GRUB consists of several images: a variety of bootstrap images for starting GRUB in various ways, a kernel image, and a set of modules which are combined with the kernel image to form a core image. Here is a short overview of them:
On PC BIOS systems, this image is the first part of GRUB to start. It is written to a master boot record (MBR) or to the boot sector of a partition. Because a PC boot sector is 512 bytes, the size of this image is exactly 512 bytes.
The sole function of boot.img is to read the first sector of the core image from a local disk and jump to it. Because of the size restriction, boot.img cannot understand any file system structure, so grub-setuphardcodes the location of the first sector of the core image into boot.img when installing GRUB.
This image is used as the first sector of the core image when booting from a hard disk. It reads the rest of the core image into memory and starts the kernel. Since file system handling is not yet available, it encodes the location of the core image using a block list format.
This image is used as the first sector of the core image when booting from a CD-ROM drive. It performs a similar function to diskboot.img.
This image is used as the start of the core image when booting from the network using PXE. See Network.
This image may be placed at the start of the core image in order to make GRUB look enough like a Linux kernel that it can be booted by LILO using an ‘image=’ section.
This image contains GRUB's basic run-time facilities: frameworks for device and file handling, environment variables, the rescue mode command-line parser, and so on. It is rarely used directly, but is built into all core images.
This is the core image of GRUB. It is built dynamically from the kernel image and an arbitrary list of modules by the grub-mkimage program. Usually, it contains enough modules to access /boot/grub, and loads everything else (including menu handling, the ability to load target operating systems, and so on) from the file system at run-time. The modular design allows the core image to be kept small, since the areas of disk where it must be installed are often as small as 32KB.
initrd (initial ramdisk) is a scheme for loading a temporary file system into memory in the boot process of the Linux kernel. initrd and initramfs refer to slightly different methods of achieving this. Both are commonly used to make preparations before the real root file system can be mounted.