Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Embedded Linux - Pre-requisites

Lately I have been talking to people who are interested in learning Embedded Linux. Most of them are application developers or embedded software developers. Mostly this query is related to the fact that Embedded Linux professionals are in high demand in the market now and are also paid very well. So they want to learn Embedded Linux and upgrade themselves in the job market.

So, one of the basic questions that I am asked is: What is Embedded Linux? There can be several answers to this question but the simplest one is: Embedded Linux is a customised Linux kernel with minimal file system, applications, tools and utilities which is to run on an proprietary Embedded hardware. The Embedded hardware is typically designed for specific purpose like routers, ethernet switches, set-top boxes, mobile handsets, PDAs, etc. The aim of Embedded Linux is to run on the given hardware with maximum possible efficiency and stability, and minimum failures or faults.

If you have worked with any Linux distribution, say Fedora, Debian, Ubuntu, Suse, Mandriva or anything else, you may have noticed that each distribution offers you numerous application, tools and features to give you the best possible desktop working environment. Hence it inflates the size of the installation done on your h/disk, which goes easily beyond 4 GB for the most generic installation without special features enabled.

Now, if you know something about Embedded Systems, there are two things about it. One, its normally not generic and other is that you always have constraints on the memory - RAM and other non-volatile memory. The hardware used in Embedded Systems is also not generic, so you need specific changes done to your Operating System (OS) to work on the Embedded hardware. Also you need to tweak the OS to make it work within the RAM and non-volatile storage in the hardware. Lastly you need to leave out all the unnecessary applications and features of desktop that are not required by the end system.

Embedded Linux development should take care of the above three points.

1) Make the OS portable for the new hardware, including the bootloader software.

2) Optimise the size of the OS w.r.t to features and applications, and also device drivers.

3) Test the optimised OS for functionality and stability, just like any other OS.

Another variable is that several processors other than Intel x86 family are used in h/w design, so there is ample work done to port the Linux OS and device drivers to work with the other processors.

Like any other advanced skill set, Embedded Linux also has some pre-requisites that must be satisfied by the learners to understand it much better. In fact the list is quite long. Here goes:

. Bootloaders - U-Boot for example
. Excellent knowledge of C programming, shell script and Makefile, including C libraries
. In depth knowledge of Linux OS, including the Linux filesystem, tools, applications and various libraries that Linux uses
. Device driver development knowledge
. Sound knowledge on Data structures and Operating System (Schedulers and Processes). If possible Real-Time Operating Systems
. Software development processes and methodologies
. Familiarity with different processor architectures and their assembly instruction sets - x86, ARM9, ARM11, PowerPC, MIPS, Motorola
. Knowledge of compilers and cross-compilers and using them - GCC Tool-chain is mostly used
. Working with open-source code - understand, modify and compile
. System design and system knowledge to define what you need to have in your system

Last but not the least, you need a never-say-die attitude to work with Embedded Linux. Without that not much will be achieved.

So, general advice is that unless you are fluent with the above, you may face lots of hinderances in your learning process. You may be able to find solutions and resolutions on the Internet forums, but not always.

Its tough but not impossible. Its seems crazy at times but its possible to make good sense out of it. Its not for everyone but many have succeeded. So, take a shot at Embedded Linux and see what you are able to achieve.


Gokul said...

good information ....

Rupam Das said...

Thanks Gokul. I saw your comment very recently. I have been quite inactive here. Hopefully it will improve in 2010.