11 Traps To Avoid When Building Debian Images

6 minute read

The target audience of this blog post are either people that are using tailored Debian images or people that create or plan to create tailored Debian images. The checklist below shall be useful for all of them to verify the correctness of a given or resulting image.


Here are the eleven traps that I have encountered during my past 5+ years of experience with building tailored Debian images:

1. ssh Host Keys

During the installation of the openssh-server package the post installation script will automatically generate ssh host keys. This is very convenient if you install openssh-server on an existing machine. However, if you want to create a distributable image the ssh host keys must be unique for each installation because otherwise multiple systems would identify themselves with the same key. Therefore you have to do two things with your distributable image:

  • Delete the generated ssh host keys (/etc/ssh/ssh_host_*_key*) before you distribute your image.
  • Provide a service that re-generates the ssh host keys on the first boot of the image.

The key generation service can look like this:

Description=Generate host keys for openssh-server.

ExecStart=/usr/bin/ssh-keygen -A -v


If you are interested in more details, please take a look at the base_system_cleanup role of edi.

2. Installation of Software Packages

Sometimes you might want to install a software and you can not find that software packaged as a Debian package. A misguided approach would be to just copy and paste that software into the image. However, you will deeply regret having taken that shortcut as soon as it comes to a software update. The correct approach is to package this software as a proper Debian package. There is a certain learning curve to get used to it but it is well worth the journey. To get started with Debian packages you can take a look at the Debian manuals. And yes - just to make sure that you bypass another trap - I would like to mention this blog post.

3. Choosing a Mirror

Some time ago it was commonplace to choose a country specific Debian mirror when creating an image. This is kind of problematic if you assemble an image in Switzerland and then it is being used in India. The package downloads will then be slow because they make a detour over Switzerland. Luckily there is a solution for this thanks to the sponsoring of Amazon CloudFront and Fastly. Nowadays you can just take the content delivery network address and a sources.list file might then look like this:

deb http://deb.debian.org/debian stretch main contrib non-free
deb http://deb.debian.org/debian stretch-updates main contrib non-free
deb http://deb.debian.org/debian stretch-backports main contrib non-free
deb http://security.debian.org/ stretch/updates main contrib non-free

The content delivery network will automatically choose the right mirror for you.

4. Trustworthy Software Sources

Debian typically downloads packages over http. This would be unsafe if there would not be a check against a GPG signature. This signature check must already happen during the initial bootstrapping process, otherwise the image might already be compromised right from the start. The debootstrap tool can be forced to check the GPG signatures by using the --force-check-gpg option. Obviously you have to provide the appropriate verifications keys to debootstrap which can be downloaded e.g. from https://ftp-master.debian.org/keys. Please note that you should download keys only from a trustworthy source (e.g. not over http).

5. Reproducibility

The assembly of a complex image involves several steps. Make sure that you automate all those steps in order to generate images with reproducible content. Tools like edi, elbe or packer will help you to achieve this goal.

6. Login Credentials

If you are distributing an OS image to an unknown audience you have to provide the login credentials to that audience. Typically this is a user name and a static password that is the same for all images. As a minimal safety precaution you should immediately change that password if you have created a new instance from a given image. edi goes even a step further and disables password based login over ssh by default. With this precaution even an unchanged default password is not exploitable over the network.

The Ubuntu Core team does a great job in adding your public key to the image during the download of the image!

7. Service Startup During Installation

If you are assembling an OS image you should make sure that you do not start services during package installation because those services might generate some unique IDs during their first startup. Fortunately dpkg has foreseen this use case and you can add a file /usr/sbin/policy-rc.d (mode 755) to your image with the following content:

exit 101

This will prevent the service startup from within the post installation scripts (please note that post installation scripts shall not call systemd directly). At the end of the image assembly you have to remove the file /usr/sbin/policy-rc.d again.

8. Machine ID

Your Linux system contains a file named /etc/machine-id containing a unique identifier for your system. It is easy to guess what happens if this file is already part of the OS image: The content of /etc/machine-id will not be unique anymore if you install that image on multiple instances. This is why you have to remove /etc/machine-id from your OS image. systemd will re-create that file on the first boot but this also triggers some special behaviour of systemd:

9. systemd Preset Behavior

Let us assume that your OS image has a service installed that should just be available for developers. We call that service unsafe-dev-backdoor.service. Since we do not want to have that service running on production images we disable and stop it during image creation:

sudo systemctl disable unsafe-dev-backdoor
sudo systemctl stop unsafe-dev-backdoor

Now you go into production with that image and guess what: All your devices will be delivered with the unsafe-dev-backdoor.service enabled and running!

The removal of /etc/machine-id will trigger a first start behavior of systemd. During that process systemd will preset all service to “factory defaults” and this will enable and start the unsafe-dev-backdoor.service.

To change the “factory defaults” you can put a file named 10-unsafe-dev-backdoor.preset to /lib/systemd/system-preset with the following content:

disable unsafe-dev-backdoor.service

Now your delivered devices are safe again!

10. File System Permissions

The GNU tar utility comes with some built-in intelligence to map user and group names to their numerical values. If we use Ubuntu to build a Debian image this built-in intelligence can get confused in some edge cases. Luckily you can disable this built-in intelligence by using tar with the option --numeric-owner. It is a good idea to use that option in every place where your image scripts do tar or untar operations.

11. Reducing Image Size but Remain Legally Compliant

Depending on your use case you do not need some content of the /usr/share folder and therefore you can tell dpkg to skip the installation of the contents of certain folders. This will have a measurable impact on the image size. edi for instance allows you to disable the installation of documentation via /etc/dpkg/dpkg.cfg.d/01_no_documentation:

# save disk space by excluding documentation
path-exclude /usr/share/doc/*
# keep copyright files for legal reasons
path-include /usr/share/doc/*/copyright
path-exclude /usr/share/man/*
path-exclude /usr/share/groff/*
path-exclude /usr/share/info/*
path-exclude /usr/share/lintian/*
path-exclude /usr/share/linda/*

Please note the fourth line of this config file: edi will make sure that the copyright files do get installed to provide a legally compliant image.


I hope that the above checklist helps you to confirm that you or your image provider have bypassed all possible traps.

The images generated using the tool edi with the configuration edi-pi will also come with a proper setup according to the above checklist.

Do you know additional traps that would be worth mentioning here? I will really appreciate your input!


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