Recovering from Empty /etc/passwd

At work I have an old Dell desktop running SLES 9 (among other systems I manage). I inherited the system, and it was configured to mount home directories with help of LDAP, a process that I am not familiar with. It also runs some legacy systems I do not feel like migrating to newer systems yet.

Recently the LDAP information changed, so I needed to find out how to update this information. I found the settings in YaST, and everything seemed to be functioning with the new settings. That is, until I tried to become root. I got informed that there is no such user. “That is weird,” I thought, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kind of error with a Linux box”. After some more experimenting it became clear that updating LDAP had somehow caused all local users to disappear. /etc/passwd was empty!

As luck would have it, I found several backups of /etc/passwd, one even made by YaST itself when I updated the LDAP information. But this file was only accessible by root, which I could not become! Ubuntu has a way to boot into a root prompt, but I could not see how to do that with the SLES 9 boot prompt.

If I had a system rescue CD or Knoppix or something similar I would have tried that next, but it seems the recent office move displaced a number of our CDs so that was not immediately available either. However, I found old Ubuntu and openSUSE Live CDs. The Ubuntu CD wouldn’t work in this aging Dell (I suspect flaky CD drive), but the openSUSE 11 Live CD booted ok. I could not start X, but I could login as root through the console. Almost there!

The Live CD had not mounted the hard drives, but I could see the devices with fdisk -l. Then it was a matter of issuing:

mkdir /tmp/hd1
mount /dev/sda1 /tmp/hd1

to mount the HD, and then finally copying the backup passwd file over the empty one. After reboot everything was nominal (I guess I’ve watched too much Defying Gravity).

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  1. ln:


  2. Heikki Toivonen:

    Thanks In! To help others, you need to add those to your kernel boot options. After that you get in, but your root file system is mounted read-only. To remount writeable, you can do:

    mount -n -o remount /

    and then do any changes you need, and reboot.