FreeBSD with Encrypted ZFS and X11 on a Laptop


A few days ago I installed FreeBSD on my laptop with an encrypted ZFS root and a minimal X11 setup. I documented every step and then re-did the installation to ensure my setup was reproducible. This article is an edited version of my installation notes, which I hope is useful to you.

The Hardware

My laptop is an ASUS K501. It has an NVIDIA GPU but in this guide I’ll focus on the Intel integrated graphics.


The zeroth step: the target computer must have UEFI enabled, and the laptop plugged it to ethernet so you don’t have to deal with Wi-Fi at installation time.

Getting FreeBSD

  1. Download the memstick image file.

     curl -o memstick.img \
  2. Verify. As of 17 August 2018 the SHA256 hash of the mini-memstick image is:


    Run sha256sum memstick.img to compare this with the file’s actual hash.

Copying the Image to a USB Drive

  1. Run fdisk -l to find your USB drive’s device identifier. In my case it’s /dev/sdb.

  2. Copy the memstick.img file to the USB drive using this command:

     sudo dd if=memstick.img of=/dev/<your USB device id> conv=sync


First Steps

  1. Press 1 to select boot multi user, wait for the blue screen to come up.

  2. Choose Install.

  3. Choose your keymap.

  4. Enter a meaningful hostname.

  5. You will be prompted for system components to install, I just choose the default.

  6. Network install. On my hardware it autodetected everything.

  7. Say yes to using IPv4 and DHCP, wait for DHCP lease.

  8. Say yes to IPv6 and SLAAC, wait for router solicitation.

  9. Set DNS to Google’s

    • IPv6:
      • 2001:4860:4860::8888
      • 2001:4860:4860::8844
    • IPv4:

    Or whichever you want to use.

  10. Choose the mirror to download packages from.

Full Disk Encryption Setup

This part of the guide is straight from this howto.


  1. At the partitioning screen, select Shell, the option to partition by hand.

  2. Destroy existing partitions:

     gpart destroy -F /dev/ada0
  3. Create the partition table:

     gpart create -s GPT /dev/ada0
  4. Create the EFI partition:

     gpart add -t efi -s 100M -a 1M -l EFI /dev/ada0
  5. Create a swap partition:

     gpart add -t freebsd-swap -s 4G -a 1M -l FreeBSD-swap /dev/ada0
  6. Create the boot partition

     gpart add -t freebsd-ufs -s 10G -a 1M -l FreeBSD-ufsboot /dev/ada0
  7. Create the encrypted partition

     gpart add -t freebsd-zfs -a 1M -l FreeBSD-enczroot /dev/ada0
  8. Configure the EFI partition:

     newfs_msdos -F 16 -L FreeBSD_EFI /dev/ada0p1
     mkdir /tmp/efi
     mount -t msdosfs /dev/ada0p1 /tmp/efi
     mkdir -p /tmp/efi/EFI/BOOT
     cp /boot/boot1.efi /tmp/efi/EFI/BOOT/BOOTX64.EFI
     umount /dev/ada0p1
  9. Configure the UFS boot partition:

     newfs -L ufsboot -S 4096 /dev/ada0p3
     mkdir /tmp/ufsboot
     mount /dev/ada0p3 /tmp/ufsboot

(Note: we went from ada0p1 to ada0p3 because we dont need to do anything with swap.)

Configuring Encryption

  1. Configuring GELI:

     kldload aesni
     mkdir -p /tmp/ufsboot/boot/geli
     dd if=/dev/random of=/tmp/ufsboot/boot/geli/ada0p4.key bs=64 count=1
     geli init -e AES-XTS -l 128 -s 4096 -b -K /tmp/ufsboot/boot/geli/ada0p4.key /dev/ada0p4

    This will prompt you for the disk encryption password. Choose carefully.

  2. Then, run:

     cp /var/backups/ada0p4.eli /tmp/ufsboot/boot/geli/
     geli attach -k /tmp/ufsboot/boot/geli/ada0p4.key /dev/ada0p4

    This will ask you to enter the password you entered above.

  3. Very important final step:

     geli configure -b /dev/ada0p4.eli

Configuring ZFS:

  1. Create the pool:

     zpool create -R /mnt \
         -O canmount=off -O mountpoint=none -O atime=off -O compression=on \
         zroot /dev/ada0p4.eli

    The values of the properties are described here. Briefly, turning atime off reduces disk traffic because the filesystem is not updating access time metadata every time the file is accessed. Setting compression to on turns on compression.

  2. Create the boot container:

     zfs create -o canmount=off -o mountpoint=none zroot/ROOT
  3. The default boot environment:

     zfs create -o mountpoint=/ zroot/ROOT/master
  4. Some more things:

     zfs create -o mountpoint=/usr/jails zroot/ROOT/master/jails
     zfs create -o mountpoint=/usr/local zroot/ROOT/master/local
     zfs create -o mountpoint=/usr/ports zroot/ROOT/master/ports
     zfs create -o mountpoint=/var zroot/ROOT/master/var
     zfs create -o mountpoint=/var/log zroot/ROOT/master/log


     zfs create -o mountpoint=/usr/home zroot/home
     zfs create -o mountpoint=/usr/obj zroot/obj
     zfs create -o mountpoint=/usr/ports/distfiles zroot/distfiles
     zfs create -o mountpoint=/usr/src zroot/src101
     zfs create -o mountpoint=/tmp zroot/tmp
     zfs create -o mountpoint=/var/tmp zroot/vartmp

    Why the 101? I’m not sure. I copied that straight from the guide.

  5. Finish up:

     mkdir /mnt/ufsboot
     umount /dev/ada0p3
     mount /dev/ada0p3 /mnt/ufsboot
     cd /mnt
     ln -s ufsboot/boot boot
     cd /
  6. Edit fstab. Run:

     vi /tmp/bsdinstall_etc/fstab

    And write this:

     # Device   Mountpoint   FStype   Options   Dump   Pass#
     /dev/ada0p2.eli   none   swap   sw,ealgo=AES-XTS,keylen=128,sectorsize=4096   0   0
     /dev/ada0p3   /ufsboot   ufs   rw   1   1
  7. Return to the installer by running exit.

Since this is a net installation it will start downloading the rest of the packages it needs

Installation Continued

  1. Enter the root password.

  2. Set the time.

  3. Select your region.

  4. Select startup services. I add ntpd and powerd.

  5. Security options. Choose all of them.

  6. Add new users to the system. When prompted, make your user a part of the wheel group. Otherwise, the interactive program for adding users is fairly self-explanatory.

  7. At this stage installation is complete, but we have to write some more ZFS-related configuration. Select the option to exit the installation, you’ll be prompted whether or not you want to open a shell to make any post-installation changes. Choose Yes.

Final Configuration

  1. Configure the /boot/loader.conf file so load your geli services:

     vi /boot/loader.conf

    Its contents should be:

     # Boot prompt delay
     # enable temperature sensors
     # enable AHCI on modern hardware for better performance
     # enable asynchronous I/O (big performance gains with NGINX)
     # in-memory file system
     # load PF firewall and the Intel ethernet driver early at boot time
  2. Update /etc/rc.conf to enable ZFS:

     vi /etc/rc.conf

    At the end add the line:

  3. Finally, reboot. You have a working FreeBSD system.


Log in as root.

UTF-8 Everywhere

  1. Edit /etc/profile and add this at the end:

     LANG=en_US.UTF-8; export LANG
     CHARSET=UTF-8;    export CHARSET
  2. Edit /etc/login.conf, and at the bottom of the default login class, default:\, change the last line to:

  3. Rebuild the DB:

     cap_mkdb /etc/login.conf

Setting up pkg

  1. Run /usr/sbin/pkg, say yes, and wait for it to install the new pkg.

  2. Run pkg2ng to upgrade the package database.

  3. Finally, run pkg update.

Setting up Ports


portsnap fetch
portsnap extract
portsnap fetch update


  1. Install the required packages:

     pkg install xorg-server xf86-input-mouse xf86-input-keyboard xinit xauth xterm twm xorg-fonts
  2. Download kernel sources:

     cd /
     tar -C / -xzvf src.txz
     rm src.txz
  3. Set up drm-next-kmod.

     cd /usr/ports/graphics/drm-next-kmod/
     make install clean

    You will be prompted for options. Leave them as-is. After the installation is complete, run

     pkg info -D drm-next-kmod

    To view the installation information.

  4. Edit /etc/rc.conf, add this to the end:

  5. Add your user to the video group:

     pw groupmod video -m <YOUR USER NAME>
  6. Edit ~/.xinitrc and write:

     exec twm

    Reboot. If this works, the screen will flash after entering your passphrase as the console switches drivers.

    Login as your user, not as root, and run startx. This should work, and by work I mean show you a completely black background and no cursor. On my setup the touchpad doesn’t work, so plug it an external mouse and left-click anywhere on the screen to bring up the twm menu. This will confirm that twm is working.

Web Browser Setup

  1. Run pkg install firefox. This will take a while.

  2. Run dbus-uuidgen > /var/lib/dbus/machine-id to fix something.

  3. Exit root and run firefox as your user.

File Manager Setup

  1. As root, run pkg install pcmanfm

  2. Exit root and run pcmanfm as your user to test it.

Improving Battery Life

This part of the guide comes from this guide.

  1. First, to view battery status, use

    $ acpiconf -i 0
  2. Add the following lines to /etc/rc.conf:

     powerd_flags="-a hiadaptive -b adaptive"
     ifconfig_wlan0="WPA DHCP powersave"

    (You might already have powerd_enable="YES" from the installation step.)

  3. Add the following to /boot/loader.conf:

     # for intel cards only
  4. Reboot to make sure everything is fine


  1. From root, run:

     pkg install sudo

    This will create a sudoers file on /usr/local/etc/sudoers.

  2. If you want to set up passwordless sudo for your user, run visudo to open the sudoers file, and add:Add:

    <your username here> ALL=(ALL) NOPASSWD: ALL

    at the end. Save and quit, and try sudo su on a new terminal to make sure it works.


Installing Emacs from binary packages is thankfully simple:

sudo pkg install emacs

Afterwards run emacs to ensure everything works.

Depending on your Emacs setup, you might have to install some packages for your configuration to work. For example, I use Inconsolata as the Emacs font, so I had to run:

sudo pkg install inconsolata-ttf


  1. Edit /boot/loader.conf and add this line:

  2. Edit /etc/rc.conf and add this line:

  3. Open /dev/sndstat to view your sound devices. In my case:

     $ cat /dev/sndstat
     Installed devices:
     pcm0: <Conexant CX20751/2 (Analog)> (play/rec) default
     pcm1: <Conexant CX20751/2 (Right Analog)> (play/rec)
  4. The pcm* devices above are your audio outputs. By default on my laptop, sound comes out on the speaker (pcm0 above). To change to the headphone jack (pcm1), I run:

     sysctl hw.snd.default_unit=1

    Any program using sound needs to be restarted for the change to take effect. Alternatively, I can set this in /etc/sysctl.conf:


    Replace 1 with the ID of the PCM device you wish to use by default.

  5. You can check the settings of your audio devices using the mixer command:

     $ mixer
     Mixer vol      is currently set to  86:86
     Mixer pcm      is currently set to 100:100
     Mixer mic      is currently set to  56:56
     Mixer rec      is currently set to  93:93
     Recording source: mic

    And change the volume like so:

     $ mixer -s vol 50
     Setting the mixer vol from 86:86 to 50:50.
     $ mixer -s vol 80
     Setting the mixer vol from 50:50 to 80:80.
     $ mixer -s vol 100
     Setting the mixer vol from 80:80 to 100:100.



I manage my Ruby environment using rbenv to manage different versions of Ruby, and the rbenv plugin ruby-build to install them.

sudo pkg install rbenv ruby-build

To see a list of available rubies:

rbenv install --list

Let’s install a recent version of Ruby:

rbenv install 2.5.1
rbenv global 2.5.1

The Ruby install comes with RubyGems, so let’s install the Jekyll gem:

rbenv exec gem install jekyll

Once it’s installed, you can execute it using rbenv exec, for example, I build this site using:

rbenv exec jekyll serve --watch --future

Mounting USB Drives

If you have a USB drive you mount from time to time (say, for backups), you can set up a mount directory for it:

$ sudo mkdir /mnt/$USER
$ sudo chown $USER:$USER /mnt/$USER

Then, when the drive is detected:

$ sudo mount -t msdosfs -o -m=644,-M=755 /dev/da0s1 /mnt/$USER
$ # do what you need
$ umount /mnt/$USER

Replace /dev/da0s1 with the path to your device.

The Lisp Keyboard

I use xcape to override the shift keys so when they are used without a modifying key they insert a parenthesis. Left shift inserts an open parenthesis and right shift inserts a close parenthesis. Once I got used to this I couldn’t live without it. In Linux I use this in my .xsession:

xcape -e "Shift_L=parenleft;Shift_R=parenright"

In FreeBSD this doesn’t work. More precisely, left shift inserts a 9 and right shift inserts a 0. Others have had this issue. Fortunately, a comment in that issue provides the solution:

xcape -e Shift_L='Shift_L|9'
xcape -e Shift_R='Shift_R|0'


$ sudo pkg install neofetch

Without further ado:

A screenshot of xterm showing the output of neofetch


The following guides were crucial in writing this article: