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Never stop Grokking

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Recovering from Big Sur upgrade snafu

Apple recently pushed out a new release of MacOS called Big Sur. Unfortunately, the upgrade process is problematic. Specifically, the upgrader does not check for the required disk space before starting the upgrade, and if the target system doesn't have enough disk space (35GB or so), then the upgrade fails partway through, leaving your system in a mostly unusable state.

This is what happened to me.

My environment

  • The system was a 13" Macbook with a 128GB SSD drive. 128 is pretty small and doesn't leave much space for too many large items.
  • The system had just a single user.
  • At the start of the upgrade, the system had about 13GB of free disk space (>10%).
  • Desktop, Documents and Photos were backed up to iCloud, but Downloads weren't, and some very large photos & videos had been removed from iCloud to save space there, so they only existed locally.

Prior discussion

Mr. Macintosh has published a very detailed explanation of the issue and various ways to get around it without any data loss. This is a very good article that got me very far in my investigation. I was lucky that the latest updates had been posted just a few hours before I hit the problem myself.

Unfortunately, none of the suggested fixes worked for me.

  1. I couldn't mount the drive in Target Disk Mode as my password wouldn't work (the password still worked when logging in locally, but that took me back to the upgrade loop).
  2. I couldn't start up the system in Recovery Mode as it wanted a password, but again, wouldn't accept the password (the same password that worked when fully booting up).
  3. I couldn't access the disk when booting from an external startup disk because of the same issue.

Many posts I found online seemed to suggest that a firmware password was required, but I'd never set this up.

Single User Mode

Eventually, what showed the most promise was booting into Single User Mode and then fiddling around with all available disk devices.

Password worked for Single User Mode
  1. To start up in Single User Mode, press Cmd+S when starting up until the Apple logo shows up.
  2. The system prompts you for a password, and my password did in fact work in this mode.
  3. After signing in, you're dropped into a unix shell.
  4. There's only a basic file system mounted, which contains a limited number of unix commands and none of your data
Mount the Data partition

Once in single user mode, I had to mount my data partition. I first used the mount command to see what was already mounted. It showed that the only mounted device was /dev/disk1s1. I assumed that my Data partition would be /dev/disk1s2 and that it would have the same filesystem, and I chose a convenient mount point:

# mount -t apfs /dev/disk1s2 /System/Volumes/Data

Miraculously, this did not ask me for a password, and mounted my Data partition. I was able to look through the files and identify potential targets to remove. I also noticed that the disk was no completely full (0 bytes free). This was due to the Big Sur installer, which took up 11GB, and then added a few files, using up the entire 13GB that I had available.

Things were getting a little cumbersome here as most of the unix commands I needed to use were not on the primary partition, but on the mounted partition, so I added the appropriate folders to the unix PATH environment variable:


I was starting to see that choosing a 3 level deep path as my mount point perhaps wasn't a great idea. I also learned that while the screen is quite wide, the terminal environment is set to show 80 columns of text, and goes into very weird line wrapping issues if you type past that. It's even worse if you try tab completion at this point.

Transferring large files

Some of the large files & folders I identified were downloaded packages that could be removed. Unfortunately this only got me 2GB back. To get enough space back, I'd have to remove some photos and videos that weren't stored on iCloud. I figured I'd copy them over to an SD card and then could delete them.

I popped in the SD Card, and the kernel displayed some debug messages on the terminal. It told me that the card was in /dev/disk4, so I tried mounting that at a random empty directory:

# mount -t exfat /dev/disk4 /System/VM

This did not work!

No SD Cards in Single User Mode

By default, SD Cards are formatted with an EXFAT file system (the kind used by Windows and all digital cameras). Unfortunately, you cannot mount an EXFAT filesystem in Single User Mode as the exfatfs driver isn't compiled into the kernel. It's loaded up as a dynamic module when required. This only works when booting in standard mode with a kernel that allows dynamic loading. Single User Mode does not.

Reformat the SD Card

This was a brand new SD Card, so I decided to reformat it as an Apple file system. I used a different Macbook to do this, however my first attempt didn't work. It isn't sufficient to just format the SD Card, you also need to partition it, and that's where the filesystem is created.

I created a single APFS partition across the entire SD Card and then tried mounting it.

Unfortunately, now it was no longer at /dev/disk4 even though that's what the kernel debug messages said. Looking at /dev/disk* showed me that /dev/disk5s1 was a potential candidate.

# mount -t apfs /dev/disk5s1 /System/VM

Finally, this worked. I was able to copy my files over, and remove them from the Data partition. This freed up about 45GB, which allowed me to continue with the upgrade.

After the upgrade completed, I appear to have 75GB free. I haven't had a chance to check where the space has changed. I also plan to permanently use the SD Card (256GB) as an external hard drive.