Developing for the Atmel AVR Microcontroller on Linux

You'll enjoy the programming ease and built-in peripherals of the new generation of microcontrollers. Best of all, with these tools you can develop for the popular AVR series using a Linux host.

Whether you are creating a small Internet appliance, some hardware instrumentation, data loggers or an army of autonomous robots to do your bidding, in numerous situations you need the flexibility of a programmable computer. In many cases, a general-purpose system, such as the workhorse sitting under your desk, doesn't meet size, cost or power-consumption constraints and is simply overkill. What you need is a microcontroller.

This article provides step-by-step instructions for setting up a complete development system for the Atmel AVR series of microcontrollers, using free software and Linux. The detailed instructions provided here will allow you to transform your Linux system into a complete AVR development environment. This article walks you through all the steps of building, debugging and installing a simple program.

What Is a Microcontroller?

When all the electronic components required to make a central processing unit (CPU)—instruction decoder, arithmetic/logic unit, registers and so on—are integrated into a single chip, you have a microprocessor. When, in turn, you bundle this CPU with supporting components, memory and I/O peripherals, you've got a microcomputer. Extending the integration and miniaturization even further, you can combine all the elements of a microcomputer onto a single integrated circuit—behold the microcontroller.

The semiconductor industry evolves rapidly, making it difficult to provide an accurate and complete definition of the term microcontroller. Consider this: some microcontroller chips have capacities and clock speeds that surpass the 74KB of program memory and 4KB of RAM available to the 30kg Apollo Lunar Module computer. You can expect today's screamer PCs to be running tomorrow's embedded applications, with the definition of microcontroller shifting accordingly.

Microcontrollers all have a microprocessor core, memory and I/O interfaces, and many have additional peripherals onboard. The specific configuration of a particular chip influences its physical packaging, number of pins and cost. If you are accustomed to working with microcomputers, you may feel that microcontrollers are tight spots. They have a handful of kilobytes of program ROM and in the area of 256 bytes of RAM. Don't fret though; a lot can be done in this space, as the MIT Instrumentation Lab demonstrated when developing the Apollo Lunar Module software that controls its moon landing, return from the surface and rendezvous in orbit.

AVR Microcontrollers

The AVRs are 8-bit RISC platforms with a Harvard architecture (program and data memory are separate). Figure 1 details the ATtiny26 AVR chip internal organization. Like each member of a family, it has its own particular combination of I/O and peripherals, but it shares a basic architecture and instruction set with all the other AVRs. The ATtiny26 has 2KB of program Flash memory, 128 bytes of onboard SRAM and EEPROM, two 8-bit counters and pulse-width modulators, 11 interrupts, 16 I/O pins spread over two 8-bit ports, an 11-channel 10-bit analog-to-digital converter and more—all on a single tiny 20-pin DIP.

A number of factors make the AVR microcontrollers a good choice, especially for beginners. AVRs are:

  • Easy to code for: AVRs were designed from the ground up to allow easy and efficient programming in high-level languages, with a particular focus on C.

  • Easy to program: the combination of onboard reprogrammable Flash program memory and the in-system programming interface keeps the process of transferring software to the microcontroller simple and cheap.

  • Powerful and inexpensive: AVRs pack a lot of power (1 MIPS/MHz, clocks up to 16MHz) and space (up to 128K of Flash program memory and 4K of EEPROM and SRAM) at low prices. Most AVRs even include additional peripherals, such as UARTs and analog-to-digital converters.

  • Hobbyist-friendly: most of the chips in the AVR family come in easy-to-use 8-, 20-, 28- or 40-pin dual in-line packages (DIPs) and can be ordered in unit quantities from a number of distributors.

Figure 1. ATtiny26 Block Diagram


The processor core, composed of the components in the upper-left portion of Figure 1, includes elements to read the program memory and to decode and execute the instructions within that memory. The CPU also can fetch and store data to and from the EEPROM, SRAM and the 32 registers. The registers act as extremely efficient storage for 8-bit values (1 byte), and the ALU (arithmetic/logic unit) can operate directly on each of the 32 registers. This AVR features a RAM-based stack. In a few other AVRs, which don't have any SRAM, the stack is hardware-based, limiting the stack depth to three.

Most instructions take only a single clock cycle to execute, and there is no internal clock division on AVRs. The CPU fetches and decodes the next instruction as it is executing the current instruction. These combined facts mean that AVRs can reach performances of nearly 1 MIPS (million instructions per second) per MHz. With clock rates of up to 16MHz, you can choose the right balance of speed, power consumption and electromagnetic noise for your particular application.



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AVR microcontrollers

tom11's picture

AVR microcontrollers is definitely user friendly since the combination of onboard reprogrammable Flash program memory and the in-system programming interface keeps the process of transferring software to the microcontroller simple and cheap.
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Hi I run Ubuntu 8.10 but got

zainka's picture


I run Ubuntu 8.10 but got troubles when making bin utilities. Giving message "format not a string literal and no format arguments"

Tried to google but one of the thread said it would be dificult to omit. I guess they are wrong but how to solve it is out of my mind. I understand it have something to do with 8.10 using -Wformat=2 and that this flag may give false positives. Any sugestions???

libtool: compile: gcc -DHAVE_CONFIG_H -I. -I.././opcodes -I. -I. -I.././opcodes -I../bfd -I.././opcodes/../include -I.././opcodes/../bfd -W -Wall -Wstrict-prototypes -Wmissing-prototypes -Werror -g -O2 -c avr-dis.c -o avr-dis.o
cc1: warnings being treated as errors
avr-dis.c: In function 'avr_operand':
avr-dis.c:112: error: format not a string literal and no format arguments
avr-dis.c:152: error: format not a string literal and no format arguments
avr-dis.c:161: error: format not a string literal and no format arguments
avr-dis.c:172: error: format not a string literal and no format arguments
make[4]: *** [avr-dis.lo] Error 1
make[4]: Leaving directory `/home/zainka/Downloads/binutils-2.19.1/opcodes'
make[3]: *** [all-recursive] Error 1
make[3]: Leaving directory `/home/zainka/Downloads/binutils-2.19.1/opcodes'
make[2]: *** [all] Error 2
make[2]: Leaving directory `/home/zainka/Downloads/binutils-2.19.1/opcodes'
make[1]: *** [all-opcodes] Error 2
make[1]: Leaving directory `/home/zainka/Downloads/binutils-2.19.1'
make: *** [all] Error 2

AVR libc

FatsDominoTheory's picture

Maybe the configure process for AVR Libc has changed since this was written; "./doconf" is not present in the archive I downloaded.

The INSTALL file tells me to:

./configure --build=`./config.guess` --host=avr

To follow the directory conventions in this article, append that with a "--prefix" option like this:

./configure --build=`./config.guess` \
--host=avr --pref \

Then make it with:

make install


marcus's picture

I have an AVR STK500 and I am using Ubuntu8.04. I am trying to download the update necessary to run the my AVR STK500 but I can't. Are these packages free?

Problem with optimization in the sample file kr.c from psychogen

mlcy's picture

I had a problem with gcc just skipping the busywait() function until i switched off optimization in the Makefile.
This resulted in all LEDs glowing since they were each turned on with approximately 30 clock cycles in between.

Lovely guide anyway!

Wrinkle (& resolution) using gcc-4.2.2 sources to build avr-gcc

Jason Clark's picture

I ran into a problem with the above instructions, using the gcc-4.2.2 sources. The build died with a long string of errors, starting with:

../../../gcc-4.2.0/libssp/ssp.c: In function '__guard_setup':
../../../gcc-4.2.0/libssp/ssp.c:70: warning: implicit declaration of function 'open'
../../../gcc-4.2.0/libssp/ssp.c:70: error: 'O_RDONLY' undeclared (first use in this function)

A little research showed this popping up for a few other folks trying to build cross-compilers with gcc 4.x. This message on the gcc-help list suggests that libssp is not likely to be needed when compiling for embedded systems, and suggests the expedient of disabling it during configure. The following worked for me:

$ ./configure --prefix=/usr/local/AVR \
        --target=avr --enable-languages="c,c++" \
        --disable-nls --disable-libssp
$ make
# make install


Anonymous's picture


I am using simulavr version in current Debian testing. In the article you stated, regarding output from simulavr, that "You should see a message to that effect, for example, writing 0xff to 0x0038." I don't get that output from simulavr, I only get the following message for each time through line 71:

Breakpoint 2, main () at kr.c:71
71 PORTB = ~currentValue;
(gdb) c
decoder.c:737: MESSAGE: BREAK POINT: PC = 0x00000045: clock = 194

Am I doing something wrong or could it be different versions of simulavr causing the problem?

Re: Simulavr

Anonymous's picture


I figured it out. I had to use the following changes to the simulavr command in one terminal:

simulavr --gdbserver --device at90s8515 -X -P simulavr-disp

Before I ran this command in another terminal:

The -X -P simulavr-disp invokes the display program, that shows all the register info for simulavr, and puts it in a normal terminal window instead of an xterm.

Re: Simulavr

Anonymous's picture

The command I ran in the other terminal that I forgot to put above is the same as the one in the article:

avr-gdb -x gdbinit-helloavr