LJ Archive

Introduction: a Typical Embedded System

Johan Thelin

Issue #188, December 2009

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.

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 has worked with software development since 1995 and Qt since 2000. Having seen server-side enterprise software, desktop applications and Web solutions, he now works as a consultant focusing on embedded systems. He can be contacted at johan@thelins.se.

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