Building Tiny Linux Systems with BusyBox, Part 3

Let's get smaller, writable and multiuser! A new library, new kernel and other bells and whistles gives us more practice building a highly functional Linux system with a tiny footprint.
Let's Get Small

Another good thing Erik and others have been working on is uClibc, the free embedded C library. I had previously identified this library as being under the GPL license, but I was mistaken. uClibc is under the LGPL and is thus fine for linking with proprietary applications. You can now make BusyBox statically linked to run with uClibc rather than libc5 or libc6. The result is less than 300K in size, and of course, it gets even smaller when the ROM filesystem is compressed. In the uClibc source directory, edit the configuration file and change HAS_MMU to true, HAS_FLOATS to true and KERNEL_SOURCE to the location of your kernel source. Change the definition of the CC to be $(CROSS)gcc -Os to optimize for smaller code size. If your version of gcc does not support the -Os flag, use -O2 instead. Run make to build the libc.a library. In this article, uClib supports only static linking, but dynamic linking has just started to work. We'll give it a little time to stabilize and will cover it in the next issue.

Now, go back to the BusyBox source, edit the Makefile and look for the lines that say ``to compile vs. an alternative libc, you may need to use/adjust the following lines of source to meet your needs''. Below that section are lines that define LIBCDIR, LDFLAGS, LIBRARIES, CROSS_CFLAGS and GCCINCDIR. Most or all of these definitions are commented out. Uncomment the definitions to enable linking with uClibc. Change the definition of LIBCDIR to be the location of your uClibc source. Edit Config.h, and comment out the BB_GETOPT and BB_FEATURE_NFSMOUNT definitions to disable the getopt command and the ability to mount remote NFS filesystems with the mount command. As I write this, there's a bug preventing the BusyBox getopt command from working with uClibc, but that might be fixed by the time you read this article. uClibc does not currently include network support, although I'm sure that someone will add it eventually.

Now, rebuild all of BusyBox with the make clean and make commands. On my system, the result is a statically linked executable of 297,620 bytes in size.

Remove the file tiny-linux/bin/getopt. That file won't be generated this time because we turned off the definition of BB_GETOPT. If we don't remove it, we'll end up with two versions of BusyBox and a lot of wasted space.

Use the instructions above under ``Getting Comfortable with the 2.4 Kernel'', starting with the command:

make PREFIX=../tiny-linux install-hardlinks

This generates another floppy. Boot the floppy to test it.

Add Writable Storage

Probably the biggest missing feature in your tiny Linux system so far is the lack of writable storage. Let's fix that now. We'll use a VFAT filesystem for the writable storage. This is an extension of the old DOS FAT filesystem to handle long and mixed-case filenames, introduced for Windows 95. Since your floppy already uses a DOS filesystem to hold the kernel and the compressed ROM image file, it's easiest to use VFAT to extend that filesystem for this example. Become root. Create a tiny var directory. This directory tree will hold files that will be writable on your tiny Linux system. You will copy it to the floppy later on, and it will be mounted on /floppy/var when your tiny Linux system boots.

Move your entire tiny-linux/etc directory to tiny-var/etc using the command:

mv tiny-linux/etc tiny-var

Create two other directories: tiny-var/shm and tiny-var/home. The first directory is used by the mount command as a placeholder when providing shared memory, and the second is used to hold home directories for users.

Now we'll create symbolic links in tiny Linux to redirect some directories to /var so that you will have access to your writable storage and then redirect /var to /floppy/var. We do the symbolic links in two levels here so that the location of all of the writable storage can be changed by replacing only one link:

cd tiny-linux
rm -f -r var
mkdir floppy
ln -s floppy/var var
ln -s var/etc etc
ln -s var/home home

Create the shell script as shown below:

#! /bin/sh
/bin/mount -t vfat /dev/fd0 /floppy
exec /sbin/init
This script will run when the system starts, instead of init, because we'll provide a special command-line argument to the kernel. It will mount the floppy so that the contents of /etc are correct before init starts. Note that exec/sbin/init is different from simply running /sbin/init. The exec command says to replace the shell with the given program, rather than run the program as a subprocess of the shell. Thus, init will run in the same process-ID as the shell, which in this case will be process-ID 1. This is important as the kernel gives process-ID 1 some special properties, and init will not run properly unless it's in process-ID 1.

Change the mode of the script so that it is executable:

chmod 744

Change directory up one level (cd ..):

Use an editor to modify the file tiny-var/etc/inittab, which tells /bin/init, the system startup program, which processes to start. The entire contents of the file should look like this:

::ctrlaltdel:/sbin/swapoff -a
::ctrlaltdel:/bin/umount -a

We're adding lines here to cleanly unmount filesystems at shutdown time, so that the floppy filesystem containing the writable files will be unmounted. Tasks on lines that start with ::ctrlaltdel: will be executed just before the system halts. We also turn off any swap partitions that are activated, just in case they live on a mounted filesystem.

Create the special device file necessary to mount the floppy:

mknod tiny-linux/dev/fd0 b 2 0
chmod 644 tiny-linux/dev/fd0

Now, regenerate the ROM filesystem from the tiny Linux directory, using genromfs as before, and compress it using gzip to create a new fs.gz.

Mount your floppy with this command:

mount -t vfat /dev/fd0 /mnt

and copy the new fs.gz to your tiny Linux floppy, replacing the old ROM filesystem.

Copy the tiny var directory tree to your floppy with the commands:

mkdir /mnt/var
cp -R tiny-var/* /mnt/var

Tell the kernel to run / instead of /sbin/init by editing the file /mnt/syslinux.cfg. Change the line that says

APPEND root=/dev/ram0 initrd=fs.gz
to say
APPEND root=/dev/ram0 initrd=fs.gz
Change directory to /, and unmount the floppy with this command
umount /dev/fd0
You should now be able to boot the floppy, and the directories /var, /etc and /home should be writable.