Boot Stages

In order to be able to provide the functionality that it does, cloud-init must be integrated into the boot in fairly controlled way. There are five stages to boot:

  1. Generator
  2. Local
  3. Network
  4. Config
  5. Final


When booting under systemd, a generator will run that determines if should be included in the boot goals. By default, this generator will enable cloud-init. It will not enable cloud-init if either:

  • The file /etc/cloud/cloud-init.disabled exists
  • The kernel command line as found in /proc/cmdline contains cloud-init=disabled. When running in a container, the kernel command line is not honored, but cloud-init will read an environment variable named KERNEL_CMDLINE in its place.

Again, these mechanisms for disabling cloud-init at runtime currently only exist in systemd.


systemd service cloud-init-local.service
runs as soon as possible with / mounted read-write
blocks as much of boot as possible, must block network
modules none

The purpose of the local stage is to:

  • locate “local” data sources.
  • apply networking configuration to the system (including “Fallback”)

In most cases, this stage does not do much more than that. It finds the datasource and determines the network configuration to be used. That network configuration can come from:

  • datasource: cloud provided network configuration via metadata
  • fallback: cloud-init’s fallback networking consists of rendering the equivalent to “dhcp on eth0”, which was historically the most popular mechanism for network configuration of a guest
  • none: network configuration can be disabled by writing the file /etc/cloud/cloud.cfg with the content: network: {config: disabled}

If this is an instance’s first boot, then the selected network configuration is rendered. This includes clearing of all previous (stale) configuration including persistent device naming with old mac addresses.

This stage must block network bring-up or any stale configuration that might have already been applied. Otherwise, that could have negative effects such as DHCP hooks or broadcast of an old hostname. It would also put the system in an odd state to recover from, as it may then have to restart network devices.

Cloud-init then exits and expects for the continued boot of the operating system to bring network configuration up as configured.

Note: In the past, local data sources have been only those that were available without network (such as ‘ConfigDrive’). However, as seen in the recent additions to the DigitalOcean datasource, even data sources that require a network can operate at this stage.


systemd service cloud-init.service
runs after local stage and configured networking is up
blocks as much of remaining boot as possible
modules cloud_init_modules in /etc/cloud/cloud.cfg

This stage requires all configured networking to be online, as it will fully process any user-data that is found. Here processing means:

  • retrieve any #include or #include-once (recursively) including http
  • decompress any compressed content
  • run any part-handler found.

This stage runs the disk_setup and mounts modules which may partition and format disks and configure mount points (such as in /etc/fstab). Those modules cannot run earlier as they may receive configuration input from sources only available via network. For example, a user may have provided user-data in a network resource that describes how local mounts should be done.

On some clouds, such as Azure, this stage will create filesystems to be mounted, including ones that have stale (previous instance) references in /etc/fstab. As such, entries /etc/fstab other than those necessary for cloud-init to run should not be done until after this stage.

A part-handler will run at this stage, as will boot-hooks including cloud-config bootcmd. The user of this functionality has to be aware that the system is in the process of booting when their code runs.


systemd service cloud-config.service
runs after network
blocks nothing
modules cloud_config_modules in /etc/cloud/cloud.cfg

This stage runs config modules only. Modules that do not really have an effect on other stages of boot are run here, including runcmd.


systemd service cloud-final.service
runs as final part of boot (traditional “rc.local”)
blocks nothing
modules cloud_final_modules in /etc/cloud/cloud.cfg

This stage runs as late in boot as possible. Any scripts that a user is accustomed to running after logging into a system should run correctly here. Things that run here include:

  • package installations
  • configuration management plugins (puppet, chef, salt-minion)
  • user-defined scripts (i.e. shell scripts passed as user-data)

For scripts external to cloud-init looking to wait until cloud-init is finished, the cloud-init status subcommand can help block external scripts until cloud-init is done without having to write your own systemd units dependency chains. See status for more info.

First Boot Determination

cloud-init has to determine whether or not the current boot is the first boot of a new instance or not, so that it applies the appropriate configuration. On an instance’s first boot, it should run all “per-instance” configuration, whereas on a subsequent boot it should run only “per-boot” configuration. This section describes how cloud-init performs this determination, as well as why it is necessary.

When it runs, cloud-init stores a cache of its internal state for use across stages and boots.

If this cache is present, then cloud-init has run on this system before. [1] There are two cases where this could occur. Most commonly, the instance has been rebooted, and this is a second/subsequent boot. Alternatively, the filesystem has been attached to a new instance, and this is an instance’s first boot. The most obvious case where this happens is when an instance is launched from an image captured from a launched instance.

By default, cloud-init attempts to determine which case it is running in by checking the instance ID in the cache against the instance ID it determines at runtime. If they do not match, then this is an instance’s first boot; otherwise, it’s a subsequent boot. Internally, cloud-init refers to this behavior as check.

This behavior is required for images captured from launched instances to behave correctly, and so is the default which generic cloud images ship with. However, there are cases where it can cause problems. [2] For these cases, cloud-init has support for modifying its behavior to trust the instance ID that is present in the system unconditionally. This means that cloud-init will never detect a new instance when the cache is present, and it follows that the only way to cause cloud-init to detect a new instance (and therefore its first boot) is to manually remove cloud-init’s cache. Internally, this behavior is referred to as trust.

To configure which of these behaviors to use, cloud-init exposes the manual_cache_clean configuration option. When false (the default), cloud-init will check and clean the cache if the instance IDs do not match (this is the default, as discussed above). When true, cloud-init will trust the existing cache (and therefore not clean it).

Manual Cache Cleaning

cloud-init ships a command for manually cleaning the cache: cloud-init clean. See clean’s documentation for further details.

Reverting manual_cache_clean Setting

Currently there is no support for switching an instance that is launched with manual_cache_clean: true from trust behavior to check behavior, other than manually cleaning the cache.


If you want to capture an instance that is currently in trust mode as an image for launching other instances, you must manually clean the cache. If you do not do so, then instances launched from the captured image will all detect their first boot as a subsequent boot of the captured instance, and will not apply any per-instance configuration.

This is a functional issue, but also a potential security one: cloud-init is responsible for rotating SSH host keys on first boot, and this will not happen on these instances.

[1]It follows that if this cache is not present, cloud-init has not run on this system before, so this is unambiguously this instance’s first boot.

A couple of ways in which this strict reliance on the presence of a datasource has been observed to cause problems:

  • If a cloud’s metadata service is flaky and cloud-init cannot obtain the instance ID locally on that platform, cloud-init’s instance ID determination will sometimes fail to determine the current instance ID, which makes it impossible to determine if this is an instance’s first or subsequent boot (#1885527).
  • If cloud-init is used to provision a physical appliance or device and an attacker can present a datasource to the device with a different instance ID, then cloud-init’s default behavior will detect this as an instance’s first boot and reset the device using the attacker’s configuration (this has been observed with the NoCloud datasource in #1879530).