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Building Embedded Linux Systems by Karim Yaghmour

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Design and Implementation Methodology

Designing and implementing an embedded Linux system can be carried out in a defined manner. The process includes many tasks, some of which may be carried out in parallel, hence reducing overall development time. Some tasks can even be omitted, if a distribution is being used. Regardless of the actual tools or methodology you use, Chapter 2 is required reading for all tasks involved in building an embedded Linux system.

While designing and implementing your embedded Linux system, use the worksheet provided in Appendix A to record your system's characteristics. It includes a section to fully describe each aspect of your embedded system. This worksheet will help your team keep track of the system's components and will help future maintainers understand how the system was originally built. In fact, a properly completed worksheet should be sufficient for people outside your team to rebuild the entire system without any assistance.

Given that the details of the tasks involved in building embedded Linux systems sometimes change with the updating of the software packages involved, visit this book's web site (http://www.embeddedtux.org/) from time to time for updates.

Creating a Target Linux System

A target Linux system is created by configuring and bundling together the appropriate system components. Programming and development aspects are a separate subject, and are discussed later in this chapter.

There are four main steps to creating a target Linux system:

  • Determine system components

  • Configure and build the kernel

  • Build root filesystem

  • Set up boot software and configuration

Determining system components is like making a shopping list before you go to the grocery store. It is easy to go without a shopping list and wonder at all the choices you have, as many do with Linux. This may result in "featurism," whereby your system will have lots and lots of features but won't necessarily fulfill its primary purpose. Hence, before you go looking at all the latest Linux gizmos available, sit down and write a list of what you need. I find this approach helps in focusing development and avoids distractions such as: "Look honey, they actually have salami ice cream." This doesn't mean that you shouldn't change your list if you see something pertinent. It is just a warning about the quantity of software available for Linux and the inherent abundance of choices.

Chapter 3 discusses the hardware components that can be found as part of an embedded Linux system. This should provide you with enough background and maybe even ideas of what hardware you can find in an embedded Linux system. As Linux and surrounding software are ever evolving targets, use this and further research on the Net to find out which design requirements are met by Linux. In turn, this will provide you with a list of items you need to develop to complete your system. This step of development is the only one that cannot be paralleled with other tasks. Determining system requirements and Linux's compliance to these requirements has to be completed before any other step.

Because of the ever evolving nature of Linux, you may feel the need to get the latest and greatest pieces of software for your design. Avoid doing this, as new software often needs testing and may require other software to be upgraded because of the dependencies involved between packages. Hence, you may find yourself locked in a frantic race to keep up with the plethora of updates. Instead, fix the bugs with the current software you have and keep track of other advances so that the next generation projects you design can profit from these advances. If you have an important reason to upgrade a software component, carefully analyze the consequences of such an upgrade on the rest of your system before actually carrying out the upgrade. You may also want to test the upgrade on a test system before applying it to your main system.

Having determined which features are pertinent to your design, you can select a kernel version and relevant configuration. Chapter 5 covers the configuration and build process of the kernel. Unlike other pieces of software, you may want to keep updating your kernel to the latest stable version throughout your project's development up until the beta stage. Though keeping the kernel version stable throughout the development cycle may seem simple, you may find yourself trying to fix bugs that have been fixed in more recent kernels. Keeping yourself up to date with recent kernel developments, as we discuss in Chapter 5, will help you decide whether updating to the most recent kernel is best for you. Also, you may want to try newer kernels and roll back to older ones if you encounter any serious problems. Note that using kernels that are too old may cut you off from community support, since contributors can rarely afford keep answering questions about old bugs.

Regardless of whether you decide to follow kernel updates, I suggest you keep the kernel configuration constant throughout the project. This will avoid completed parts from breaking in the course of development. This involves studying the configuration options closely, though, in light of system requirements. Although this task can be conducted in parallel with other tasks, it is important that developers involved in the project be aware of the possible configuration options and agree with the options chosen.

Once configuration is determined, it is time to build the kernel. Building the kernel involves many steps and generates more than just a kernel image. Although the generated components are not necessary for some of the other development aspects of the project, the other project components tend to become more and more dependent on the availability of the kernel components as the project advances. It is therefore preferable to have the kernel components fully configured and built as early as possible, and kept up to date throughout the project.

In parallel to handling the kernel issues, you can start building the root filesystem of the embedded system, as explained in Chapter 6. The root filesystem of an embedded Linux system is similar to the one you find on a workstation or server running Linux, except that it contains only the minimal set of applications, libraries, and related files needed to run the system. Note that you should not have to remove any of the components you previously chose at this stage to obtain a properly sized root filesystem. In fact, if you have to do so, you probably did not determine system components adequately. Remember that this earlier stage should include an analysis of all system requirements, including the root filesystem size. You should therefore have as accurate as possible an estimate of the size of each component you selected during the first step of creating the target system.

If you are unable to predetermine the complete list of components you will need in your embedded system and would rather build your target root filesystem iteratively by adding the tools and libraries you need as you go along, then do so, but do not treat the result as your final root filesystem. Instead, use the iterative method to explore the building of root filesystems and then apply your experience into building a clean root filesystem for your target system. The reason behind this is that the trial and error nature of the iterative method makes its completion time nondeterministic. The structured approach may require more forethought, but its results are known and can be the basis for additional planning.

Setting up and configuring the storage devices and the bootloader software are the remaining tasks in creating a target Linux system. Chapters Chapter 7, Chapter 8, and Chapter 9 discuss these issues in full. It is during these steps that the different components of the target system come together: the bootloader, the root filesystem, and the kernel. As booting is highly dependent on the architecture, different bootloaders are involved. Within a single architecture there are also variations in the degree of debugging and monitoring provided by the bootloaders. The methodology to package and boot a system is fairly similar among the different architectures, but varies according to the permanent storage device from which the system is booted and the bootloader used. Booting a system from native flash, for instance, is different from booting a system from a DiskOnChip or CompactFlash device, and is even more different from booting from a network server.

Setting Up and Using Development Tools

Software development for embedded systems is different from software development for the workstation or server environments. Mainly, the target environment is often dissimilar to the host on which the development is conducted. Hence the need for a host/target setup whereby the developer develops his software on the host and downloads it onto the target for testing. There are two aspects to this setup: development and debugging. Such a setup, however, does not preclude you from using Linux's multiarchitecture advantage to test your target's applications on your host with little or no modification. Though not all applications can be tested in this way, testing target applications on the host will generally save you a lot of time.

Embedded development is discussed in Chapter 4. Prior to testing any code on the target system, it is necessary to establish a host/target connection. This will be the umbilical cord by which the developer will be able to interact with the target system to verify whether the applications he develops function as prescribed. As the applications cannot typically run on bare hardware, there will have to be a functional embedded Linux system on the target hardware already. Since it is often impossible to wait for the final target setup to be completed to test target applications, you can use a development target setup. The latter will be packaged much more loosely and will not have to respect the size requirements imposed on the final package. Hence, the development root filesystem may include many more applications and libraries than will be found in the final root filesystem. This also allows different and larger types of permanent storage devices during development.

Obtaining such a setup necessitates compiling the target applications and libraries. This is achieved by configuring or building the various compiler and binary utilities for cross-development. Using these utilities, you can build applications for the target and therefore build the development target setup used for further development. With this done, you can use various Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) to ease development of the project components and other tools such as CVS to coordinate work among developers.

Given the horsepower found on some embedded systems, some developers even choose to carry out all development directly on the target system. In this setup, the compiler and related tools all run on the target. This, in effect, combines host and target in a single machine and resembles conventional workstation application development. The main advantage of such a configuration is that you avoid the hassle of setting up a host/target environment.

Whatever development setup you choose, you will need to debug and poke at your software in many ways. You can do this with the debugging tools covered in Chapter 11. For simple debugging operations, you may choose to use ad hoc methods such as printing values using printf( ). Some problems require more insight into the runtime operations of the software being debugged; this may be provided by symbolic debugging. gdb is the most common general-purpose debugger for Linux, but symbolic debugging on embedded systems may be more elaborate. It could involve such things as remote serial debugging, kernel debugging, and BDM and JTAG debugging tools. But even symbolic debugging may be inadequate in some situations. When system calls made by an application are problematic or when synchronization problems need to be solved, it is better to use tracing tools such as strace and LTT. For performance problems, there are other tools more adapted to the task, such as gprof and gcov. When all else fails, you may even need to understand kernel crashes.

Developing for the Embedded

One of the main advantages of using Linux as an embedded OS is that the code developed for Linux should run identically on an embedded target as on a workstation, right? Well, not quite. Although it is true that you can expect your Linux workstation code to build and run the same on an embedded Linux system, embedded system operations and requirements differ greatly from workstation or server environments. Whereas you can expect errors to kill an application on a workstation, for instance, leaving the responsibility to the user to restart the application, you can't afford to have this sort of behavior in an embedded system. Neither can you allow applications to gobble up resources without end or behave in an untimely manner.[11] Therefore, even though the APIs and OS used may be identical, there are fundamental differences in programming philosophies.

Networking

Networking enables an embedded system to interact with and be accessible to the outside world. In an embedded Linux environment, you have to choose networking hardware, networking protocols, and the services to offer while accounting for network security. Chapter 10 covers the setup and use of networking services such as HTTP, Telnet, SSH, and/or SNMP. One interesting aspect in a network-enabled embedded system is the possibility of remote updating, whereby it is possible to update the system via a network link without on-site intervention. This is covered in Chapter 8.



[11] Normal Linux workstation and server applications should not gobble up resources either. In fact, the most important applications used on Linux servers are noteworthy for their stability, which is one reason Linux is so successful as a server operating system.

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