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 C Library

The standard C library is one of the key components of any Linux system. It provides the userspace applications with a predefined interface, making them portable across different versions of the Linux kernel, as well as between different UNIX dialects. It basically acts as a bridge between the userspace applications and the kernel.

The version of the C library you usually find on your desktop machine is the GNU C library, glibc. It is a full-fledged C library, and, thus, a very large piece of software. For embedded systems, a few smaller alternatives are available: uClibc, newlib, dietlibc and others. These libraries try to implement the most commonly used interfaces in a minimalist way. This means they are mostly compatible with glibc, but not fully.

So, what does the C library contain that can be removed? uClibc, for example, skips the database library, limits the number of authentication methods that are supported, does not fully implement locale support, limits the math library mostly to doubles and leaves out some encryption functions. In addition, the kernel's structures are used directly whenever possible. Those and other things significantly reduce the size of the library.

What does this mean to you as an embedded developer? Most important, it means you can save quite a bit of memory, although you do so at the cost of compatibility. For instance, the decision to use the kernel's structures when applicable means the stat structure is different from the one used by glibc. You also have to limit yourself to flat password files and shared password files, unless you want to add a third-party library to handle authentication. More limitations exist, but generally speaking, most software compiles happily without patching.


When you have a bootloader, a kernel and a standard library, the next thing on the wish list usually is a command prompt. One of the big stars in the embedded Linux world is BusyBox. The idea behind the project is that most standard applications, such as ls, cd, mkdir, ping and so on, share a lot of code. Compiling each program separately means that code handling things such as command-line arguments is repeated in each application. BusyBox solves this problem by providing a single program, busybox, that can handle all the tasks provided by all the standard applications. By creating symbolic links for all the individual commands and pointing them to BusyBox, the user can still enter the expected commands and get the expected results.

As with everything else in the embedded world, tuning and tweaking is important. When it comes to BusyBox, you can handpick which commands to include, and for some commands, you even can handpick which command-line arguments are supported. If you don't need a particular command, simply don't include it in BusyBox. For instance, why keep ifconfig if you don't have a network?

When building a dynamically linked, default configured BusyBox on a desktop PC, it results in a binary that is just less than 700KB. This binary represents more than 200 commands and occupies more than 6MB of disk space on my Kubuntu-based system.

Adding More

Once you have all the key components in place, you can start building and populating a root filesystem. This involves adding BusyBox, device files and expected directories. You also might want to add /etc/password and /etc/shadow, init scripts and so on. All this is necessary, but to get your device to do something, you need to add your own applications.

When developing for embedded devices, you might find yourself in a system completely without a graphical interface. This usually means implementing your functionality as some sort of server. As more and more devices are networked, a Web server often takes the place of a user interface. Because Apache is a large piece of software, a common solution is to use a lightweight server, such as Boa, for configuration and information.

If you happen to have a display, you likely will want to put graphics on it. An X sever might sound like a solution, but the two most common toolkits for building graphical interfaces, Qt and GTK+, also support using the framebuffer directly—again, saving both memory and computing resources.

And, that is what engineering embedded devices is all about: making the most with as little as possible. Being able to fit the coolest features into a small system means bringing an attractive device, at a good price, to consumers. Using embedded Linux to do that means you can get done more quickly, cheaply and be more hackable than with a closed-source system.


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