Embedded Linux support from board vendors

I have recently completed a project where I used a PC104 SBC (single-board computer) from a hardware vendor that sold our client a Linux development kit in addition to the hardware; the development kit included a busybox-based distribution with quite an old kernel (2.6.21) and a driver supporting some board-specific features. So far, so good. Very often the time required to build a distribution from scratch is more valuable than the price to pay for a commercial Linux distribution, so this approach is often the sensible one.

However, when we started developing the system, we realized that the provided driver included most of its functionality in a binary blob for which the vendor would not provide any source code or much support in the form of updates. We wanted to use a more recent kernel as 2.6.21 was lacking support for a GPS module we had attached to the board. According to the vendor, getting a binary driver compiled for a different kernel version was out of the question, as they did not have the expertise in-house. They even hinted at lacking some of the driver source, as their latest Linux expert (i.e. their only Linux developer) left the company years ago and they did not bother to set up everything in place to be able to build their driver before the Linux guy left. It is amazing that companies that build excellent hardware may exhibit such a slack attitude towards supporting their product with the most popular embedded OS today; it is even more amazing that they charge for such a development kit!

When starting to work on new hardware, we are confronted with the different options available for getting Linux on our boards; these are the main ones:

  • Roll your own distribution. There are a number of open source projects that can be leveraged to build your own distribution, like crosstool-ng, OpenEmbedded or Buildroot. These projects build a distribution based on your hardware requirements. However, this is not an easy task and you may find issues that require a lot of work from your part, depending on how the board and peripheral you use departs from a standard working configuration used by the distribution.
  • Use an open source distribution like Angström. These distributions are aimed at a specific set of boards. They are a good choice if your hardware is similar to some of the hardware supported by the distribution, otherwise they might require significant porting work.
  • Buy a Linux distribution from an independent vendor or consultant. There are different degrees of customization you can expect from vendors; some examples are Montavista, Wind River, or consultancies like DENX or Free Electrons.
  • Get Linux from the SBC vendor. This may be the shortest route to having a properly configured Linux distribution on your system; although you should pay attention at how committed the vendor is at supporting the issues you may find.

Whatever the route you chose, planning ahead and taking into account the different options is essential to the success of your project.

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