Starting Out

In this article by Chris Simmonds, author of the book Mastering Embedded Linux Programming – Second Edition, you are about to begin working on your next project, and this time it is going to be running Linux. What should you think about before you put finger to keyboard? Let's begin with a high-level look at embedded Linux and see why it is popular, what are the implications of open source licenses, and what kind of hardware you will need to run Linux.

(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)

Linux first became a viable choice for embedded devices around 1999. That was when Axis (https://www.axis.com), released their first Linux-powered network camera and TiVo (https://business.tivo.com/) their first Digital Video Recorder (DVR). Since 1999, Linux has become ever more popular, to the point that today it is the operating system of choice for many classes of product. At the time of writing, in 2017, there are about two billion devices running Linux. That includes a large number of smartphones running Android, which uses a Linux kernel, and hundreds of millions of set-top-boxes, smart TVs, and Wi-Fi routers, not to mention a very diverse range of devices such as vehicle diagnostics, weighing scales, industrial devices, and medical monitoring units that ship in smaller volumes.

So, why does your TV run Linux? At first glance, the function of a TV is simple: it has to display a stream of video on a screen. Why is a complex Unix-like operating system like Linux necessary?

The simple answer is Moore's Law: Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, observed in 1965 that the density of components on a chip will double approximately every two years. That applies to the devices that we design and use in our everyday lives just as much as it does to desktops, laptops, and servers. At the heart of most embedded devices is a highly integrated chip that contains one or more processor cores and interfaces with main memory, mass storage, and peripherals of many types. This is referred to as a System on Chip, or SoC, and SoCs are increasing in complexity in accordance with Moore's Law. A typical SoC has a technical reference manual that stretches to thousands of pages. Your TV is not simply displaying a video stream as the old analog sets used to do.

The stream is digital, possibly encrypted, and it needs processing to create an image. Your TV is (or soon will be) connected to the Internet. It can receive content from smartphones, tablets, and home media servers. It can be (or soon will be) used to play games. And so on and so on. You need a full operating system to manage this degree of complexity.

Here are some points that drive the adoption of Linux:

  • Linux has the necessary functionality. It has a good scheduler, a good network stack, support for USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, many kinds of storage media, good support for multimedia devices, and so on. It ticks all the boxes.
  • Linux has been ported to a wide range of processor architectures, including some that are very commonly found in SoC designs—ARM, MIPS, x86, and PowerPC.
  • Linux is open source, so you have the freedom to get the source code and modify it to meet your needs. You, or someone working on your behalf, can create a board support package for your particular SoC board or device. You can add protocols, features, and technologies that may be missing from the mainline source code. You can remove features that you don't need to reduce memory and storage requirements. Linux is flexible.
  • Linux has an active community; in the case of the Linux kernel, very active. There is a new release of the kernel every 8 to 10 weeks, and each release contains code from more than 1,000 developers. An active community means that Linux is up to date and supports current hardware, protocols, and standards.
  • Open source licenses guarantee that you have access to the source code. There is no vendor tie-in.

For these reasons, Linux is an ideal choice for complex devices. But there are a few caveats I should mention here. Complexity makes it harder to understand. Coupled with the fast moving development process and the decentralized structures of open source, you have to put some effort into learning how to use it and to keep on re-learning as it changes.

Selecting the right operating system

Is Linux suitable for your project? Linux works well where the problem being solved justifies the complexity. It is especially good where connectivity, robustness, and complex user interfaces are required. However, it cannot solve every problem, so here are some things to consider before you jump in:

  • Is your hardware up to the job? Compared to a traditional real-time operating system (RTOS) such as VxWorks, Linux requires a lot more resources. It needs at least a 32-bit processor and lots more memory. I will go into more detail in the section on typical hardware requirements.
  • Do you have the right skill set? The early parts of a project, board bring-up, detailed knowledge of Linux and how it relates to your hardware. Likewise, when debugging and tuning your application, you will need to be able to interpret the results. If you don't have the skills in-house, you may want to outsource some of the work.
  • Is your system real-time? Linux can handle many real-time activities so long as you pay attention to certain details.

Consider these points carefully. Probably the best indicator of success is to look around for similar products that run Linux and see how they have done it; follow best practice.

The players

Where does open source software come from? Who writes it? In particular, how does this relate to the key components of embedded development—the toolchain, bootloader, kernel, and basic utilities found in the root filesystem?

The main players are:

  • The open source community: This, after all, is the engine that generates the software you are going to be using. The community is a loose alliance of developers, many of whom are funded in some way, perhaps by a not-for-profit organization, an academic institution, or a commercial company. They work together to further the aims of the various projects. There are many of them—some small, some large. 
  • CPU architects: These are the organizations that design the CPUs we use. The important ones here are ARM/Linaro (ARM-based SoCs), Intel (x86 and x86_64), Imagination Technologies (MIPS), and IBM (PowerPC). They implement or, at the very least, influence support for the basic CPU architecture.
  • SoC vendors (Atmel, Broadcom, Intel, Qualcomm, TI, and many others). They take the kernel and toolchain from the CPU architects and modify them to support their chips. They also create reference boards: designs that are used by the next level down to create development boards and working products.
  • Board vendors and OEMs: These people take the reference designs from SoC vendors and build them in to specific products, for instance, set-top-boxes or cameras, or create more general purpose development boards, such as those from Avantech and Kontron. An important category are the cheap development boards such as BeagleBoard/BeagleBone and Raspberry Pi that have created their own ecosystems of software and hardware add-ons.

These form a chain, with your project usually at the end, which means that you do not have a free choice of components. You cannot simply take the latest kernel from https://www.kernel.org/, except in a few rare cases, because it does not have support for the chip or board that you are using.

This is an ongoing problem with embedded development. Ideally, the developers at each link in the chain would push their changes upstream, but they don't. It is not uncommon to find a kernel which has many thousands of patches that are not merged. In addition, SoC vendors tend to actively develop open source components only for their latest chips, meaning that support for any chip more than a couple of years old will be frozen and not receive any updates.

The consequence is that most embedded designs are based on old versions of software. They do not receive security fixes, performance enhancements, or features that are in newer versions. Problems such as Heartbleed (a bug in the OpenSSL libraries) and ShellShock (a bug in the bash shell) go unfixed.

What can you do about it? First, ask questions of your vendors: what is their update policy, how often do they revise kernel versions, what is the current kernel version, what was the one before that, and what is their policy for merging changes up-stream? Some vendors are making great strides in this way. You should prefer their chips.

Secondly, you can take steps to make yourself more self-sufficient. The article explains the dependencies in more detail and show you where you can help yourself. Don't just take the package offered to you by the SoC or board vendor and use it blindly without considering the alternatives.

The four elements of embedded Linux

Every project begins by obtaining, customizing, and deploying these four elements: the toolchain, the bootloader, the kernel, and the root filesystem:

  • Toolchain: The compiler and other tools needed to create code for your target device. Everything else depends on the toolchain.
  • Bootloader: The program that initializes the board and loads the Linux kernel.
  • Kernel: This is the heart of the system, managing system resources and interfacing with hardware.
  • Root filesystem: Contains the libraries and programs that are run once the kernel has completed its initialization.

Of course, there is also a fifth element, not mentioned here. That is the collection of programs specific to your embedded application which make the device do whatever it is supposed to do, be it weigh groceries, display movies, control a robot, or fly a drone.

Typically, you will be offered some or all of these elements as a package when you buy your SoC or board. But, for the reasons mentioned in the preceding paragraph, they may not be the best choices for you.

Open source

The components of embedded Linux are open source, so now is a good time to consider what that means, why open sources work the way they do, and how this affects the often proprietary embedded device you will be creating from it.

Licenses

When talking about open source, the word free is often used. People new to the subject often take it to mean nothing to pay, and open source software licenses do indeed guarantee that you can use the software to develop and deploy systems for no charge. However, the more important meaning here is freedom, since you are free to obtain the source code, modify it in any way you see fit, and redeploy it in other systems. These licenses give you this right. Compare that with shareware licenses which allow you to copy the binaries for no cost but do not give you the source code, or other licenses that allow you to use the software for free under certain circumstances, for example, for personal use but not commercial. These are not open source.

I will provide the following comments in the interest of helping you understand the implications of working with open source licenses, but I would like to point out that I am an engineer and not a lawyer. What follows is my understanding of the licenses and the way they are interpreted.

Open source licenses fall broadly into two categories: the copyleft licenses such as the General Public License (GPL) and the permissive licenses such as those from the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD), the , and others.

The permissive licenses say, in essence, that you may modify the source code and use it in systems of your own choosing so long as you do not modify the terms of the license in any way. In other words, with that one restriction, you can do with it what you want, including building it into possibly proprietary systems.

The GPL licenses are similar, but have clauses which compel you to pass the rights to obtain and modify the software on to your end users. In other words, you share your source code. One option is to make it completely public by putting it onto a public server. Another is to offer it only to your end users by means of a written offer to provide the code when requested. The GPL goes further to say that you cannot incorporate GPL code into proprietary programs. Any attempt to do so would make the GPL apply to the whole. In other words, you cannot combine a GPL and proprietary code in one program.

So, what about libraries? If they are licensed with the GPL, any program linked with them becomes GPL also. However, most libraries are licensed under the Lesser General Public License (LGPL). If this is the case, you are allowed to link with them from a proprietary program.

All the preceding description relates specifically to GLP v2 and LGPL v2.1. I should mention the latest versions of GLP v3 and LGPL v3. These are controversial, and I will admit that I don't fully understand the implications. However, the intention is to ensure that the GPLv3 and LGPL v3 components in any system can be replaced by the end user, which is in the spirit of open source software for everyone. It does pose some problems though. Some Linux devices are used to gain access to information according to a subscription level or another restriction, and replacing critical parts of the software may compromise that. Set-top-boxes fit into this category. There are also issues with security. If the owner of a device has access to the system code, then so might an unwelcome intruder. Often the defense is to have kernel images that are signed by an authority, the vendor, so that unauthorized updates are not possible. Is that an infringement of my right to modify my device? Opinions differ.

The TiVo set-top-box is an important part of this debate. It uses a Linux kernel, which is licensed under GPL v2. TiVo have released the source code of their version of the kernel and so comply with the license. TiVo also has a bootloader that will only load a kernel binary that is signed by them. Consequently, you can build a modified kernel for a TiVo box but you cannot load it on the hardware. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) takes the position that this is not in the spirit of open source software and refers to this procedure as Tivoization. The GPL v3 and LGPL v3 were written to explicitly prevent this happening. Some projects, the Linux kernel in particular, have been reluctant to adopt the version three licenses because of the restrictions it would place on device manufacturers.

Hardware for embedded Linux

If you are designing or selecting hardware for an embedded Linux project, what do you look out for?

Firstly, a CPU architecture that is supported by the kernel—unless you plan to add a new architecture yourself, of course! Looking at the source code for Linux 4.9, there are 31 architectures, each represented by a sub-directory in the arch/ directory. They are all 32- or 64-bit architectures, most with a memory management unit (MMU), but some without. The ones most often found in embedded devices are ARM, MIPS PowerPC, and X86, each in 32- and 64-bit variants, and all of which have memory management units.

That doesn't have an MMU that runs a subset of Linux known as microcontroller Linux or uClinux. These processor architectures include ARC, Blackfin, MicroBlaze, and Nios. I will mention uClinux from time to time but I will not go into detail because it is a rather specialized topic.

Secondly, you will need a reasonable amount of RAM. 16 MiB is a good minimum, although it is quite possible to run Linux using half that. It is even possible to run Linux with 4 MiB if you are prepared to go to the trouble of optimizing every part of the system. It may even be possible to get lower, but there comes a point at which it is no longer Linux.

Thirdly, there is non-volatile storage, usually flash memory. 8 MiB is enough for a simple device such as a webcam or a simple router. As with RAM, you can create a workable Linux system with less storage if you really want to, but the lower you go, the harder it becomes. Linux has extensive support for flash storage devices, including raw NOR and NAND flash chips, and managed flash in the form of SD cards, eMMC chips, USB flash memory, and so on.

Fourthly, a debug port is very useful, most commonly an RS-232 serial port. It does not have to be fitted on production boards, but makes board bring-up, debugging, and development much easier.

Fifthly, you need some means of loading software when starting from scratch. A few years ago, boards would have been fitted with a Joint Test Action Group (JTAG) interface for this purpose, but modern SoCs have the ability to load boot code directly from removable media, especially SD and micro SD cards, or serial interfaces such as RS-232 or USB.

In addition to these basics, there are interfaces to the specific bits of hardware your device needs to get its job done. Mainline Linux comes with open source drivers for many thousands of different devices, and there are drivers (of variable quality) from the SoC manufacturer and from the OEMs of third-party chips that may be included in the design, but remember my comments on the commitment and ability of some manufacturers. As a developer of embedded devices, you will find that you spend quite a lot of time evaluating and adapting third-party code, if you have it, or liaising with the manufacturer if you don't. Finally, you will have to write the device support for interfaces that are unique to the device, or find someone to do it for you.

Hardware

The worked examples are intended to be generic, but to make them relevant and easy to follow, I have had to choose specific hardware. I have chosen two exemplar devices: the BeagleBone Black and QEMU. The first is a widely-available and cheap development board which can be used in serious embedded hardware. The second is a machine emulator that can be used to create a range of systems that are typical of embedded hardware. It was tempting to use QEMU exclusively, but, like all emulations, it is not quite the same as the real thing. Using a BeagleBone Black, you have the satisfaction of interacting with real hardware and seeing real LEDs flash. I could have selected a board that is more up-to-date than the BeagleBone Black, which is several years old now, but I believe that its popularity gives it a degree of longevity and it means that it will continue to be available for some years yet.

In any case, I encourage you to try out as many of the examples as you can, using either of these two platforms, or indeed any embedded hardware you may have to hand.

The BeagleBone Black

The BeagleBone and the later BeagleBone Black are open hardware designs for a small, credit card sized development board produced by CircuitCo LLC. The main repository of information is at https://beagleboard.org/. The main points of the specifications are:

  • TI AM335x 1 GHz ARM® Cortex-A8 Sitara SoC
  • 512 MiB DDR3 RAM
  • 2 or 4 GiB 8-bit eMMC on-board flash storage
  • Serial port for debug and development
  • MicroSD connector, which can be used as the boot device
  • Mini USB OTG client/host port that can also be used to power the board
  • Full size USB 2.0 host port
  • 10/100 Ethernet port
  • HDMI for video and audio output

In addition, there are two 46-pin expansion headers for which there are a great variety of daughter boards, known as capes, which allow you to adapt the board to do many different things. However, you do not need to fit any capes in the examples.

In addition to the board itself, you will need:

  • A mini USB to full-size USB cable (supplied with the board) to provide power, unless you have the last item on this list.
  • An RS-232 cable that can interface with the 6-pin 3.3V TTL level signals provided by the board. The Beagleboard website has links to compatible cables.
  • A microSD card and a means of writing to it from your development PC or laptop, which will be needed to load software onto the board.
  • An Ethernet cable, as some of the examples require network connectivity.
  • Optional, but recommended, a 5V power supply capable of delivering 1 A or more.

QEMU

QEMU is a machine emulator. It comes in a number of different flavors, each of which can emulate a processor architecture and a number of boards built using that architecture. For example, we have the following:

  • qemu-system-arm: ARM
  • qemu-system-mips: MIPS
  • qemu-system-ppc: PowerPC
  • qemu-system-x86: x86 and x86_64

For each architecture, QEMU emulates a range of hardware, which you can see by using the option—machine help. Each machine emulates most of the hardware that would normally be found on that board. There are options to link hardware to local resources, such as using a local file for the emulated disk drive. Here is a concrete example:

$ qemu-system-arm -machine vexpress-a9 -m 256M -drive 
 file=rootfs.ext4,sd -net nic -net use -kernel zImage -dtb vexpress-
 v2p-ca9.dtb -append "console=ttyAMA0,115200 root=/dev/mmcblk0" -
 serial stdio -net nic,model=lan9118 -net tap,ifname=tap0

The options used in the preceding command line are:

  • -machine vexpress-a9: Creates an emulation of an ARM Versatile Express development board with a Cortex A-9 processor
  • -m 256M: Populates it with 256 MiB of RAM
  • -drive file=rootfs.ext4,sd: Connects the SD interface to the local file rootfs.ext4 (which contains a filesystem image)
  • -kernel zImage: Loads the Linux kernel from the local file named zImage
  • -dtb vexpress-v2p-ca9.dtb: Loads the device tree from the local file vexpress-v2p-ca9.dtb
  • -append "...": Supplies this string as the kernel command-line
  • -serial stdio: Connects the serial port to the terminal that launched QEMU, usually so that you can log on to the emulated machine via the serial console
  • -net nic,model=lan9118: Creates a network interface
  • -net tap,ifname=tap0: Connects the network interface to the virtual network interface tap0

To configure the host side of the network, you need the tunctl command from the User Mode Linux (UML) project; on Debian and Ubuntu, the package is named uml-utilites:

$ sudo tunctl -u $(whoami) -t tap0

This creates a network interface named tap0 which is connected to the network controller in the emulated QEMU machine. You configure tap0 in exactly the same way as any other interface.

I will be using Versatile Express for most of my examples, but it should be easy to use a different machine or architecture.

Software

I have used only open source software, both for the development tools and the target operating system and applications. I assume that you will be using Linux on your development system. I tested all the host commands using Ubuntu 14.04 and so there is a slight bias towards that particular version, but any modern Linux distribution is likely to work just fine.

Summary

Embedded hardware will continue to get more complex, following the trajectory set by Moore's Law. Linux has the power and the flexibility to make use of hardware in an efficient way.

Linux is just one component of open source software out of the many that you need to create a working product. The fact that the code is freely available means that people and organizations at many different levels can contribute. However, the sheer variety of embedded platforms and the fast pace of development lead to isolated pools of software which are not shared as efficiently as they should be. In many cases, you will become dependent on this software, especially the Linux kernel that is provided by your SoC or Board vendor, and to a lesser extent, the toolchain. Some SoC manufacturers are getting better at pushing their changes upstream and the maintenance of these changes is getting easier.

Fortunately, there are some powerful tools that can help you create and maintain the software for your device. For example, Buildroot is ideal for small systems and the Yocto Project for larger ones. Before I describe these build tools, I will describe the four elements of embedded Linux, which you can apply to all embedded Linux projects, however they are created.

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