Guide to building the Linux kernel.

Where do I find the kernel?

The latest source code for the Linux kernel is kept on You can either download the full source code as a tar ball (not recommended and will take forever to download), or you can check out the code from the read-only git repositories.

What tools do I need?

To build the Linux kernel from source, you need several tools: git, make, gcc, libssl-dev and (optionally) ctags, cscope, and/or ncurses-dev. The tool packages may be called something else in your Linux distribution, so you may need to search for the package. The ncurses-dev tools are used if you "make menuconfig" or "make nconfig".

On Ubuntu, you can get these tools by running:

sudo apt-get install libncurses5-dev gcc make git exuberant-ctags bc libssl-dev

On Red Hat based systems like Fedora, Scientific Linux, and CentOS you can run:

sudo yum install gcc make git ctags ncurses-devel openssl-devel

And on SUSE based systems (like SLES and Leap), you can run:

sudo zypper in git gcc ncurses-devel libopenssl-devel ctags cscope

Which kernel to build?

If you want to test to see if a bug is fixed then test against the latest stable kernel from If you are brave and your system is backed up the latest release candidate from Linus's tree is a great target. Sometimes the maintainer may want you to use an experimental branch from their own git tree. You should use the git URL they gave you instead of the git URLs below.

If you're doing development for a new feature, or trying to test a bug fix, you should use Linus' tree, or the subsystem maintainer's -next tree. Most subsystem maintainers keep their git trees on When in doubt, use Linus' tree.

If you don't understand what a stable or release candidate kernel is, you should read the KernelDevProcess page.

Downloading the latest stable tree

First, checkout the stable kernel git repository:

git clone git://
cd linux-stable

Next, find the latest stable kernel tag by running

git tag -l | less

Find the latest stable kernel by looking for the largest vX.Y.Z values. For example, use the v3.1 tag over the v3.0.46 tag. If v3.1.1 is available, use that instead of v3.1. The kernel tags that end with -rcX are release candidate kernels, not stable kernels.

Now checkout the code associated with that kernel with the command

git checkout -b stable tag

Where tag is the latest vX.Y.Z tag you found.

Downloading the latest -rc tree

Check out Linus' tree:

git clone git://
cd linux

Setting up your kernel configuration

Many kernel drivers can be turned on or off, or built as modules. The .config file in the kernel source directory determines which drivers are built. When you download the source tree, it doesn't come with a .config file. You have several options on generating a .config file. The easiest is to duplicate your current config.

Duplicating your current config

If you're trying to see if a bug is fixed, you probably want to duplicate the configuration on your running kernel. That config file is stored somewhere in /boot/. There might be several files that start with config, so you want the one associated with your running kernel. You can find that by running uname -a and finding the config file that ends with your kernel version number. Copy that file into the source directory as .config. Or just run this command:

cp /boot/config-`uname -r`* .config

Making the default config

Remember, a default config may not have the options you are currently using. Run

make defconfig

Making a minimal config

Compiling a kernel from scratch from a distribution configuration can take "forever" because the distros turn on every hardware configuration possible. For people wanting to do kernel development fast, you want to make a minimal configuration. Steve Rostedt uses make_min_config to get a truly minimum config, but it will take a day or two to build. Warning: make sure you have all your USB devices plugged into the system, or you won't get the drivers for them!

Changing your config

If you need to make any changes to your configuration, you can run one of the following commands. These require the curses tools to be installed.

make menuconfig


make nconfig

Building the kernel



Or, if you have a multi-core processor, run

make -jX

Where X is a number like 2 or 4. If you have a dual core, 2 or 3 might be good. Quad core, 4 or 6. Do not run with really big numbers unless you want your machine to be dog-slow!

Walk away, get some coffee, lunch, or go read some comics.

Installing the kernel

To install a kernel, you will need to either manually update your GRUB configuration file, or have an installkernel script. This script installs the kernel to /boot/, installs modules to /lib/modules/X.Y.Z/ (where X.Y.Z is something like 3.1.5), and updates file /boot/grub/grub.conf. Fortunately, Ubuntu provides an installkernel script in /sbin/installkernel. The grubby RPM provides it for RPM based systems.

If you have an installkernel script, you can just run

sudo make modules_install install

Or if you don't have sudo installed, run

su -c "make modules_install install"

Running your kernel

First, make sure you know how to select a kernel at boot time. If your new kernel is broken, you want a way to boot into your old kernel. The grub bootloader usually presents users with a choice of kernels and you can reboot into a known good kernel if your new compile doesn't work. Some distros use a default grub config that hides that menu. You can usually get the menu to appear by mashing the ESC key during boot after the BIOS display disappears.

Ubuntu: To make the grub menu always appear on boot under Ubuntu, remove the GRUB_HIDDEN_TIMEOUT_QUIET line from /etc/default/grub. You may want to increase the GRUB_DEFAULT timeout from 0 to 15 seconds or more. After you've finished editing the grub file you may need to update your grub file.

sudo update-grub2

You will (usually) need to reboot into your new kernel.

Patching your kernel

There are several ways to apply a patch to your kernel. Usually the maintainer will send you a patch as attachment, or inline in the mail. You should either save the file, or copy and paste the patch into a new file.

To apply the patch, go to the base kernel directory and run

git am patchfile

Where patchfile is the file you saved. If patch fails, you can run:

git am --abort
git reset --hard HEAD
git am -3 patchfile

This applies the patch, and attempts to run a three-way merge if the patch application fails. If all else fails, you can attempt to duplicate the patch changes by hand.

Then you need to re-build your kernel and reboot.

(Note: the older way of manually patching the kernel with patch -p1 <patchfile does not create any git history, which makes it hard to revert and retry different patches. You will often have to go through several patches with a maintainer to find the right fix for a bug, so having the git history is useful.)

Reverting a patch

If a maintainer wants you to revert a patch you have applied, and try a different patch, you can use git to reset the history to the point before the patch was applied.

If git log shows the patch to be removed is the first log entry, you can run

git reset --hard HEAD^

If you need to revert several patches, you can use git log to find the commit ID of the first commit before those patches. For instance, say you have applied two patches to the stable tree 3.4.17, and you want to revert those patches. git log will look like this:

$ git log --pretty=oneline --abbrev-commit
8901234 Testing patch 2
1234567 Testing patch 1
5390967 Linux 3.4.17
1f94bd4 drm/i915: no lvds quirk for Zotac ZDBOX SD ID12/ID13
0187c24 x86, mm: Use memblock memory loop instead of e820_RAM
a0419ca staging: comedi: amplc_pc236: fix invalid register access during detach

To reset your tree to 3.4.17, you can run:

git reset --hard 5390967

If you look at the commits with gitk you will notice that the 3.4.17 commit is also tagged as v3.4.17. You can reset by tag as well:

git reset --hard v3.4.17

Tips and Tricks

If you have a driver installed as a module, you can recompile just that driver. This saves time, because the kernel build system doesn't have to look for changes across the entire kernel tree or compile any of the built-in code.

All module files end with .ko. The kernel make system will compile just one .ko file if you give it the full path to the file:

make drivers/usb/host/xhci-hcd.ko

Note you will need to be in the base kernel source directory for this to work. You can't make from a different directory.

You can also reload drivers without rebooting your kernel. For example, I can remove the xHCI driver and reload it with

sudo rmmod xhci-hcd && sudo insmod drivers/usb/host/xhci-hcd.ko

Make sure that you understand the consequences of unloading your driver! For instance, if you unload the USB core driver in order to try out changes, your USB mouse and keyboard aren't going to work until the USB core driver is reloaded.

You may have to unload other drivers that depend on your driver before you can reload it. Use lsmod to find which drivers that are loaded depend on your driver. E.g.

$ lsmod | grep usb
usbnet                 26596  2 rndis_host,cdc_ether
mii                     5198  1 usbnet
btusb                  16575  0 
usbhid                 44621  1 hid_logitech
usbcore               191078  9 xhci_hcd,rndis_host,cdc_ether,usbnet,btusb,uvcvideo,usbhid,ehci_hcd
usb_common              1093  1 usbcore

In this case, usbcore is used by xhci_hcd, rndis_host, cdc_ether, usbnet, btusb, uvcvideo, usbhid, and ehci_hcd. I would have to unload all those drivers in order to reload the usbcore module.


KernelNewbies: KernelBuild (last edited 2021-01-11 04:42:04 by RandyDunlap)