Porting LinuxBIOS to the AMD SC520

Building a Linux system that will boot in seconds, not minutes, requires a custom BIOS. But thanks to a new compiler and development process, we can build a BIOS for a new motherboard with only C code—no assembly.

In this article, we describe the work done by the Cluster Research Team at Los Alamos National Laboratory to port LinuxBIOS to the AMD SC520 CPU. Although space does not permit a detailed description of all the work involved, we hope you can get some idea of what it takes to port to a new board.

The AMD SC520 is a small, low-power, integrated CPU. It is used in many embedded applications, one of the more interesting being the Portland Aerospace Society's open-source rocket. This rocket uses a standard board from Kontron to control all onboard computing functions. The board features a number of nice control buses, including the CAN bus for power control of rocket subsystems.

We were asked whether we could port LinuxBIOS to the board the rocket team uses. We purchased the board they use and found one main problem: the BIOS Flash is soldered on. If you burn a bad BIOS, the board is now a nice paperweight. It might be nice to have a fancy burned-out board as a paperweight, but we would rather have working boards.

After doing some research, we learned that Advanced Digital Logic (ADL) makes a nice SC520 board with a removable BIOS Flash part. We decided to use this board for development. We've used ADL boards for our miniclusters in the past, and they've worked well.

We would start our work by porting to the board with removable Flash. Once the port is solid, our plan was to take a deep breath and try it on the board with a non-removable Flash. If we fail, of course, we're the proud owners of a $400 brick!

Steps in Porting LinuxBIOS

The steps in any LinuxBIOS port process change little from board to board. First, enumerate the resources provided on the mainboard, such as the CPU, I/O parts and so on. Next, create the configuration files that describe the resources and populate the directory tree with those files. Then, fill in the blanks with code.

LinuxBIOS itself is about 98% C code. The small amount of assembly involved is common to almost all the boards for a given CPU. In this sense, LinuxBIOS is a far better piece of code than proprietary BIOSes, which we are told are almost completely assembly code. We have not seen this source code, of course.

How the LinuxBIOS Build Process Works

The LinuxBIOS build process bears little resemblance to the Linux kernel build process. Instead, the LinuxBIOS build process was inspired by the Plan 9 and BSD kernel build processes, although the LinuxBIOS process adds more formality and control. A lot of checking is needed for building a BIOS, as the price of error is high. Because our clusters may have 1,024 or 2,048 nodes, we want to make sure that the BIOS we flash to all the nodes at once is good. As we will see, however, we can afford to flash a bad BIOS if we use LinuxBIOS's fallback BIOS feature.

A target is a specific instance of LinuxBIOS for a motherboard. As built for a target, a LinuxBIOS image consists of glue code for resource management code and the resource code itself. A resource can be thought of as one or more .c files that control a hardware component, be it a motherboard, CPU or other chip. Resource code can invoke code for other resources as part of the configuration process. For example, the motherboard resource invokes code for CPU startup.

Each resource has a directory, so for the SC520, we need to have a directory called src/cpu/amd/sc520. The directory includes source code and two configuration files, one of which specifies options used for the resource and default option values. The other specifies what parts are built and how they are built. A given configuration file for a resource may specify other resources to be used, in which case the configuration files for those resources are read in and processed.

The LinuxBIOS configuration tool, starting from an initial configuration file called the target configuration file, creates a build directory. Once the configuration tool is run, the user changes to the build directory and types make. At that point, an image of the LinuxBIOS for that target is built and can be burned into Flash.

A given motherboard can have several target configuration files. Different options may be set for these different targets. One target might have a lot of debugging, another might use a different bootloader and so on. All of this control is set by options in the build process.

Options are defined in the LinuxBIOS source tree, and only defined options may be used. Options have default values and can be set only once in order to avoid confusion in how they are set and what values they may have.

The goal of this process is to make it easy to build all the targets on a single machine, quickly, while having only one copy of the source. A second goal is to avoid errors that cropped up in earlier versions of LinuxBIOS, when options were uncontrolled or set in too many places. The process supports cross-compilation, so we can build our PowerPC targets on an x86 machine.

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just want to try this feature

MR Test's picture

Please remove this just want to see what it did and how?

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