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What does “mounting a root file system” exactly means?

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It says "Root filesystem" because there can be many other filesystems that are mounted at boot time. Root or / is like the C-Drive on Windows. A filesystem is mounted, when it is accessible to the higher level system functions via it's mountpoint.

About the process of mounting... I don't know how technical an answer you want so please don't feel offended by this over-simplification. This is how I would explain it to my customers: Plugging in a Flashdrive.

  1. User connects USB Flashdrive
  2. OS detects "something" is connected to USB-port X
  3. OS probes the port and finds out, that there is a flash drive
  4. OS assigns a device node to the device (let's say /dev/sdb)
  5. OS probes /dev/sdb and find a partition table with on primary partition
  6. OS assigns a device node to the partition (let's say /dev/sdb1)
  7. OS probes /dev/sdb1 and recognizes a FAT32 file system
  8. OS mounts the file system at /dev/sdb1 to a new mountpoint (like /media/pendrive/)
  9. The content of the file system is accessible to the system and thus to the user

The content of the device (raw data) is just a bunch of zeros and ones. When mounting a device, the system adds something like a "read/write-filter" on top of those zeros and ones, that translates the zeros and ones to actual files and vice versa.

For example: When you save "Hello World" to text file at /media/pendrive, then the filter translates this according to the file system's rules and in the end a series of zeros and ones and writes to /dev/sda1.

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