Introduction: a Typical Embedded System

It's not always clear what separates ordinary Linux from embedded Linux. This article takes a look at the parts that make up a typical embedded system, starting with the bootloader and ending with end-user applications.

The very first step in starting an embedded Linux system does not involve Linux at all. Instead, the processor is reset and starts executing code from a given location. This location contains a bootloader that initializes the device and sets up the basic necessities. When everything has been prepared, the Linux kernel is loaded and started. The kernel then initializes all the devices before mounting the filesystems and starting the userspace applications.

The Linux kernel and userspace are not merely a simple blob that is loaded and run. The kernel consists of a system-specific configuration and usually some tweaked initialization code. The userspace holds software libraries, data and several applications, all interacting to form a system. Each of these components is handpicked for the task and device in question in order to get a compact and well-performing system. Figure 1 shows the basic sequence of events.

Figure 1. An Embedded Linux System Booting

The Bootloader

The bootloader is among the first pieces of software to run on the system. It basically has two tasks: initialize the system and load the kernel. The initialization can be to set up a UART to be used as a serial debug console and to configure the system's memory controller. For instance, if your system is using an SDRAM, you probably will have to set up the controller with regard to the memory's physical features. This includes page sizes, the number of columns, supported read and write widths, latencies and so on. In these days of portable devices, there is usually a plethora of settings for saving power when it comes to memory.

In addition to the basic tasks required by the bootloader, it is typical to provide some sort of command prompt where common low-level tasks can be carried out. These tasks usually include peeking and poking at random memory addresses, downloading and storing a Linux kernel image in Flash and setting bootargs for the kernel to interpret.

Examples of common bootloaders for embedded systems are Das U-Boot and RedBoot. Both support the basic tasks—meaning they can manage Flash, networking and serial communication. They also are available for several processor platforms, such as x86, ARM, PowerPC and more. You can add your own commands to both of them as well. This makes it possible to debug custom hardware without involving Linux, reducing the complexity of the system during the testing phase.

The Linux Kernel

The kernel itself is not very different from an ordinary desktop kernel. However, there are two major differences. First is the initialization, which often is system-specific. Second is that you probably know exactly what hardware will be used, so you can include all the drivers as part of the kernel and avoid the need for modules (unless you have proprietary drivers, of course).

When starting a desktop or a server system, the common scenario is that the kernel probes for hardware and loads the corresponding drivers as modules. This makes it possible to add hardware and still have a working system. You also can add drivers for new hardware without having to recompile the entire kernel. On an embedded system, you can optimize boot time by including all drivers in the kernel, but also by hard-coding parts of the available hardware, avoiding the need to probe for all devices and settings.

Returning to the standard PC, each machine starts and looks about the same during initialization. In the embedded case, each piece of hardware is unique, and you generally have to initialize the custom hardware. This means you actually will have to write code to set up your kernel for your board, which is usually easier than you think. For starters, lots of boards already are supported in the Linux kernel, and you usually can choose one of those as a starting point. Second, there are drivers for the most common peripherals, and again, you typically can find a good starting point, even when you have to create something of your own. So, the process is more or less to study the data sheets for your board and express what you learn to the kernel (something that can be both intimidating and daunting).

Embedded systems often are more limited than your average computer when it comes to system resources, so it is important to keep your kernel's footprint small. That, in turn, makes the kernel configuration stage important. By limiting configuration to a minimum, you can save those extra bytes needed to fit everything in.


Johan Thelin is a consultant working with Qt, embedded and free software. On-line, he is known as e8johan.