boot. Once you have this, there’s not even any need for a live CD; you can do everything from the main system, at least with NixOS.

First, create the ZFS dataset that the new system will be installed on.

$ zfs create zroot/new-system -o mountpoint=legacy
$ mount -t zfs zroot/new-system /mnt

Unfortunately, we do need to let NixOS try to install Grub, since the grub.cfg is needed, and Grub will complain that /boot is not an EFI partition. The easiest way to fix this is to trick Grub by creating a small zvol, formatting it to FAT32, and pointing efiSysMountPoint at it. Grub will install itself there, and it’ll just end up completely ignored, since the main system’s Grub will be in charge.

$ zfs create -V 50M zroot/new-system/fake-efi
$ gdisk /dev/zvol/zroot/new-system/fake-efi
# Create a GPT and a single partition taking the 
# entire drive, with partition type hex code: ef00
$ mkfs.fat /dev/zvol/zroot/new-system/fake-efi-part1
$ mkdir /mnt/efi
$ mount /dev/zvol/zroot/new-system/fake-efi-part1 /mnt/efi

Now generate the NixOS config. But it needs a few edits.

$ nixos-generate-config --root /mnt

Edit /mnt/etc/nixos/configuration.nix to boot from ZFS, in the same way as your main system. For me, with LUKS, this meant copying my extra initrd to the new /mnt/boot and replacing the default boot.loader lines with this:

  boot.initrd.luks.devices.zroot = {
    device = "/dev/disk/by-uuid/YOUR_UUID_HERE";
    keyFile = "/keyfile.bin";

  boot.loader.grub = {
    device = "nodev";
    efiSupport = true;
    extraInitrd = "/boot/initrd.keys.gz";
    enableCryptodisk = true;
    zfsSupport = true;
    efiInstallAsRemovable = true;
    forceInstall = true;
  boot.loader.efi.efiSysMountPoint = "/efi";

  networking.hostId = "75c7b830";

Of course don’t forget to create a new networking.hostId for the new system. I got mine from openssl rand -hex 4. Some of the Grub configuration above may not be necessary, since the Grub installed by the new system won’t actually be used, but I didn’t take the time to figure out what is unneeded.

The last change required for /mnt/etc/nixos/configuration.nix has to do with the fake EFI zvol. nixos-generate-config more than likely set its device to something like /dev/zd0p1 or something. This might work, but ZFS provides no guarantees that a zvol will always be given the same name in /dev. So this value needs to be overridden manually. Luckily NixOS provides mkForce to override the autogenerated definition, without having to edit the hardware config everytime it’s regenerated. Add this to /mnt/etc/nixos/configuration.nix:

  fileSystems."/efi".device = pkgs.lib.mkForce "/dev/zvol/zroot/new-system/fake-efi-part1";

That should be enough to install NixOS on this dataset.

$ nixos-install --root /mnt

Finally, we just need to teach the Grub installed by the main system how to boot the other system. I just added a custom menuentry that loads the new system’s grub.cfg. You could in theory have the new system install Grub to your actual ESP alongside the main system’s Grub and use Grub’s chainloader command in the main grub.cfg to load the new system’s boot loader directly. But I couldn’t quite figure out how to accomplish this, and it would have required a second LUKS password prompt from the second Grub anyway, which I find very undesirable.

  boot.loader.grub.extraEntries = ''
    menuentry "New System" {
      search --set=drive1 --label zroot
      configfile ($drive1)//new-system/@/boot/grub/grub.cfg

Adding this to your main system’s configuration.nix will add the new system’s Grub menu under a submenu to the main system’s Grub menu. nixos-rebuild the main system, reboot, and you should see a New System menu entry that will bring you to the new system’s Grub menu, from which you can boot the new system.

So that’s two NixOS systems on the same ZFS pool! Eventually, I plan to use this as the basis for dual booting macOS on my MacBook (hear me out). I want to have macOS running on a zvol that’s managed by NixOS in order to get all the benefits of ZFS, like snapshots and znapzend. So I’m planning on virtualizing macOS and passing hardware like USB and the GPU through directly with VFIO. But that’s a post for another time.