Revisiting default initramfs compression

Julian Andres Klode julian.klode at
Wed Dec 8 17:12:43 UTC 2021

Hi all,

some time ago, the default compressor for initramfs was changed
from lz4 -9 to zstd -19. This caused significant problems:

- it is very slow
- it uses a lot of memory

The former is a problem for everyone, the latter means that
zstd just crashes on a Pi Zero.

This is an analysis of what we have in terms of time spent,
memory spent, and file size achieved, and where we can
go from here.

# Comparison of different compression levels

## Desktop (ThinkPad T480s, jammy)

level    usertime   elapsed memory fileSize
lz4         9.65s    11.09s    12M      64M
-1          5.69s	  6.99s    24M      57M
-6         12.59s     8.58s    99M      47M
-12        19.85s    10.82s   249M      41M
-19        71.29s    26.95s   519M      35M

-> I believe that somewhere around -12 is a decent
   compromise between size and speed.

## Pi 4 (arm64, focal)

Times have been measured for mkinitramfs only. A full
update-initramfs call spends much more time copying
some firmware bits to boot partition with flash-kernel

level    usertime   elapsed memory fileSize
lz4        21.10s    64.85s    21M      29M
-1         13.73s    44.55s    21M      27M
-6         26.07s    49.09s    91M      24M
-12        48.18s    54.67s   203M      22M
-19       130.07s    92.80s   350M      20M

-> 6 is essentially free if the Pi 4 is idle. Nice.
-> -6 is still 20% of total RAM of a Pi 0
-> There's no meaningful difference between -6 and -12
   in terms of time elapsed. -6 uses 116% CPU, -12 uses
   145% CPU.

## Adaptive compression

zstd also supports adaptive compression, compressing as hard as
it can while not impacting I/O speed. So hardware with slow I/O
like a Pi would compress harder to avoid idling.

This is somewhat suboptimal with recent update-initramfs though,
as it first writes the cpio archive to the disk and then compresses
it rather than doing it in a pipe where that would be more

Question: Does zstd --adapt adapt to memory available?

# Way(s) forward

To remedy the issue the proposal is to build with

- zstd -1 on hardware with 512 MB or less memory
- zstd between -1 and -19 on other hardware
- zstd -19 during image building

Finding the right level between -1 and -19 is hard. The more
cores you have, the less penalty you pay for higher level.

Going for adaptive compression would remove the guess work, but
will result in larger images on faster machines. Maybe that's
fine, though - they probably have more space on /boot anyway?

If we want to aim for 5% of total memory, we should probably
aim for something like:

-1  on <= 512MB
-6  on <= 2 GB (or --adapt=min=1,max=6)
-12 on the rest (or --adapt=min=12)

It's clear that in all cases, zstd -1 is at least better than the
lz4 -9 we used before; both in terms of space used, and time spent.

# Concerns

Lowering the compression level will reduce the boot speed by fractions
of a second on hardware with fast I/O.

debian developer - | - free software dev
ubuntu core developer                              i speak de, en

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