title: Home Directories category: Users, Groups and Home Directories layout: default

Home Directories

systemd-homed.service(8) manages home directories of regular (“human”) users. Each directory it manages encapsulates both the data store and the user record of the user so that it comprehensively describes the user account, and is thus naturally portable between systems without any further, external metadata. This document describes the format used by these home directories, in context of the storage mechanism used.

General Structure

Inside of the home directory a file ~/.identity contains the JSON formatted user record of the user. It follows the format defined in JSON User Records. It is recommended to bring the record into ‘normalized’ form (i.e. all objects should contain their fields sorted alphabetically by their key) before storing it there, though this is not required nor enforced. Since the user record is cryptographically signed the user cannot make modifications to the file on their own (at least not without corrupting it, or knowing the private key used for signing the record). Note that user records are stored here without their binding, status and secret sections, i.e. only with the sections included in the signature plus the signature section itself.

Storage Mechanism: Plain Directory/btrfs Subvolume

If the plain directory or btrfs subvolume storage mechanism of systemd-homed is used (i.e. --storage=directory or --storage=subvolume on the homectl(1) command line) the home directory requires no special set-up besides including the user record in the ~/.identity file.

It is recommended to name home directories managed this way by systemd-homed.service by the user name, suffixed with .homedir (example: lennart.homedir for a user lennart) but this is not enforced. When the user is logged in the directory is generally mounted to /home/$USER (in our example: /home/lennart), thus dropping the suffix while the home directory is active. systemd-homed will automatically discover home directories named this way in /home/*.homedir and synthesize NSS user records for them as they show up.

Storage Mechanism: fscrypt Directories

This storage mechanism is mostly identical to the plain directory storage mechanism, except that the home directory is encrypted using fscrypt. (Use --storage=fscrypt on the homectl command line.) Key management is implemented via extended attributes on the directory itself: for each password an extended attribute trusted.fscrypt_slot0, trusted.fscrypt_slot1, trusted.fscrypt_slot2, … is maintained. It's value contains a colon-separated pair of Base64 encoded data fields. The first field contains a salt value, the second field the encrypted volume key. The latter is encrypted using AES256 in counter mode, using a key derived from the password via PBKDF2-HMAC-SHA512 together with the salt value. The construction is similar to what LUKS does for dm-crypt encrypted volumes. Note that extended attributes are not encrypted by fscrypt and hence are suitable for carry the key slots. Moreover, by using extended attributes the slots are directly attached to the directory and an independent sidecar key database is not required.

Storage Mechanism: cifs Home Directories

In this storage mechanism the home directory is mounted from a CIFS server and service at login, configured inside the user record. (Use --storage=cifs on the homectl command line.) The local password of the user is used to log into the CIFS service. The directory share needs to contain the user record in ~/.identity as well. Note that this means that the user record needs to be registered locally before it can be mounted for the first time, since CIFS domain and server information needs to be known before the mount. Note that for all other storage mechanisms it is entirely sufficient if the directories or storage artifacts are placed at the right locations — all information to activate them can be derived automatically from their mere availability.

Storage Mechanism: luks Home Directories

This is the most advanced and most secure storage mechanism and consists of a Linux file system inside a LUKS2 volume inside a loopback file (or on removable media). (Use --storage=luks on the homectl command line.) Specifically:

  • The image contains a GPT partition table. For now it should only contain a single partition, and that partition must have the type UUID 773f91ef-66d4-49b5-bd83-d683bf40ad16. It's partition label must be the user name.

  • This partition must contain a LUKS2 volume, whose label must be the user name. The LUKS2 volume must contain a LUKS2 token field of type systemd-homed. The JSON data of this token must have a record field, containing a string with base64-encoded data. This data is the JSON user record, in the same serialization as in ~/.identity, though encrypted. The JSON data of this token must also have an iv field, which contains a base64-encoded binary initialization vector for the encryption. The encryption used is the same as the LUKS2 volume itself uses, unlocked by the same volume key, but based on its own IV.

  • Inside of this LUKS2 volume must be a Linux file system, one of ext4, btrfs and xfs. The file system label must be the user name.

  • This file system should contain a single directory named after the user. This directory will become the home directory of the user when activated. It contains a second copy of the user record in the ~/.identity file, like in the other storage mechanisms.

The image file should either reside in a directory /home/ on the system, named after the user, suffixed with .home. When activated the container home directory is mounted to the same path, though with the .home suffix dropped — unless a different mount point is defined in the user record. (e.g.: the loopback file /home/waldo.home is mounted to /home/waldo while activated.) When the image is stored on removable media (such as a USB stick) the image file can be directly dd'ed onto it, the format is unchanged. The GPT envelope should ensure the image is properly recognizable as a home directory both when used in a loopback file and on a removable USB stick. (Note that when mounting a home directory from an USB stick it too defaults to a directory in /home/, named after the username, with no further suffix.)

Rationale for the GPT partition table envelope: this way the image is nicely discoverable and recognizable already by partition managers as a home directory. Moreover, when copied onto a USB stick the GPT envelope makes sure the stick is properly recognizable as a portable home directory medium. (Moreover it allows to embed additional partitions later on, for example for allowing a multi-purpose USB stick that contains both a home directory and a generic storage volume.)

Rationale for including the encrypted user record in the LUKS2 header: Linux kernel file system implementations are generally not robust towards maliciously formatted file systems; there's a good chance that file system images can be used as attack vectors, exploiting the kernel. Thus it is necessary to validate the home directory image before mounting it and establishing a minimal level of trust. Since the user record data is cryptographically signed and user records not signed with a recognized private key are not accepted a minimal level of trust between the system and the home directory image is established.

Rationale for storing the home directory one level below to root directory of the contained file system: this way special directories such as lost+found/ do not show up in the user's home directory.


Regardless of the storage mechanism used, an activated home directory necessarily involves a mount point to be established. In case of the directory-based storage mechanisms (directory, subvolume and fscrypt) this is a bind mount, in case of cifs this is a CIFS network mount, and in case of the LUKS2 backend a regular block device mount of the file system contained in the LUKS2 image. By requiring a mount for all cases (even for those that already are a directory) a clear logic is defined to distinguish active and inactive home directories, so that the directories become inaccessible under their regular path the instant they are deactivated. Moreover, the nosuid, nodev and noexec flags configured in the user record are applied when the bind mount is established.

During activation, the user records retained on the host, the user record stored in the LUKS2 header (in case of the LUKS2 storage mechanism) and the user record stored inside the home directory in ~/.identity are compared. Activation is only permitted if they match the same user and are signed by a recognized key. When the three instances differ in lastChangeUSec field, the newest record wins, and is propagated to the other two locations.

During activation the file system checker (fsck) appropriate for the selected file system is automatically invoked, ensuring the file system is in a healthy state before it is mounted.

If the UID assigned to a user does not match the owner of the home directory in the file system, the home directory is automatically and recursively chown()ed to the correct UID.

Depending on the luksDiscard setting of the user record either the backing loopback file is fallocate()ed during activation, or the mounted file system is FITRIMed after mounting, to ensure the setting is correctly enforced.

When deactivating a home directory, the file system or block device is trimmed or extended as configured in the luksOfflineDiscard setting of the user record.