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An Intro to init

The init program is a user-space program like any other program on the Linux system, and you’ll find it in /sbin along with many of the other system binaries. Its main purpose is to start and stop the essential service processes on the system, but newer versions have more responsibilities.

There are three major implementations of init in Linux distributions:

System V init

A traditional sequenced init (Sys V, usually pronounced “sys-five”). Red Hat Enterprise Linux and several other distributions use this version.


The emerging standard for init. Many distributions have moved to systemd, and most that have not yet done so are planning to move to it.


The init on Ubuntu installations. However, as of this writing, Ubuntu has also planned to migrate to systemd.

There are various other versions of init as well, especially on embedded platforms. For example, Android has its own init. The BSDs also have their version of init, but you are unlikely to see them on a modern Linux machine. (Some distributions have also modified the System V init configuration to resemble the BSD style.)

There are many different implementations of init because System V init and other older versions relied on a sequence that performed only one startup task at a time. Under this scheme, it is relatively easy to resolve dependencies. However, performance isn’t terribly good, because two parts of the boot sequence cannot normally run at once. Another limitation is that you can only start a fixed set of services as defined by the boot sequence: When you plug in new hardware or need a service that isn’t already running, there is no standardized way to coordinate the new components with init.

systemd and Upstart attempt to remedy the performance issue by allowing many services to start in parallel thereby speeding up the boot process. Their implementations are quite different, though:

The systemd and Upstart init systems also offer a more advanced way to start and track services. In traditional init systems, service daemons are expected to start themselves from scripts. A script runs a daemon program, which detaches itself from the script and runs autonomously. To find the PID of a service daemon, you need to use ps or some other mechanism specific to the service. In contrast, Upstart and systemd can manage individual service daemons from the beginning, giving the user more power and insight into exactly what is running on the system.

Because the new init systems are not script-centric, configuring services for them also tends to be easier. In particular, System V init scripts tend to contain many similar commands designed to start, stop, and restart services. You don’t need all of this redundancy with systemd and Upstart, which allow you to concentrate on the services themselves, rather than their scripts.

Finally, systemd and Upstart both offer some level of on-demand services. Rather than trying to start all the services that may be necessary at boot time (as the System V init would do), they start some services only when needed. This idea is not really new; this was done with the traditional inetd daemon, but the new implementations are more sophisticated.

Both systemd and Upstart offer some System V backward compatibility. For example, both support the concept of runlevels.

Published on Mon 12 September 2016 by Heather Scarborough in Linux with tag(s): init