This is a tiny log of my experience expanding an ext4 filesystem on an embedded system that had no alternate boot option. This situation is very nuanced. If you are here because you need to make filesystem or disk changes your best course of action is to boot from a LiveUSB/CD.

I moved very fast when making theses changes. There may be an easier and more efficent method, if you know one, please reach out to me!

Goal: Unmount the root filesystem and make structural changes without rebooting.

root@linaro-alip:~# resize2fs /dev/mmcblk0p9 
resize2fs 1.42.12 (29-Aug-2014)
Filesystem at /dev/mmcblk0p9 is mounted on /; on-line resizing required
old_desc_blocks = 1, new_desc_blocks = 1
[   61.307874] EXT4-fs (mmcblk0p9): resizing filesystem from 819200 to 1757691 blocks
[   61.384709] EXT4-fs warning (device mmcblk0p9): reserve_backup_gdb:968: reserved block 192 not at offset 191
[   61.394945] EXT4-fs (mmcblk0p9): resized filesystem to 1757691
Performing an on-line resize of /dev/mmcblk0p9 to 1757691 (4k) blocks.
[   61.507789] EXT4-fs warning (device mmcblk0p9): ext4_group_add:1605: No reserved GDT blocks, can't resize
resize2fs: Operation not permitted While trying to add group #25

Here you can see my kernel messages and the stderr from resize2fs. This error may be common if you are building squashed images for flashing to SD/MMC media.

For context my system has 1G of DRAM and was running Debian, to pull this off about 400MB of unused DRAM was needed.

Note: I was running as root on the serial console (e.g., ttyAMA0) for the embedded device.

Step 1: Create a DRAM-based basic root filesystem.

mkdir /tmp/tmproot
mount -t tmpfs none /tmp/tmproot

Now run mount and look for any non-root / mounts using your disk (if making disk changes). On my system /boot/efi was mounted, a umount /boot/efi did the trick.

Step 2: Move needed tools into the temporary root.

Note that later on, several commands run in the temporary root complained about not having some shared libraries. The only application I needed was resize2fs and fsck so I sort of moved fast and broke some things (temporarily).

mkdir /tmp/tmproot/{proc,sys,dev,run,usr,var,tmp,oldroot}
cp -ax /{bin,etc,sbin,lib} /tmp/tmproot/
cp -ax /usr/{bin,sbin} /tmp/tmproot/usr/

Step 3: Mount pseudo-filesystems in the temporary root.

mount --rbind /proc /tmp/tmproot/proc
mount --rbind /dev /tmp/tmproot/dev
mount --rbind /sys /tmp/tmproot/sys

Step 4: Remount the root filesystem readonly

The general guidance is to STOP as many systemctl (systemd) services as possible before this step. Close out remote sessions, stop as many things. In my experience after trying several times (n=4) this step always completed without complaining.

mount -r -o remount /

Step 4: Pivot your root into the temporary root filesystem.

I encounted an error here (seen below) and the ‘fix’ was using the --make-private mount command.

root@linaro-alip:/tmp# pivot_root /tmp/tmproot/ /tmp/tmproot/oldroot/
pivot_root: failed to change root from `/tmp/tmproot/' to `/tmp/tmproot/oldroot/': Invalid argument
mount --make-rprivate /
pivot_root /tmp/tmproot/ /tmp/tmproot/oldroot/

Step 5: Unmount previously mounted pseudo-filesystems

for i in dev proc sys run; do mount --move /oldroot/$i /$i; done

Step 6: Stop services using the old readonly-mounted filesystem

telinit u
systemctl isolate

Step 7: Aggresively stop remaining process

I messed up a few times here. Mistakes resulted in losing my console/shell/etc and forced me to reboot. The goal is to run fuser -vm /oldroot, note the pids, then kill PID each of the PIDs.

Here is an example of the output in my situation and how I responded.

root@linaro-alip:/# fuser -vm /oldroot
                     USER        PID ACCESS COMMAND
/oldroot:            root     kernel mount /oldroot
                     systemd-timesync   2370 ....m systemd-timesyn
                     messagebus   2433 ....m dbus-daemon
                     root       2507 ....m agetty
kill 2507
kill 2433
kill 2370

Step 8: Finally unmount the old readonly-mounted root

The last command unmounts the root filesystem. You are then free to run whatever modifications needed. In this log I needed to filesystem-check and expand the filesystem to cover the entire partition.

umount /oldroot/
resize2fs /dev/mmcblk0p9
e2fsck -f /dev/mmcblk0p9


Here is the list of documents I reviewed. Thank you to all of those who took the time to document their experience and explainations (they are more detailed than this log!)