Embedding Linux in a Commercial Product

A look at embedded systems and what it takes to build one.
Un-Virtual Memory

Another feature of standard Linux is its virtual memory capability. This is that magical feature that enables application programmers to write code with reckless abandon, without regard to how big the program is. The program simply overflows onto the swap area of the disk. In an embedded system without a disk, this capability is usually unavailable.

This powerful feature is not needed in an embedded system. In fact, you probably do not want it in real-time critical systems, because it introduces uncontrolled timing factors. The software must be more tightly engineered to fit into the available physical memory, just like other embedded systems.

Note that depending on the CPU, it is usually advisable to keep the virtual memory code in Linux, because cutting it out entails quite a bit of work. Also, it is highly desirable for another reason—it supports shared text, which allows multiple processes to share one copy of the software. Without this, each program would need to have its own copy of library routines like printf.

The virtual-memory paging capability can be turned off simply by setting the swap space size down to zero. Then if you write programs that are bigger than actual memory, the system will behave the same way as it does when you run out of swap space; the program will not load, or perhaps a malloc will fail, if the program asks for too much memory.

On many CPUs, virtual memory also provides memory management isolation between processes to keep them from overwriting each other's address space. This is not usually available on embedded systems which just support a simple, flat address space. Linux offers this as a bonus feature to aid in development. It reduces the probability of a wild write crashing the system. Many embedded systems intentionally use “global” data, shared between processes for efficiency reasons. This is also supported in Linux via the shared memory feature, which exposes only the parts of memory intended to be shared.

File Systems

Many embedded systems do not have a disk or a file system. Linux does not need either one to run. As mentioned before, the application tasks can be compiled along with the kernel and loaded as one image at boot time. This is sufficient for simple systems. However, it lacks the flexibility described previously.

In fact, if you look at many commercial embedded systems, you'll see that they offer file systems as options. Most are either a proprietary file system or an MS-DOS-compatible file system. Linux offers an MS-DOS-compatible file system, as well as a number of other choices. The other choices are usually recommended, because they are more robust and fault-tolerant. Linux also has check and repair utilities, generally missing in offerings from commercial vendors. This is especially important for flash systems which are updated over a network. If the system loses power in the middle of an upgrade, it can become unusable. A repair utility can usually fix such problems.

The file systems can be located on a traditional disk drive, on flash memory, or any other media for that matter. Also, a small RAM disk is usually desirable for holding transient files.

Flash memories are segmented into blocks. These may include a boot block containing the first software that runs when the CPU powers up. This could include the Linux boot code. The rest of the flash can be used as a file system. The Linux kernel can be copied from flash to RAM by the boot code, or alternatively, the kernel can be stored in a separate section of the flash and executed directly from there.

Another interesting alternative for some systems is to include a cheap CD-ROM drive. This can be cheaper than flash memory, and supports easy upgrades by swapping CD-ROMs. With this, Linux simply boots off the CD-ROM and gets all of its programs from the CD-ROM in the same way it would from a hard disk.

Finally, for networked embedded systems, Linux supports NFS (Network File System). This opens the door for implementing many of the value-added features in networked systems. First, it permits loading the application programs over a network. This is the ultimate in controlling software revisions, since the software for each embedded system can be loaded from a common server. It is also useful, while running, to import and export a plethora of data, configuration and status information. This can be a very powerful feature for user monitoring and control. For example, the embedded system can set up a small RAM disk, containing files which it keeps updated with current status information. Other systems can simply mount this RAM disk as a remote disk over the network and access status files on the fly. This allows a web server on another machine to access the status information via simple CGI scripts. Other application packages running on other computers can easily access the data. For more complex monitoring, an application package such as MatLab (http://www.mathworks.com/products/matlab/) can easily be used to provide graphical displays of system operation at an operator's PC or workstation.