Active Badges—The Next Generation

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

The biggest disadvantage of the NFS root approach is that it requires both a boot server and an NFS server (which can be co-located on one physical machine) during both the boot process and the system operation. This approach is very convenient in the early stages of the development process, when home directories can be shared between a development system acting as an NFS server and the Linux Piccolo host. When the development cycle is over, a “snapshot” of the system, along with the required applications, should be taken and stored in the poller's non-volatile memory. The poller can then run independently of the NFS server.

The M-Systems' DiskOnChip2000 is a new generation of high-performance single-chip flash disks. The DiskOnChip MD2000 provides a flash disk in a standard 32-pin DIP package. Since the PCM-4823 board we use is equipped with a DiskOnChip socket, M-Systems' solution seems to be a natural choice. We soon discovered that there is one serious problem with DoC. DiskOnChip2000 has built-in TrueFFS (true flash file system) technology, which provides hard disk compatibility at both the sector and file level. It works in a variety of operating system environments such as DOS, Windows 95, Windows CE, Windows NT, pSOS+ and QNX. Unfortunately, Linux is not yet on the list of supported operating systems. The good news is M-Systems is planning to support Linux; by the time this article is printed, Linux should be supported.

As the deadline for our project neared, we couldn't wait for the support. The fact that DoC is not supported by Linux does not mean that Linux cannot be started from it. The solution was to create a DOS partition on the flash disk containing the Linux Piccolo kernel and the compressed file system image, and to use loadlin with the initrd capability. initrd, which stands for initial RAM disk, enables loading the RAM disk image by the boot loader. This RAM disk can be mounted as a root file system, from which applications can be executed. Using the following command:

loadlin zimage initrd=linpico.gz root=/dev/ram

the compressed kernel (zimage) and the compressed root file system image (linpico.gz) are loaded into memory. After those two elements are loaded, the kernel is uncompressed and executed. Code contained in the kernel is then used to uncompress and mount the root file system. When the file system is mounted, standard system initialization is performed.

Having experience with the NFS-root approach, we decided to buy a 10MB DiskOnChip. Relying only on the flash disk requires much more RAM than using an external NFS server. A 32MB RAM module has been installed on ABng poller. Also, the size of the whole Linux Piccolo file system should be reduced as much as possible to fit on the 10MB flash disk. All required files can be copied into the flash disk using an external floppy or hard drive, or they can be downloaded through the network.

To create a file system image, a block device is required. We use a loopback device for this purpose. The first step is to zero out the block device in order to achieve a better compression ratio. Then, the file system is created using the mkfs utility. The file system is then mounted at the temporary mount point and all required files are copied onto it. The last steps are to unmount the file system and compress it.

After each development cycle of the ABng poller application, the script in Listing 1 is invoked on the external Linux server to prepare the Linux Piccolo file system.

The biggest drawback of this solution is that no changes can be written from within Linux. In the case of ABng poller, this is not a big problem, but for other kinds of applications it might be unacceptable. In such a situation, flash disks with an IDE interface may be used. An example of such a flash disk that performs well under Linux is the SanDisk FlashDrive.


Linux wasn't chosen just because it is free and very popular in the academic community. Linux was the best choice for several reasons. First, we needed a multi-threaded operating system that could be tailored to our own requirements. With Linux source code available, this customization could easily be performed. The other important features of Linux are its mature networking subsystem and the availability of the CORBA environment. The performance of ABng poller turned out to be better than expected even with a limited amount of RAM. The customization and integration of different components of the system were performed effectively without any major technical problems. This proves Linux to be an advanced and open operating system.


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