Software Considerations: an Excerpt from Embedded Linux

by John Lombardo

You know you want to build an embedded application, and you know you want to use Linux as the operating system. Where do you start? With the hardware. The hardware choices you make--processor, memory, Flash and so on--drive what you will do with the software. Because no software license cost is associated with Linux, most of your cost will be in the hardware itself. The more units you sell, the more true that is. Therefore, in any high-volume application, it's more important to get the hardware right before you ever worry about the software. Linux has been adapted to many different microprocessors and microcontrollers, and more are supported all the time. Chances are that the processor you'll choose is already supported by Linux in some way. If it's not, and you have the time and expertise, you can support it yourself. After you select the hardware you want to use, it's time to see how well Linux supports that hardware. So fire up your browser and search the Internet for web sites devoted to Linux and your hardware device. Here are some good places to start:,, and

After you have finally decided on your hardware platform, it's time to nail down exactly what you want the software to do. This article presents several software-related issues you'll need to consider.

Embedded Linux Toolkits

Porting Linux to a new hardware platform can be a daunting task. Fortunately, several embedded Linux toolkits are available, designed to simplify the job of building the binary that runs your device. Some toolkits, such as Lineo's Embedix and MontaVista's Hard Hat Linux, are disparate and are able to work on many processors for lots of different applications. Others are from smaller companies and focus on narrower processor sets and more limited application ranges. Still others, such as PeeWeeLinux, are not products distributed by companies but rather projects built by a set of like-minded hackers in the traditional open-source model. Here are a few things to consider when you're looking for an embedded Linux toolkit:

  • Hardware support: Does the Linux toolkit include support for the processor you want to use? If the toolkit doesn't already support that processor, does the toolkit vendor have the wherewithal to develop that support quickly enough for your purposes? If so, how much will it cost? Does it fit in your budget?

  • Documentation: Is the toolkit well documented? Are all of the programs involved documented? Does the documentation cover both high-level concepts such as architecture whitepapers and low-level documentation such as how to build binaries, how to add your software to the code base, and reference manuals to the build and runtime software?

  • Adaptability: How adaptable is the embedded Linux toolkit to the particular application you're going to use? If it's a very narrow toolkit and you'll use it for several projects, how much work will be involved in changing the toolkit to the projects for which it's not as well suited?

  • Developer support: What kind of developer support does the toolkit company offer, and how expensive is it? If you need a bug fixed, a question answered, or a device driver written, how quickly can you get a response from the company? Is a list server available for the users of the product? If one is available, how active is it? Is anyone from the company answering questions on the list?

  • Field upgradeability: Are facilities available in the toolkit for upgrading the software in the field? Does the toolkit company offer any means for delivering those upgrades, or is that left up to you?

  • User interface: If your application requires some sort of user interface, what are your options? Does the embedded Linux toolkit offer some sort of embedded video interface? If so, how much room does it take? If not, is some sort of web-based interface available for configuration? The toolkit itself may not have any support for a graphical interface. However, there are several open-source projects, and several commercial products aimed at building small-footprint, graphical user interfaces. See for more information.

  • Track record: Does the toolkit vendor have any examples of customers who have created a similar product out in the field? How successful was that vendor with the toolkit?

Kernel Features

The Linux kernel runs on a vast array of hardware architectures--everything from handhelds to mainframes. To support this sort of scalability, the kernel is highly configurable. There are several ways of configuring the kernel (note that I'm using the word configure quite loosely here):

  • Typing make config, make menuconfig, or make xconfig in the root of the kernel source runs the standard kernel configure routines. You can turn options on or off or sometimes compile them as modules so they can be loaded at runtime.

  • There are hundreds--perhaps thousands--of kernel patches floating around the Internet. Some are very small--enough to fix a small bug in one file. Medium-sized patches may affect a half-dozen files and add support for a particular hardware device. Some large patches add or affect many dozens of files and add support for new architectures. Often, applying a patch adds new questions or entire screens to the kernel configuration screens described above.

  • The ``One True Method'' of really configuring the kernel to do exactly what you want is to hack it yourself. Until recently, this was an exercise only for those who have lots of time and patience; the Linux kernel source code is well structured but somewhat obtuse. Linus doesn't believe in cluttering up the source with comments for the uninitiated (see Chapter 5 of Documentation/CodingStyle in the Linux source tree).

Fortunately, times have changed, and there are now several good overviews of the Linux kernel. Perhaps the most lucid is Understanding the Linux Kernel, by Daniel P. Bovet and Marco Cesati (O'Reilly, 2000).

Networking, Filesystems and Executable Formats

Some embedded Linux applications have no use for the networking code. Be sure to configure the kernel so that the networking code is skipped if you don't need it because it takes up a lot of space. Also, make sure that your kernel supports only the one or two filesystem types you actually need. Finally, you probably need only one executable format, executable and linking format (ELF), for your embedded application, so be sure to turn off all the rest. Details on the ELF file format can be obtained from the following two documents: and

In general, it's a good idea to look through the documentation for all the choices in the kernel build menu. If you're using make menuconfig to configure the kernel, you can press the question mark (?) at any time to get information on the choice you have highlighted.

While you're developing your embedded device, it's handy to enable loadable module support in the kernel. That way, if you need support for a feature that you hadn't anticipated, you can go back, recompile the modules you need, copy them onto your device and load them. Without loadable module support, you have to recompile the whole kernel, which can be a bit of a pain. When you're done developing the device, you can save some amount of RAM and ROM space by recompiling the kernel without loadable module support and with your drivers compiled directly into the kernel. However, you should figure out exactly how much of a savings this is and whether it's worth it--having loadable module support may be useful for upgrading drivers in the field.


One way you may be able to save a lot of RAM requirements is to run your executable programs directly from the long-term storage (ROM or Flash) where they reside. This is called execute-in-place (XIP for short). On a desktop system, your application lives on the hard disk and must be read into RAM for execution. However, most embedded applications don't have a hard drive for long-term storage; instead, they have some sort of memory device, such as ROM or Flash. Unlike a hard drive, these memory devices may be directly addressable by the CPU, like RAM. You can use the direct addressability of these memory devices to reduce your RAM requirements. Instead of copying the executable code from the memory device into RAM, an XIP system sets up the kernel structures that normally point into the RAM copy directly at the long-term storage locations. The code executes just as it would if it were copied to RAM.

Real Time

Most of the time it's not very important exactly how long a specific task takes to complete on a computer. For instance, when someone hits a key on the keyboard, they expect a letter to appear instantly--but how fast is instantly? It could be anywhere from a few tens of milliseconds to a couple of hundred milliseconds. You're probably not going to notice the difference between any two delays under 100 milliseconds (one tenth of a second). However, the timing of some operations in some computer applications is crucial.

For instance, most modern cars have antilock braking systems. In these systems, special sensors detect when one or more wheels begin to lock up--a dangerous situation that can cause the vehicle (and its occupants) to slide. In these situations, it's imperative that when the sensors detect a wheel beginning to lock, the braking on that wheel be immediately reduced. Have you ever worked on a computer system where you started a new program and the entire computer became unresponsive for several seconds? Imagine what would happen if the computer controlling your antilock brakes was similarly busy and unresponsive--right when a deer jumped in front of your car! This is a situation where you need what's called ``hard real time''.

A hard real-time OS guarantees that, without fail, no matter what else happens, a response to a given event will occur within a specified, fixed time. For example, when wheel lockup is detected, braking for that wheel must be reduced within a certain number of milliseconds. In this example, a hard limit exists on how long the system can take to respond to the wheel lockup condition. This hard limit means that this is a hard real-time task--first, because there is an absolute limit on the amount of time available for a response, and second, because bad things will happen if the system fails to respond within the specified time limit. These two features of the task to be performed make it clear that the task requires a hard real-time operating system.

On the other hand, when working with a soft real-time OS, when an event occurs the system will try its best to service the event within an average response time. For example, when playing a game of Quake III, when a player fires a rocket at another player, there is an expectation that the game program will draw a fiery explosion on-screen, make explosion noises and dutifully subtract health from your opponent. With all of this complexity added to the existing events in the game, it's very likely that the framerate of the game may drop slightly when rendering the explosion and playing back the additional audio. If the framerate should drop from 50 frames per second (fps) to, say, 40 fps for the duration of the explosion, no harm is done--the player continues to enjoy the game, since the system is still fast enough. Being fast enough is a defining characteristic of soft real-time systems. In this case, no fixed framerate is required of the system, and no harm occurs should the framerate decrease slightly.

Both hard and soft real-time systems are useful, but they have distinctly different uses. In fact, a hard real-time OS usually accommodates tasks requiring both hard and soft real-time responses.

Several attributes differentiate a real-time operating system from a standard operating system, as shown in Raj Rajkumar's The Concise Handbook of Linux for Embedded Real-Time Systems Version 1.0. Here is a summary of a few fundamental attributes:

  • Response time predictability: A hard real-time OS guarantees that the timing of some operations will be precise within its stated limitations. These response times are much faster than those of a typical operating system--they're measured in tens of microseconds (millionths of a second) instead of milliseconds (thousandths of a second).

  • Schedulability: In a hard real-time operating system, a process can be scheduled to perform at a very precise time in the future or at a very precise interval. Again, the precision is down to the microsecond level instead of the millisecond level.

  • Stability under pressure: In a hard real-time system, the processor can become inundated with far more signals from different sources than it can handle. However, some of those signals are much more important than other signals and must be recognized and dealt with. The ability to prioritize a vast array of different signals quickly and efficiently is another hallmark of a good real-time system.

A lot of information about real-time Linux can be found at the web site. Several real-time Linux kernel projects are underway, as shown in the Resources section.

Creating or Acquiring a Development Environment

Before you can even start coding, you must either create or acquire a development environment for your chosen microprocessor or microcontroller. You'll need a C compiler, assembler (part of the compiler), linker, runtime library, debugging tools and perhaps an emulator. The fastest way to acquire a development environment is to get it from one of the embedded Linux toolkits. Usually this can be appropriated for free or for a nominal price.

Booting the Kernel

How the computer loads the operating system into memory and starts it is an issue that most software developers never have to think about. Most of us work on PCs or similar platforms that have a BIOS that does the dirty work of setting up the computer's hardware and finding and loading the OS loader (for example, LILO or GRUB) into RAM so that the kernel can start. The most we ever have to think about is which OS loader to use and how to configure it properly.

Welcome to the world of embedded devices, where you may start with a manual that says only something like this: ```Hard Reset (HRESET)--Input' causes the hard reset exception to be taken and the physical address of the handler is always x`FFF00100''' (PowerPC 601 RISC Microprocessor User's Manual, IBM Corporation, 1993, p. 5-16).

It's now up to you to write the assembly code to do the following: 1) initialize all of the hardware; 2) move the OS loader into memory from storage (or perhaps you just load the OS itself); and 3) jump into the code you just loaded.

Fortunately, most development boards for the various microcontrollers and microprocessors come with ample documentation and sample code for startup. There are also numerous examples on the Internet for the many different processors that Linux supports.

Software Size

Unlike a general purpose computer system, an embedded system only requires enough software to actually get a specific set of jobs done. This means you can do without a lot of the fluff that normally goes into a general purpose computer system, such as the X Windows System, the numerous e-mail and newsreaders, games and so on. By doing this, you can make the software image much smaller. Even when you do have one for storage, it may be better to put the system software and applications in ROM or Flash so they aren't as vulnerable to corruption. Both ROM and Flash are much more expensive byte-for-byte than space on a hard drive, so it's crucial to include just the software your embedded application actually uses.

Another reason to limit the software that ships in your embedded application is simple; if it's not there, it can't break. It's usually very inconvenient to upgrade the software in an embedded application--sometimes it's impossible.

However, a tradeoff exists between engineering time and footprint size. Generally, the longer you engineer the product, the smaller and more efficient you can make it, reducing your memory requirements and thus reducing the cost of each unit. However, the more time you spend on efficiency, the fewer features the product will have given constant engineering resources. Also, if the product sits in engineering too long, you may lose considerable market advantage to your competitors.

Reducing the Software Footprint

So how do you reduce the memory/storage? Include only the software you need, compile the software to reduce size and compress the resulting software.

Upgrading the Software in Place

Most software systems must be upgraded at some point in their lifetime for a variety of reasons: bugs and security vulnerabilities are found and fixed, new features are required and so on. Embedded applications are no exception. However, if upgradeability is not supported in its design from the beginning, the upgrade process will be difficult or even impossible. For instance, unless you want your customers to do minor surgery on your embedded device, you shouldn't ship the software in ROM. The only way to replace software that's burned into ROM is to replace the ROM chip. Also, if you only have enough memory-plus-storage in the device to actually run the application, upgrading is very dangerous because there's no good place to put the software. You can download the new code over the old code, but one small error and your customer now owns a doorstop instead of an embedded Linux application.

So how do you design your upgrade process from the beginning? Start by putting only the most low-level code in ROM and putting the rest in Flash. The code that's in ROM will probably never be replaced, so you have to get it right. You may want to put the upgrade code itself in ROM; that way, no matter what happens in the field, the user can upgrade to a working set of code even after messing up an upgrade attempt.

Configure the machine with enough storage or RAM to hold two complete copies of the software in the machine simultaneously. Unless you put the upgrade software in ROM as described above, your application will become a doorstop if a catastrophic event occurs, such as loss of power. You want to reduce this ``doorstop time'' to the minimum possible. For instance, if your application downloads the new software directly on top of the old software and this process takes 20 seconds, you have a doorstop time of 20 seconds. If the customer's power is lost, a cable is kicked loose or the cat jumps onto the keyboard any time during this 20 seconds, your customer now has a doorstop--plus, they're angry, and it will cost you money.

Now imagine that you have 2½ times the amount of Flash that you really need in the device (the extra ½ is for growth). Instead of overwriting the old code with the new, you store it in the extra room in the Flash as it's downloading. When all the code is safely written to Flash, you then change a few pointers to complete the update. Now your doorstop time is just a few milliseconds, while the pointers are updated in Flash. This procedure has other advantages. After all the new software has come across, you can make sure that the binary image is intact by including some checksum code. You can also make sure that the user has downloaded the right thing and has a later version than the one currently installed. None of this is possible if you overwrite the current software with the new as the download occurs.

Put all of the configuration information for your machine in a single place, like a single file in Flash. This makes all your software much easier to manage. It makes the upgrade process easier because there's only one file to manage (and perhaps change) during the upgrade process. Remember that you may have released several versions, so you don't want to force users to move from a very old version to the newest version by upgrading through each version in between. If your software changes a lot between each release, the permutations can become enormous quickly, so keeping things as simple as possible helps the user avoid losing configuration information.

There are, of course, many ways to skin this cat. The process described above is more costly on a per-unit basis than simply putting everything in Flash memory. Depending on your application and budget, it may make more sense to put everything in Flash--just realize that in some instances you could end up with a whole lot of doorstops out in the field.


About the Book

John Lombardo has been working with Linux since the ``0.9'' days. However, he does remember downloading a very early version and thinking ``Yeah, right--how is this Linux thing going to compete with Coherent'' (an early 1990s UNIX clone from The Mark Williams Company). Lately, John has been working on several embedded Linux projects, including easy-to-use IPSEC routers, ARM7-based NAT routers and a book entitled Embedded Linux soon to be published by New Riders Publishing. You can reach John at

Load Disqus comments