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8.10. Compiling a Kernel

The kernels provided by Debian include the largest possible number of features, as well as the maximum of drivers, in order to cover the broadest spectrum of existing hardware configurations. This is why some users prefer to recompile the kernel in order to only include what they specifically need. There are two reasons for this choice. First, it may be to optimize memory consumption, since the kernel code, even if it is never used, occupies memory for nothing (and never “goes down” on the swap space, since it is actual RAM that it uses), which can decrease overall system performance. A locally compiled kernel can also limit the risk of security problems since only a fraction of the kernel code is compiled and run.
Recompilation of the kernel is also necessary if you want to use certain features that are only available as patches (and not included in the standard kernel version).

8.10.1. Introduction and Prerequisites

Unsurprisingly Debian manages the kernel in the form of a package, which is not how kernels have traditionally been compiled and installed. Since the kernel remains under the control of the packaging system, it can then be removed cleanly, or deployed on several machines. Furthermore, the scripts associated with these packages automate the interaction with the bootloader and the initrd generator.
The upstream Linux sources contain everything needed to build a Debian package of the kernel. But you still need to install build-essential to ensure that you have the tools required to build a Debian package. Furthermore, the configuration step for the kernel requires the libncurses5-dev package. Finally, the fakeroot package will enable creation of the Debian package without using administrator's rights.

8.10.2. Getting the Sources

Like anything that can be useful on a Debian system, the Linux kernel sources are available in a package. To retrieve them, just install the linux-source-version package. The apt-cache search ^linux-source command lists the various kernel versions packaged by Debian. The latest version is available in the Unstable distribution: you can retrieve them without much risk (especially if your APT is configured according to the instructions of Section 6.2.6, “Working with Several Distributions”). Note that the source code contained in these packages does not correspond precisely with that published by Linus Torvalds and the kernel developers; like all distributions, Debian applies a number of patches, which might (or might not) find their way into the upstream version of Linux. These modifications include backports of fixes/features/drivers from newer kernel versions, new features not yet (entirely) merged in the upstream Linux tree, and sometimes even Debian specific changes.
The remainder of this section focuses on the 3.16 version of the Linux kernel, but the examples can, of course, be adapted to the particular version of the kernel that you want.
We assume the linux-source-3.16 package has been installed. It contains /usr/src/linux-source-3.16.tar.xz, a compressed archive of the kernel sources. You must extract these files in a new directory (not directly under /usr/src/, since there is no need for special permissions to compile a Linux kernel): ~/kernel/ is appropriate.
$ mkdir ~/kernel; cd ~/kernel
$ tar -xaf /usr/src/linux-source-3.16.tar.xz

8.10.3. Configuring the Kernel

The next step consists of configuring the kernel according to your needs. The exact procedure depends on the goals.
When recompiling a more recent version of the kernel (possibly with an additional patch), the configuration will most likely be kept as close as possible to that proposed by Debian. In this case, and rather than reconfiguring everything from scratch, it is sufficient to copy the /boot/config-version file (the version is that of the kernel currently used, which can be found with the uname -r command) into a .config file in the directory containing the kernel sources.
$ cp /boot/config-3.16.0-4-amd64 ~/kernel/linux-source-3.16/.config
Unless you need to change the configuration, you can stop here and skip to Section 8.10.4, “Compiling and Building the Package”. If you need to change it, on the other hand, or if you decide to reconfigure everything from scratch, you must take the time to configure your kernel. There are various dedicated interfaces in the kernel source directory that can be used by calling the make target command, where target is one of the values described below.
make menuconfig compiles and executes a text-mode interface (this is where the libncurses5-dev package is required) which allows navigating the options available in a hierarchical structure. Pressing the Space key changes the value of the selected option, and Enter validates the button selected at the bottom of the screen; Select returns to the selected sub-menu; Exit closes the current screen and moves back up in the hierarchy; Help will display more detailed information on the role of the selected option. The arrow keys allow moving within the list of options and buttons. To exit the configuration program, choose Exit from the main menu. The program then offers to save the changes you've made; accept if you are satisfied with your choices.
Other interfaces have similar features, but they work within more modern graphical interfaces; such as make xconfig which uses a Qt graphical interface, and make gconfig which uses GTK+. The former requires libqt4-dev, while the latter depends on libglade2-dev and libgtk2.0-dev.
When using one of those configuration interfaces, it is always a good idea to start from a reasonable default configuration. The kernel provides such configurations in arch/arch/configs/*_defconfig and you can put your selected configuration in place with a command like make x86_64_defconfig (in the case of a 64-bit PC) or make i386_defconfig (in the case of a 32-bit PC).

8.10.4. Compiling and Building the Package

Once the kernel configuration is ready, a simple make deb-pkg will generate up to 5 Debian packages: linux-image-version that contains the kernel image and the associated modules, linux-headers-version which contains the header files required to build external modules, linux-firmware-image-version which contains the firmware files needed by some drivers (this package might be missing when you build from the kernel sources provided by Debian), linux-image-version-dbg which contains the debugging symbols for the kernel image and its modules, and linux-libc-dev which contains headers relevant to some user-space libraries like GNU glibc.
The version is defined by the concatenation of the upstream version (as defined by the variables VERSION, PATCHLEVEL, SUBLEVEL and EXTRAVERSION in the Makefile), of the LOCALVERSION configuration parameter, and of the LOCALVERSION environment variable. The package version reuses the same version string with an appended revision that is regularly incremented (and stored in .version), except if you override it with the KDEB_PKGVERSION environment variable.
$ make deb-pkg LOCALVERSION=-falcot KDEB_PKGVERSION=$(make kernelversion)-1
$ ls ../*.deb

8.10.5. Compiling External Modules

Some modules are maintained outside of the official Linux kernel. To use them, they must be compiled alongside the matching kernel. A number of common third party modules are provided by Debian in dedicated packages, such as xtables-addons-source (extra modules for iptables) or oss4-source (Open Sound System, some alternative audio drivers).
These external packages are many and varied and we won't list them all here; the apt-cache search source$ command can narrow down the search field. However, a complete list isn't particularly useful since there is no particular reason for compiling external modules except when you know you need it. In such cases, the device's documentation will typically detail the specific module(s) it needs to function under Linux.
For example, let's look at the xtables-addons-source package: after installation, a .tar.bz2 of the module's sources is stored in /usr/src/. While we could manually extract the tarball and build the module, in practice we prefer to automate all this using DKMS. Most modules offer the required DKMS integration in a package ending with a -dkms suffix. In our case, installing xtables-addons-dkms is all that is needed to compile the kernel module for the current kernel provided that we have the linux-headers-* package matching the installed kernel. For instance, if you use linux-image-amd64, you would also install linux-headers-amd64.
$ sudo apt install xtables-addons-dkms

Setting up xtables-addons-dkms (2.6-1) ...
Loading new xtables-addons-2.6 DKMS files...
First Installation: checking all kernels...
Building only for 3.16.0-4-amd64
Building initial module for 3.16.0-4-amd64

Running module version sanity check.
 - Original module
   - No original module exists within this kernel
 - Installation
   - Installing to /lib/modules/3.16.0-4-amd64/updates/dkms/
DKMS: install completed.
$ sudo dkms status
xtables-addons, 2.6, 3.16.0-4-amd64, x86_64: installed
$ sudo modinfo xt_ACCOUNT
filename:       /lib/modules/3.16.0-4-amd64/updates/dkms/xt_ACCOUNT.ko
license:        GPL
alias:          ipt_ACCOUNT
author:         Intra2net AG <>
description:    Xtables: per-IP accounting for large prefixes

8.10.6. Applying a Kernel Patch

Some features are not included in the standard kernel due to a lack of maturity or to some disagreement with the kernel maintainers. Such features may be distributed as patches that anyone is then free to apply to the kernel sources.
Debian distributes some of these patches in linux-patch-* or kernel-patch-* packages (for instance, linux-patch-grsecurity2, which tightens some of the kernel's security policies). These packages install files in the /usr/src/kernel-patches/ directory.
To apply one or more of these installed patches, use the patch command in the sources directory then start compilation of the kernel as described above.
$ cd ~/kernel/linux-source-3.16
$ make clean
$ zcat /usr/src/kernel-patches/diffs/grsecurity2/grsecurity-3.0-3.17.1-201410250027.patch.gz | patch -p1
Note that a given patch may not necessarily work with every version of the kernel; it is possible for patch to fail when applying them to kernel sources. An error message will be displayed and give some details about the failure; in this case, refer to the documentation available in the Debian package of the patch (in the /usr/share/doc/linux-patch-*/ directory). In most cases, the maintainer indicates for which kernel versions their patch is intended.