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Cross-compiling Custom Kernels for Little Linux Plug Computers

Cross-compiling Happiness

  • February 24, 2011
  • By Akkana Peck
Little Linux plug computers come ready-to-use. But they're still Linux, which means hackable. Today we learn how to build a custom kernel for a plug computer.

Plug computers, covered in part 1 and part 2, are meant to be usable out of the box. You can write scripts for them in languages like Python, Perl or sh, or run services like Apache.

But what if you need to do more? What if you need to build a custom kernel?

You can install gcc and other build tools on the plug itself, and build a kernel there, but it takes forever. You'll be much happier cross-compiling kernels on your fast desktop Linux system.

Get a compiler

Strangely, the ARM v.5 cross-compiler isn't available in many distros (two exceptions are Gentoo and NetBSD). The "armel" tools on Ubuntu only support ARM v.7 and greater. So you may need to go elsewhere.

If your plug came with a CD, it might include a cross-compiler. if not, two popular compilers are Code Sourcery and EmDebian.

You'll also need UBoot's mkimage program: package uboot-mkimage on Ubuntu or uboot-tools on Fedora. Or you can try building mkimage from source.

Download a kernel

A current Linux kernel from Kernel.org will usually build fine. Stick to 2.6.36 and later: there were some network driver issues in 2.6.35, and kernels before that didn't have device IDs for some of the newer plug models. Extract it in the usual way: tar xvf linux-2.6.37.1.tar.bz2.

You may choose to apply the plug-specific patches from sheeva.with-linux.com. However, the patches there don't always apply cleanly, and you may not actually need them. As I write this, the patches for 2.6.37.1 cover wireless access point mode (only important if you're going to be using your plug as a wireless router), SD cards (important if you have a plug model that uses them) and a default configuration for Guruplugs. It's your choice whether or not to try the patches.

Set up a kernel build environment

The next step is finding the right build flags. The kernel build uses the CROSS_COMPILE= argument to tell it where to look for the compiler and other important build components. This will be prepended to commands like gcc, ld and so forth.

Confused? Here's an example. Most of the ARM cross-compilers install everything into one subdirectory. Suppose you installed to /usr/local/CodeSourcery. Search there for a "bin" directory containing programs like gcc, ld etc.:

$ find /usr/local/CodeSourcery -name '*gcc' | grep bin
/usr/local/CodeSourcery/Sourcery_G++_Lite/arm-none-eabi/bin/gcc
/usr/local/CodeSourcery/Sourcery_G++_Lite/bin/arm-none-eabi-gcc

Okay, we have two candidates. Let's look at them:

$ ls /usr/local/CodeSourcery/Sourcery_G++_Lite/arm-none-eabi/bin
README.txt  ar  as  c++  g++  gcc  ld  nm  objcopy  objdump  ranlib  strip

$ ls /usr/local/CodeSourcery/Sourcery_G++_Lite/bin
arm-none-eabi-addr2line  arm-none-eabi-gcc-4.4.1  arm-none-eabi-objdump
arm-none-eabi-ar         arm-none-eabi-gcov       arm-none-eabi-ranlib
arm-none-eabi-as         arm-none-eabi-gdb        arm-none-eabi-readelf
arm-none-eabi-c++        arm-none-eabi-gdbtui     arm-none-eabi-run
arm-none-eabi-c++filt    arm-none-eabi-gprof      arm-none-eabi-size
arm-none-eabi-cpp        arm-none-eabi-ld         arm-none-eabi-sprite
arm-none-eabi-g++        arm-none-eabi-nm         arm-none-eabi-strings
arm-none-eabi-gcc        arm-none-eabi-objcopy    arm-none-eabi-stri

You might think the first directory looks simpler; but sadly, it won't work. In fact, /usr/local/CodeSourcery/Sourcery_G++_Lite/arm-none-eabi/bin/README.txt says clearly that the directory is only for internal use by the compiler and shouldn't be used directly.

So the right answer is:

CROSS_COMPILE=/usr/local/CodeSourcery/Sourcery_G++_Lite/bin/arm-none-eabi-
Now the kernel build will use program names like /usr/local/CodeSourcery/Sourcery_G++_Lite/bin/arm-none-eabi-gcc. Adjust this for wherever you installed your cross-compiler.
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