Active Badges—The Next Generation

Implementing a software location system as a Linux embedded application results in a robust, efficient and inexpensive system.
Hardware Platform

ABng Poller runs on the PC/104 hardware platform, which was developed in 1992 in response to a growing need for a more compact implementation of the PC bus, satisfying the reduced space and power constraints of embedded control applications. Yet these goals had to be realized without sacrificing full hardware and software compatibility with the popular PC bus standard.

The key differences between PC/104 and the regular PC bus are:

  • Compact Form-Factor: card size is reduced to 3.6 by 3.8 inches. It has a unique self-stacking bus that eliminates the cost and bulk of backplanes and card cages.

  • Pin-and-Socket connectors: rugged and reliable 64- and 40-contact male/female headers replace the standard PC's edge-card connectors.

  • Lower bus drive current (4 mA): lowers power consumption to 1-2 watts per module.

In the ABng project, we use PC/104 modules manufactured by Advantech. Products manufactured by Advantech fall into several groups, from which we use two: Biscuit PCs and PC/104 modules. Biscuit PCs are a family of small, highly integrated single board computers designed for all sorts of embedded applications, and are equipped with the 80x86 processors—from 386 to 586. Since the ABng poller runs in a distributed environment, it was crucial to have an Ethernet controller on-board. Other components, such as a VGA adapter, printer port or floppy interface, are not necessary but are quite helpful in early development stages.

One of the first versions of ABng poller worked on a PCM-4822 Biscuit PC equipped with an AMD 486 processor, NE2000 compatible network adapter, enhanced IDE interface, two RS-232 ports, keyboard connector and 4-bit digital I/O interface. All these components, including 8MB of RAM, fit into a compact 145mm x 102mm board.

During the testing period, we found two main drawbacks to the PCM-4822 board. The board is equipped with a 120MHz 486 processor that requires an electric fan. As the only mechanical part of the ABng poller, the fan is the weakest part of the whole design. A second problem is the lack of a PC/104 interface on the PCM-4822 board. Adding any PC/104 modules requires an additional adapter. One of our main design goals was to create a robust device of minimal size, so we couldn't accept moving parts or unnecessary adapter boards. The solution came from Advantech, with the release of PCM-4823 boards, equipped with the PC/104 interface and an AMD 586 processor. The CPU has a heat sink attached, so an external fan isn't necessary.

To increase the number of sensors supported by the poller, we had to use a multi-port RS-232 module. The PCM-3640 manufactured by Advantech, with a price of about $30/port, seems to be a good choice. The only problem is that IRQ sharing is not implemented, so four unused interrupt lines have to be allocated for the module to work.

Linux Piccolo

The operating system platform for the ABng poller is Linux Piccolo, which has its roots in Red Hat 4.2. To fulfill the requirements of an embedded system, the size of Linux Piccolo has been reduced by keeping only the most important components such as system libraries, system commands, basic daemons such as telnetd, httpd, perld and necessary configuration files. The size of the first version of our system was about 25MB of hard-disk space. During the evolution of the system, its size was reduced to 4MB of compressed file-system image.

As Linux Piccolo runs on a diskless PC, two problems had to be solved: remote booting and root file system mounting. By remote booting, we mean downloading the Linux image from the boot server and performing a standard bootstrap procedure. After the kernel is loaded into memory, it mounts the root file system, which is crucial for the operation of the system. Without a local hard disk, the NFS root file system should be used.

The PCM-4822 board used in the first prototype of the ABng poller comes with the Remote Program Load (RPL) protocol burned into its boot PROM. The RPL protocol is supported by the following operating systems: Windows NT, Novell Netware, Microsoft LAN Manager and IBM LAN Server. Unfortunately, a Linux implementation of the RPL protocol does not exist. After an unsuccessful attempt to find an RPL specification, in order to implement it under Linux, we've decided to use Windows NT as a boot server. In our environment it wasn't a difficult decision, because we already had a Windows NT workstation. In other cases where an NT server isn't available, the alternative is to change the boot PROM image to support BOOTP/TFTP. A good place to find network booting solutions is the German company Imcon ( Their Boot PROM supports over sixty Ethernet cards, covering all major brands of current PCI and ISA cards, as well as many older 8-bit models.

After selecting boot protocol and configuring both client and server sides, two more elements are required: the Linux kernel and the root file system.

The kernel for the Piccolo workstation needs the following as a minimum set compiled in:

  • NFS file system support

  • “Root on NFS” enabled

  • The Ethernet driver for the network card (For Advantech's Biscuit PCs, the NE2000 driver works fine.)

  • RARP or BOOTP support for NFS-Root depending on your needs.

Additional parameters, such as the station IP address and the IP address of the NFS server, should be passed to the kernel at boot time. When loadlin is used to boot the kernel, the following command-line options should be used:

loadlin zimage nfsroot=/biscuits/piccolo1 \
nfsaddrs= \

In this example, /biscuits/piccolo1 is the path of the root file system on the server, is the station address and is the boot server address. The rest of the parameters are the network mask, the station name and the network interface name.

As the next step, the root file system of the diskless station has to be prepared, installed on the NFS server and exported to the diskless station. The Linux Piccolo file system can be downloaded from our web site (see Resources).

Another feature of the NFS root approach is the lack of a swap partition. With no swapping capability and only 8MB of memory installed, RAM is a very scarce resource; therefore, the number of processes running should be minimized. Apart from removing unnecessary applications, the number of getty processes has been reduced by editing the /etc/inittab file. After this thinning treatment, about 3MB of RAM was left to the ABng poller process.