GRUB consists of several images: a variety of bootstrap images for starting GRUB in various ways, a kernel image, and a set of modules which are combined with the kernel image to form a core image. Here is a short overview of them.
On PC BIOS systems, this image is the first part of GRUB to start. It is written to a master boot record (MBR) or to the boot sector of a partition. Because a PC boot sector is 512 bytes, the size of this image is exactly 512 bytes.
The sole function of boot.img is to read the first sector of the core
image from a local disk and jump to it. Because of the size restriction,
boot.img cannot understand any file system structure, so
grub-setup hardcodes the location of the first sector of the core
image into boot.img when installing GRUB.
This image is used as the first sector of the core image when booting from a hard disk. It reads the rest of the core image into memory and starts the kernel. Since file system handling is not yet available, it encodes the location of the core image using a block list format.
This image is used as the first sector of the core image when booting from a CD-ROM drive. It performs a similar function to diskboot.img.
This image is used as the start of the core image when booting from the network using PXE. See Network.
This image may be placed at the start of the core image in order to make GRUB look enough like a Linux kernel that it can be booted by LILO using an ‘image=’ section.
This image contains GRUB’s basic run-time facilities: frameworks for device and file handling, environment variables, the rescue mode command-line parser, and so on. It is rarely used directly, but is built into all core images.
This is the core image of GRUB. It is built dynamically from the kernel
image and an arbitrary list of modules by the
program. Usually, it contains enough modules to access /boot/grub,
and loads everything else (including menu handling, the ability to load
target operating systems, and so on) from the file system at run-time. The
modular design allows the core image to be kept small, since the areas of
disk where it must be installed are often as small as 32KB.
See BIOS installation, for details on where the core image can be installed on PC systems.
Everything else in GRUB resides in dynamically loadable modules. These are
often loaded automatically, or built into the core image if they are
essential, but may also be loaded manually using the
command (see insmod).
GRUB 2 has a different design from GRUB Legacy, and so correspondences with the images it used cannot be exact. Nevertheless, GRUB Legacy users often ask questions in the terms they are familiar with, and so here is a brief guide to how GRUB 2’s images relate to that.
Stage 1 from GRUB Legacy was very similar to boot.img in GRUB 2, and they serve the same function.
In GRUB Legacy, Stage 1.5’s function was to include enough filesystem code to allow the much larger Stage 2 to be read from an ordinary filesystem. In this respect, its function was similar to core.img in GRUB 2. However, core.img is much more capable than Stage 1.5 was; since it offers a rescue shell, it is sometimes possible to recover manually in the event that it is unable to load any other modules, for example if partition numbers have changed. core.img is built in a more flexible way, allowing GRUB 2 to support reading modules from advanced disk types such as LVM and RAID.
GRUB Legacy could run with only Stage 1 and Stage 2 in some limited configurations, while GRUB 2 requires core.img and cannot work without it.
GRUB 2 has no single Stage 2 image. Instead, it loads modules from /boot/grub at run-time.
In GRUB 2, images for booting from CD-ROM drives are now constructed using
cdboot.img and core.img, making sure that the core image
contains the ‘iso9660’ module. It is usually best to use the
grub-mkrescue program for this.
There is as yet no equivalent for nbgrub in GRUB 2; it was used by Etherboot and some other network boot loaders.
In GRUB 2, images for PXE network booting are now constructed using pxeboot.img and core.img, making sure that the core image contains the ‘pxe’ and ‘pxecmd’ modules. See Network.