Hacking Embedded Linux: The Caffeinated ARM Course

Federico Lucifredi (Red Hat)
Open Hardware
Location: D135 Level: Intermediate
Average rating: **...
(2.64, 11 ratings)

At the higher end of the hardware hacking spectrum from the AVR microcontroller of your trusted Arduino are just slightly more expensive boards hosting a comfortable POSIX platform on your favorite penguin-sporting platform. Bringing a full Linux install to the party introduces the ability to process complex data (Kinect input, anyone?) and to execute more complex logic on larger datasets than a microcontroller’s limited speed and RAM capacity permits.

After we examine the trade-offs between a miniaturized Linux computer and a microcontroller, and what applications better suit each, we delve into the dazzling array of options available today to those willing to part ways with the x86 architecture. ARM processors not only power most of today’s smartphones, but they are also prominently featured in the low-cost segment of embedded boards. We provide a quick overview of the ARM architecture, its different CPU incarnations, and what are the most apparent x86 assumptions one has to leave behind. We then examine how to develop code both on-board and cross-compiling, and the most efficient ways to do so, and introduce the universal bootloader environment of U-boot. We wrap the basics with pointers on the debugging of embedded systems and the use of JTAG interfaces.

We continue with a detailed review of the features, capabilities, and limits of a number of low-cost platforms available to experimenters, in disparate form factors and powered by different chip vendors:

  • Sheeva Plug, Guru Plug, Dreamplug (Marvell)
  • BeagleBoard, BeagleBoard xM, Pandaboard, and BeagleBone (Texas Instruments)
  • i.mx53 Quickstart and i.mx6 (Freescale)
  • Gumstix boards
  • Raspberry Pi, CubieBoard and others
  • Android PCs
  • Cotton Candy, MK802, and GK802 stick computers
  • Hacked Hard Drives …and more.

From home automation to media servers, the low power consumption and affordable cost of these devices make them an ideal target of our tinkering, as well as an ideal opportunity to teach oneself new skills in the embedded Linux space.

Ranging from Plug Computers to bare development boards to miniaturized systems and rooted hard drives, the bestiary of ARM devices at our disposal for projects is ever-growing and marvelous to explore. We equip the attendees with all the necessary knowledge to integrate a small computer system for the embedded field application of their choosing.

Photo of Federico Lucifredi

Federico Lucifredi

Red Hat

Federico Lucifredi is the maintainer of the man suite, the primary documentation-delivery tool under Linux, a graduate of Boston College and Harvard University, and the Ubuntu Advantage Product Manager at Canonical. As a software engineer-turned-manager at the Novell corporation, Federico was part of the SUSE Linux team for five years, overseeing the update stack of a 150 million dollar maintenance business. Previously, Federico has been a CIO and a network software architect at technology and embedded Linux startups, and he has spent two years teaching in Boston University’s graduate and undergraduate programs, while simultaneously consulting for MIT. He is a frequent speaker at user group and conference events, notably the Linux Foundation’s LinuxCon, LinuxWorld, the O’Reilly Open Source Convention, and the IMPlanet conferences, where he was a panelist representing the Jabber community. Federico is a recognized expert in computing performance issues, and consults pro-bono with Standard and Poor’s clients interested in Free/Open Source Software technical and strategic issues. He participated in the GPL v3 drafting process in the large-corporation panel.

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Picture of Federico Lucifredi
Federico Lucifredi
07/26/2013 1:16am PDT

I appear to have confused some session attendees when I mentioned that the Raspberry PI board is “so cheap you can afford to throw it away” – I did not mean to convey anything negative, to the contrary – making computing effectively “disposable” with prices of $25 a board is a revolutionary change that will make new ideas possible. I am on record pointing out this as the awesome feature of the R.PI, and how order of magnitude price drops always change the innovation game.

With the pace of a “caffeinated” session, I did not dwell on the point long enough to cross language and cultural barriers with everyone. Rest assured, as the PM for an operating system that goes for $0, I do not consider cheapness a bad thing – quite to the contrary!

Picture of Federico Lucifredi
Federico Lucifredi
07/25/2013 10:51am PDT

Slides will be posted this weekend. Thanks for coming!


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