What is Canoeboot?

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The main purpose of this article is to describe how the Canoeboot project operates, why it exists and what it does. Who, what, why and when.

You may also be interested in: Canoeboot vs GNU Boot

What is Canoeboot?

Canoeboot is free/opensource boot firmware based on Libreboot (which is in turn based on coreboot), replacing proprietary BIOS/UEFI firmware on select x86/ARM laptops, desktops and server mainboards. It provides an automated build system for compiling coreboot ROM images, that are easy to install for non-technical users. The emphasis is placed upon ease of use, and optional security features.

Users take this automation for granted today, but Libreboot was the first such project to implement this. It, like Canoeboot, is a coreboot distro in the same way that Debian is a Linux distro (that uses the GNU C Library and coreutils, among other things). Similar projects now exist, today, inspired by Libreboot’s example. Coreboot is notoriously difficult to configure and install for most non-technical users, but Libreboot and Canoeboot make it easier.

Overview of operation

More specifically, Canoeboot is a fork of Libreboot, maintained in parallel as per each Libreboot release. Canoeboot adheres to the GNU Free System Distribution Guidelines, instead of Libreboot’s more pragmatic Binary Blob Reduction Policy - and such adherence (to GNU FSDG) is the main purpose of Canoeboot. It consequently supports far less hardware than Libreboot, providing a proof of concept showing what Libreboot would be like if it didn’t implement such a policy (in opposition to the GNU one that Canoeboot implements). Libreboot previously adhered to the GNU FSDG policy, but adopted the Binary Blob Reduction Policy in November 2022, in an effort to increase the number of mainboards that can be supported from coreboot.

Thus, Canoeboot is a representation of the old Libreboot project. Coreboot is nominally free software, but requires binary blobs for certain initialisation on certain boards; only very few mainboards can boot without them. You can read about how Libreboot handles this (in contrast to Canoeboot which bans all binary blobs), by reading the Libreboot Freedom Status page: https://libreboot.org/freedom-status.html

Canoeboot was created because there are still a few people who want this sort of thing, but there weren’t any modern, or otherwise high quality implementations. Thus, I decided to revive the old Libreboot project myself, forking from my very own project (Libreboot) and calling the new fork Canoeboot. I forked my own project.


Canoeboot is maintained by the same founder, Leah Rowe, who is the founder and lead developer of both the Libreboot project and the Canoeboot project. Maintaining a project like Canoeboot is both challenging and fun; Canoeboot does not permit any binary blobs from coreboot, which means that it can only support a handful of mainboards from coreboot, and sometimes several mitigations may be required to stabilise certain functionalities under these conditions.

The project called GNU Boot launched during June 2023, in opposition to Libreboot’s new policy as of November 2022; however, GNU Boot’s base Libreboot revision was from around the time of the Libreboot 20220710 release, so their base was roughly 1 year out of date compared to Libreboot. Canoeboot was created to directly compete with GNU Boot, which is lead by different people.

GNU Boot originally started as a hostile fork attempt; the FSF tried to steal the name Libreboot by setting up a Libreboot project at another TLD (instead of libreboot.org) and claiming to be the real thing, despite the fact that the real Libreboot project was actively developed, and doing releases. This video at LibrePlanet 2023, on 19 March 2023, announced the FSF’s Libreboot project, which was the hostile fork; this was anticipated, so the real Libreboot at libreboot.org made a new release that same day, having prepared for it several weeks beforehand. This resulted in the Libreboot 20230319 release, and started an aggressive counter-coup out-competing them. It succeeded, and the FSF lost; they renamed their project to GNU Boot, starting from June 2023.

Canoeboot was originally designated as GNU Boot unofficially, launching in the month of July 2023 as a proof of concept based upon Libreboot 20230625 to help the real GNU Boot get up to date versus Libreboot. GNU Boot’s June 2023 revision was nearly 1 year behind on Libreboot. The unofficial GNU Boot was renamed and re-branded to nonGeNUine Boot on 21 July 2023 when the real GNU Boot sent a legal threat to the Libreboot project (citing trademark infringement) - an innocent mistake, based on a misunderstanding. The purpose of the original unofficial project was merely to provide a base for the real GNU Boot project to just use however they wish, but they took it the wrong way. The logic then was: if there is going to be another FSDG distro, continuing on from the old Libreboot policy (based on GNU FSDG), it should at least be high quality, and released to a high standard, so the unofficial project was made to show them precisely how the Libreboot project is run, so as to provide them with inspiration.

GNU FSDG policy is heavily misguided. Libreboot is vastly superior to Canoeboot, but it can at least be developed to a high standard (within the FSF and GNU dogma); as of 26 October 2023, GNU Boot’s build system and revisions were still largely based on Libreboot 20220710, with very few meaningful changes; Canoeboot was released on that day (26 Oct 2023), based on Libreboot 20231021 which is 13 months newer than Libreboot 20220710; the nonGeNUine Boot 20230717 change log was in reference to Libreboot 20220710, and the Canoeboot 20231026 change log is in reference to nonGeNUine Boot 20230717 - if you combine both change logs, you then more or less have a list of all the things Canoeboot 20231026 can do that GNU Boot 0.1 RC didn’t. It’s a lot!

On this day, 26 October 2023, Canoeboot also supported more boards than GNU Boot, namely: Dell Latitude E6400, gru_bob chromebooks and gru_kevin chromebooks. The chromebooks are using ARM-based RK3399 SoCs with a heavily modified version of U-Boot, developed for Libreboot. GNU Boot still didn’t have bootable U-Boot configurations on that day!

nonGeNUine Boot was renamed to Canoeboot, with the Canoeboot 20231026 release in October 2023, based upon Libreboot 20231021.

Why does Canoeboot exist?

On the day of the first Canoeboot release, GNU Boot 0.1 RC was out but not much different to the state it was in during July 2023, and they had not accepted the help of the original nonGeNUine Boot project; their 0.1 RC release was essentially Libreboot 20220710, but with a few build fixes on newer distros, some of which were created by the unofficial GNU Boot first (e.g. fix KGPE-D16 build errors). It was decided then that Canoeboot would be created, as an official project in direct competition with GNU Boot, for fun - the GNU Boot project started in June 2023, in opposition to Libreboot’s change of policy. Canoeboot started, with the desire to provide FSDG-compliant releases based on Libreboot, exactly in line with the GNU Free System Distribution Guidelines, as a proof of concept to show what Libreboot would otherwise be.

Libreboot is on the forefront, bringing coreboot to ordinary people, and Canoeboot follows the same pattern, providing high quality releases in parallel to it.

Canoeboot exists purely for fun, to see what is technically possible under GNU policy. It is a fun technical challenge. Every effort is made to ensure perfect compliance with GNU FSDG criteria.

Libreboot’s Binary Blob Reduction Policy is more ideal, because it allows more people to use coreboot, thus increasing software freedom overall for more people, but there is no harm in Canoeboot so long as it does not stifle Libreboot development; so Canoeboot is only updated after each Libreboot release, cherry-picking what can be included under Canoeboot policy and done in an extremely efficient manner.

Release schedule

The Canoeboot schedule is: whenever a Libreboot release is ready, produce a new Canoeboot release based on it, when there are enough changes to warrant a new release.

How releases are engineered

It’s actually very simple. Here is the method by which Canoeboot releases are created:

The resulting patch file is then opened up in Vim.

In the Canoeboot repository, these changes are then copied over. This is done by scrolling through the patch file, deciding which changes are worthy. The policy is to include all changes, except those that are not suitable under FSDG.

Then the following is done, for coreboot and u-boot trees per tree:

Libreboot often contains hundreds of changes per release, so it would be quite inefficient to cherry-pick individual patches. Therefore, all development is done in Libreboot exclusively, and Canoeboot is the by-product of that development, updating every now and then.

The above steps are a general guide, but specific tweaks may also be required in the build system, for a new release; minor edge cases here and there, that are different for every release, but they are usually very minor.

The deblob-check script is from linux-libre, a GNU fork of Linux that is de-blobbed, but the same script works on any source tree, except it will flag all of the false positives on non-Linux source trees; it scans heuristically for binary blobs.

This is how Canoeboot can provide releases so quickly, based upon each release of Libreboot. Extensive testing is performed on ROM images compiled under the Libreboot build system, so the Canoeboot images are also easy to verify, since a Canoeboot release will always be closely based on a Libreboot release.

This is actually the benefit of Canoeboot, over all other FSDG-derived coreboot distros, because the other projects do not have as good infrastructure or the level of resources or technical knowledge that Libreboot has. Libreboot provides high quality releases which are then filtered by order of the protocol described above, to provide Canoeboot releases.

osboot project

Prior to 16 November 2022, another project existed called the osboot project, which was also created by Leah. Osboot started as a fork of Libreboot, starting in early December 2020, with the exact policies and goals of Libreboot as of 16 November 2022. On 16 November 2022, osboot was shut down and all code differences merged back into Libreboot, thus creating the osboot/libreboot merger of 16 November 2022. The osboot project was thus the blueprint for modern Libreboot.

Prior to the merger, during those almost-2-years, osboot and Libreboot were kept in sync, but it was much harder; Libreboot was the main project, but under the old policy, whereas osboot was adding new boards and new logic to the build system. Then later, osboot became main; however, Libreboot was still the bigger project. At the time osboot started, Libreboot had not seen any releases in five years; osboot forked the old Libreboot build system from 2016 because of a failed re-write of it since 2017; osboot was used in early 2021 to revive the Libreboot project, scrapping the re-write and modernising the classic design that later became lbmk (the Canoeboot version is cbmk and the osboot version was called osbmk).

Removing code is easier than adding it each time, when syncing one project based on another, but doing it this way was impossible then, so osboot and Libreboot were maintained in parallel on a per-patch basis; the same logic would be implemented per-patch between the two projects, but this started becoming much harder to manage over time.

So if osboot was to become the de facto main project, I decided that it should be osboot that has the most recognition. Therefore, I merged osboot into Libreboot. I originally intended to then maintain an fsdg branch within Libreboot, which would have been equivalent to today’s Canoeboot in terms of policy. However, this too would have become impractical.

So the situation before was: FSDG-only Libreboot, and no osboot. Then it was Osboot and Libreboot. Then libreboot-only again, but under the Binary Blob Reduction Policy. Now, today, it is libreboot under the Binary Blob Reduction Policy and Canoeboot under Libreboot’s old Binary Blob Extermination Policy adhering to GNU FSDG. You can read the actual old Libreboot policy (the FSDG one) in this link: https://web.archive.org/web/20221107235850/https://libreboot.org/news/policy.html


tl;dr - it’s basically this.

Markdown file for this page: https://canoeboot.org/about.md

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