The partition table format traditionally used on PC BIOS platforms is called the Master Boot Record (MBR) format; this is the format that allows up to four primary partitions and additional logical partitions. With this partition table format, there are two ways to install GRUB: it can be embedded in the area between the MBR and the first partition (called by various names, such as the "boot track", "MBR gap", or "embedding area", and which is usually at least 31 KiB), or the core image can be installed in a file system and a list of the blocks that make it up can be stored in the first sector of that partition.
Each of these has different problems. There is no way to reserve space in the embedding area with complete safety, and some proprietary software is known to use it to make it difficult for users to work around licensing restrictions; and systems are sometimes partitioned without leaving enough space before the first partition. On the other hand, installing to a filesystem means that GRUB is vulnerable to its blocks being moved around by filesystem features such as tail packing, or even by aggressive fsck implementations, so this approach is quite fragile; and this approach can only be used if the /boot filesystem is on the same disk that the BIOS boots from, so that GRUB does not have to rely on guessing BIOS drive numbers.
The GRUB development team generally recommends embedding GRUB before the first partition, unless you have special requirements. You must ensure that the first partition starts at least 31 KiB (63 sectors) from the start of the disk; on modern disks, it is often a performance advantage to align partitions on larger boundaries anyway, so the first partition might start 1 MiB from the start of the disk.
Some newer systems use the GUID Partition Table (GPT) format. This was specified as part of the Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI), but it can also be used on BIOS platforms if system software supports it; for example, GRUB and GNU/Linux can be used in this configuration. With this format, it is possible to reserve a whole partition for GRUB, called the BIOS Boot Partition. GRUB can then be embedded into that partition without the risk of being overwritten by other software and without being contained in a filesystem which might move its blocks around.
When creating a BIOS Boot Partition on a GPT system, you should make sure that it is at least 31 KiB in size. (GPT-formatted disks are not usually particularly small, so we recommend that you make it larger than the bare minimum, such as 1 MiB, to allow plenty of room for growth.) You must also make sure that it has the proper partition type. Using GNU Parted, you can set this using a command such as the following:
# parted /dev/disk set partition-number bios_grub on
If you are using gdisk, set the partition type to ‘0xEF02’. With partitioning programs that require setting the GUID directly, it should be ‘21686148-6449-6e6f-744e656564454649’.
Caution: Be very careful which partition you select! When GRUB finds a BIOS Boot Partition during installation, it will automatically overwrite part of it. Make sure that the partition does not contain any other data.