The beginning of Fatdog ARM

A year ago, most of the people on Puppy Linux forums were taken over by the hype of ARM-based systems. (Some still do). It all started when Barry Kauler, the father of Puppy Linux, got hold of a cheap ARM-based "smart media player" (Mele A1000) which was in fact more powerful that many PCs of yesteryears. Equipped with 512MB RAM and 1GHz ARMv7 CPU, it came with Android and was advertised as a media player, but its wealth of ports and its flexibility (ability to boot directly from SD card - practically unheard of in ARM/embedded world before this) made it ideal for a possible "desktop replacement". By the time we heard about it, somebody has already managed to run Ubuntu ARM on it. Imagine, a standard Linux distribution running on a ARM media player! That was in fact very exciting.

Barry started an ARM port of Puppy Linux for Mele, his first release was Puppy "Lui" (see http://bkhome.org/blog/?viewDetailed=02823, http://distro.ibiblio.org/quirky/arm/releases/alpha/README-mele-sd-4gb-lui-5.2.90.htm). Everyone was on ARM-frenzy for a (long) while. Not long after that, Raspberry Pi (Raspi for short) came, and the folks got even more excited. Barry built another ARM port for Raspi (the Mele one didn't because Mele's CPU is ARMv7 while Raspi's one is ARMv6), called "sap6" (short for (Debian) Squeeze Puppy for ARMv6 - see http://bkhome.org/blog/?viewDetailed=02865). He released a few versions of sap6 (Raspi being more popular than Mele despite its obvious shortcomings), but that was that - Barry moved on to other things (he is planning to return to it, though, he got a quad-core Odroid board late last year).

I was caught in the frenzy too, for I can see the possibilities of where this can go, provided that ARM can fulfill the promise of being the low-power, low-cost, ubiquitous computers. For example, it can easily replace traditional desktops for those who can't afford it. We are yet to see the promise fulfilled, but it is still going in that direction so I'm happy. The tablet market (where most of these ARM cpus are going) has been going strong, and despite many misgivings about tablets, if one can add a keyboard and mouse to it, many tablet users can actually become productive. All in all, it is about alternative computing platform for the masses.

To start with, I experimented with Qemu. I documented the process of running sap6 under Qemu, for those who wanted to play/test sap6 but haven't got Raspi on their hand: http://www.murga-linux.com/puppy/viewtopic.php?t=79358.

That little experiment quickly followed with my attempt to cross-build a minimal system from scratch, still targetting Qemu. There was one system that aimed to do so, called "bootstrap linux", that uses musl C library (then brand-new). After a few hurdles and many helpful advices from musl mailing list, I got it up and running (see https://github.com/jamesbond3142/bootstrap-linux/). That experiment taught me about complications of building compilers (gcc) by hand and that small, unforeseen interactions between host tools and compiler build scripts can result in hard to find, hard to debug crashes on the target system (see http://www.murga-linux.com/puppy/viewtopic.php?t=78112&start=30).
Of course, along the way I got to learn to do some cross-debugging and reviewed ARM assembly language on cross-gdb. That brought some good memories of the days I spent writing 386 assembly language for a bare-metal protected mode 386 debugger myself, for a certain 32-bit DOS extender :)

Qemu was nice but in the end I knew I needed a real hardware: compiling gtkdialog which took less than 10 seconds on my laptop took more than 10 minutes on Qemu on the same laptop. To that end, I decided to go for Mele A1000 too. That was mid last year, and apart from booting Puppy Lui on it, that Mele didn't do much for months on end.

Until now.

In the last few days I have built a new kernel and a minimal busybox-based system for it, I've got it running with framebuffer console on my TV. I used Fatdog64's initrd (busybox is suitably replaced with its ARM version) and it felt good to finally see "Fatdog" booting on an ARM cpu.

In the next few posts I will write more about these, the steps, the information I have collected (linux-sunxi has grown from useless to extremely helpful in a year) as well as future roadmaps.



Posted on 21 Jul 2013, 22:39 - Categories: Linux General Arm FatdogArm
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