Boot to Vim, Vim as Pid 1

18-09-2014 | Remy van Elst

Table of Contents


This is a response on a great article from Pascal Bourguignon, namely how to run Emacs as PID 1.

As we all know, nobody uses emacs.

The above statement is ment to start a flamewar. Please do so, see the contact page to contact me.

No, all joking aside, I found it to be a good article and wanted to see how I could do that with Vim. Not in User Mode Linux, but by creating an actual ISO. Boot to Vim, as you might want to call it.

This is actually fairly simple. Compile vim statically, set it as init= at boot and you're done.

We are going to use small (9MB) distro named Tiny Core, Core edition and customize that to boot right into our static build of Vim.

If you like this article and want to support me AND get $10 Digital Ocean credit (2 months free), use this link to order:

Building Vim

Please read and follow my tutorial on building a statically linked Vim. This will give you an executable we will use later on in the tutorial.


You will need a few tools to build the ISO, namely cpio, tar, gzip, advdef and mkisofs. These can probably be installed with your package manager. Please do that first.

First create a folder for building:

mkdir vim-as-pid-1
cd vim-as-pid-1

Also create a few folders for the ISO build:

mkdir /tmp/isomount
mkdir extract

Download the latest Tiny Core, Core edition (without GUI):


Copy the files from the ISO:

mount Core-current.iso /tmp/isomount/ -o loop,ro

cp -a /tmp/isomount/boot /tmp/

This creates a /tmp/boot folder with the core.gz and boot loader. Don't forget to umount it:

umount /tmp/isomount

We will use the /tmp/boot folder later on when putting back together the ISO.

Changing the ISO

Go into the folder where we will extract the core.gz root filesystem:

cd extract

Use zcat and cpio to extract the core.gz rootfs:

zcat /tmp/boot/core.gz | cpio -i -H newc -d

We now have an extracted root filesystem:

# ls
bin  dev  etc  home  init  lib  linuxrc  mnt  opt  proc  root  run  sbin  sys  tmp  usr  var

Place the earlier built static Vim in the bin/ folder:

cp ~/vim bin/

You can do more customizations, for example, editing the boot loader message. That is in a file named boot.msg in /tmp/boot/isolinux/:

# vim /tmp/boot/isolinux/boot.msg
 ( -   Boot to Vim
 //\   Vim as Pid 1, because Awesome!

Press <Enter> to begin or F2, F3, or F4 to view boot options.

Changing the inittab

To boot in to Vim right away we need to change the init configuration. Edit the following file:

vim etc/inittab

Change the following lines:

tty1::respawn:/sbin/getty 38400 tty1



Do note that this does not actually make Vim PID 1. Init will still manage Vim, and do stuff like fsck and mount the root partition read/write. If you want to go barebones, add init=/bin/vim to the bootloader (isolinux.cfg). Then, from Vim, do :!fsck /dev/sda and mount -o remount,rw /.

Building a new ISO

Make sure you are still in the extract folder. Issue the following command to build a new tinycore.gz file which the ISO will use as it's initramfs:

find | cpio -o -H newc | gzip -2 > ../tinycore.gz

Copy that over the original core.gz file in /tmp/boot which we copied ealier:

cp ../tinycore.gz /tmp/boot/core.gz

Create a new folder for the new ISO build files:

mkdir /tmp/newiso

Copy the /tmp/boot folder to it:

cp -a /tmp/boot /tmp/newiso/

Build a new ISO using mkisofs:

cd /tmp/
mkisofs -l -J -R -V Boot_To_Vim -no-emul-boot -boot-load-size 4 -boot-info-table -b boot/isolinux/isolinux.bin -c boot/isolinux/ -o Boot_to_Vim.iso newiso

You now have a file in /tmp named Boot_to_Vim.iso:

ls -la /tmp/Boot_to_Vim.iso
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 11044864 Sep 17 08:05 /tmp/Boot_to_Vim.iso

You can use this to boot a VM, or burn an ISO. If you exit vim, it will restart.

You can start up a real shell by giving the :!sh command, in command mode. To shut down, issue the :!halt command.

More info on remastering Tiny Core can be found here.


Tags: compile, emacs, mips, tiny-core, vim,