Master Boot Record
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The MBR is the first sector (first 512 bytes) of a storage device. The MBR is not a partition and it is reserved for the operating systems bootloader and the storage device's partition table.
Booting is a multi-stage process. Most PCs today initialize system devices by firmware called the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System). The BIOS is typically contained within the CMOS (Ceramic Metal Oxide Semiconductor) that is executed upon system power-up. After system devices have been initialized, the BIOS then looks for the bootloader on the MBR of the first recognized storage device (hard disk drive, solid state drive, CD/DVD drive, USB drive...) or the first partition of the device. It then exectutes that program. The bootloader reads the partition table and is then capable of loading the operating system(s). Common GNU/Linux bootloaders include GRUB and LILO.
The MBR consists of a short piece of assembly code (the initial bootloader – 446 bytes), a partition table for the 4 primary partitions (16 bytes each) and a sentinel (0xAA55).
The "Conventional" Windows/DOS MBR bootloader code will check the partition table for one and only one active partition, read X sectors from this partition and then transfer control to the operating system. The Windows/DOS bootloader can not boot an Arch Linux partition because it is not designed to load the Linux kernel, and it can only cater for an active, primary partition (which GRUB safely ignores).
The GRand Unified Bootloader (GRUB) is the de facto standard bootloader for GNU/Linux, and users are recommended to install it on the MBR to allow booting from any partition, whether it be primary or logical.
Backup and restoration
Because the MBR is located on the disk it can be backed up and later recovered.
To backup the MBR:
dd if=/dev/hda of=/path/mbr-backup bs=512 count=1
Restore the MBR:
dd if=/path/mbr-backup of=/dev/hda bs=512 count=1
To erase the MBR (may be useful if you have to do a full reinstall of another operating system):
dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/hda bs=446 count=1