How to Port Linux When the Hardware Turns Soft

Porting Linux to run on the Pico E12 and beyond.

In software development, possibly the most mystical and prestigious effort is taking dead hardware and breathing life into it—porting an operating system to a new platform—the mythical land of wizards and gurus, the software side of The Soul of a New Machine. I had performed almost every other software development task, and I wanted a chance to conquer this one.

I had been working with Linux and open-source software for many years. I am a fairly competent software developer (with hardware experience), but prior to starting the E12 port, I had done little more than tweak a Linux driver and build custom configured kernels. I was fortunate to have a friend building a new company that was developing one of the smallest embedded systems available, the Pico E12. I practically begged for the opportunity to put Linux on the E12. “A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?”

The E12 used a Xilinx Virtex 4 FX20 FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) that included a 300MHz PowerPC 405 processor, 128MB of memory and 64MB of Flash ROM. I bought a Macintosh Lombard PowerBook Laptop on eBay, as a sort of simulator for the E12. It also provided a way to write for the E12 without a cross compiler. While waiting for the E12 to progress far enough to start working with it, I scoured the Web for information about Linux porting and developed competence in PowerPC assembly language. Linux kernel programming is primarily in C, but small parts of the Linux kernel—parts critical to putting Linux on a new system are in assembler. I have programmed in many assemblers—once writing the standard C library in x86 assembler, but PPC assembler was new and took a day or two to learn. Linux had been ported to PowerPCs, even a different Xilinx FPGA, long ago.

Figure 1. Pico E12

I have a reference library of software books that fills a three-car garage. With few exceptions, they gather dust. My primary research tool today is a broadband Internet connection and a search engine. There are vast resources available on the Web for Linux developers. The Linux Device Driver guide—the Linux bible for device drivers—and numerous mailing lists target all aspects of Linux systems development. Kernel-Newbies is a great place to start (see the on-line Resources). There are mailing lists for every Linux subsystem. And, there are several Linux PowerPC mailing lists—one specific to embedded PowerPC Linux. At the root of this tree is LKML, the Linux Kernel Mailing List. LKML is Mount Olympus—the home of Linus, and the other Linux gods and titans. There are Web pages documenting the experience of others porting Linux to specific boards. Finally, the ultimate reference—the Linux kernel source—is available on kernel.org.

Finally, the E12 was far enough along to start work, and I received one via FedEx. I had documents and specifications, but actually holding one made it real and answered questions that could not be read from the specifications.

Figure 2. E12 in PCMCIA Adapter

Pico provided tools for hosted development. The standard E12 BIT file provided a CF interface with a simulated LPT3/JTAG port, a 512-word bidirectional communications FIFO called the keyhole, and host access to the Flash ROM. Pico also provided host-side Windows and Linux drivers that allowed reading and writing the Flash ROM. The normal FPGA BIT image contains a very small PPC monitor program that can perform a small number of tasks—most of which rely heavily on support from the host. One of those functions is the ability to load two types of files into the E12. It can load a new BIT image or load and execute binary ELF files—a simple bootloader. This saved me the difficulty of porting a bootloader, such as U-Boot. The Linux kernel was the most complex ELF file that the E12 monitor program had loaded to this point, and a few tweaks were needed to the loader.

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