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Archive for the ‘Letux 400’ Category

Some Ideas for 2019

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019

Well, after my last article moaning about having wishes and goals while ignoring the preconditions for, and contributing factors in, the realisation of such wishes and goals, I thought I might as well be constructive and post some ideas I could imagine working on this year. It would be a bonus to get paid to work on such things, but I don’t hold out too much hope in that regard.

In a way, this is to make up for not writing an article summarising what I managed to look at in 2018. But then again, it can be a bit wearing to have to read through people’s catalogues of work even if I do try and make my own more approachable and not just list tons of work items, which is what one tends to see on a monthly basis in other channels.

In any case, 2018 saw a fair amount of personal focus on the L4Re ecosystem, as one can tell from looking at my article history. Having dabbled with L4Re and Fiasco.OC a bit in 2017 with the MIPS Creator CI20, I finally confronted certain aspects of the software and got it working on various devices, which had been something of an ambition for at least a couple of years. I also got back into looking at PIC32 hardware and software experiments, tidying up and building on earlier work, and I keep nudging along my Python-like language and toolchain, Lichen.

Anyway, here are a few ideas I have been having for supporting a general strategy of building flexible, sustainable and secure computing environments that respect the end-user. Such respect not being limited to software freedom, but also extending to things like privacy, affordability and longevity that are often disregarded in the narrow focus on only one set of end-user rights.

Building a General-Purpose System with L4Re

Apart from writing unfinished articles about supporting hardware devices on the Ben NanoNote and Letux 400, I also spent some time last year considering the mechanisms supporting filesystems in L4Re. For an outsider like myself, the picture isn’t particularly clear, but the mechanisms don’t really seem particularly well documented, and I am not convinced that the filesystem support is what people might expect from a microkernel-based system.

Like L4Re’s device support, the way filesystems are made available to tasks appears to use libraries extensively, whereas I would expect more use of individual programs, with interprocess messages and shared memory being employed to move the data around. To evaluate my expectations, I have been writing programs that operate in such a way, employing a “toy” filesystem to test the viability of such an approach. The plan is to make use of libext2fs to expose ext2/3/4 filesystems to L4Re components, then to try and replace the existing file access mechanisms with ones that access these file-serving components.

It is unfortunate that systems like these no longer seem to get much attention from the wider Free Software community. There was once a project to port GNU Hurd to L4-family microkernels, but with the state of the art having seemingly been regarded as insufficient or inappropriate, the focus drifted off onto other things, and now there doesn’t seem to be much appetite to resume such work. Even the existing Hurd implementation doesn’t get that much interest these days, either. And yet there are plenty of technical, social and practical reasons for not just settling for using the Linux kernel and systems based on it for every last application and device.

Extending Hardware Support within L4Re

It is all very well developing filesystem support, but there also has to be support for the things that provide the storage on which those filesystems reside. This is something I didn’t bother to look at when getting L4Re working on various devices because the priority was to have something to show, meaning that the display had to work, along with testing and demonstrating other well-understood peripherals, with the keyboard or keypad being something that could be supported with relative ease and then used to demonstrate other aspects of the solution.

It seems perverse that one must implement support for SD or microSD card storage all over again when the software being run is already being loaded from such storage, but this is rather like the way that “live CD” versions of GNU/Linux would load an environment directly from a CD, yet an installed version of such an environment might not have the capability to access the CD drive. Still, this is an unavoidable step along the path to make a practical system.

It might also be nice to make the CI20 support a bit better. Although a device notionally supported by L4Re, various missing pieces of hardware support needed to be added, and the HDMI output capability remains unavailable. Here, the mystery hardware left undocumented by the datasheet happens to be used in other chipsets and has been supported in the Linux kernel for many of them for quite some time. Hopefully, the exercise will not be too frustrating.

Another device that might be a good candidate for L4Re is the Efika MX Smartbook. Although having a modest specification by today’s bloated-Web and pointless-eye-candy standards, it has a nice keyboard (with a more sensible layout than the irritating HP Elitebook, as I recently discovered) and is several times more powerful than the Letux 400. My brother, David, has already investigated certain aspects of the hardware, and it might make the basis of a nice portable system. And since support in Linux and other more commonly-used technologies has been left to rot, why not look into developing a more lasting alternative?

Reviving Mail-Based Communication

It is tiresome to see the continuing neglect of the health of e-mail, despite it being used as the bedrock of the Internet’s activities, while proprietary and predatory social media platforms enjoy undeserved attention and promotion in mass media and in society at large. Governmental and corporate negligence mean that the average person is subjected to an array of undesirable, disturbing and generally unwanted communications from chancers and criminals through their e-mail accounts which, if it had ever happened to the same degree with postal mail, would have seen people routinely arrested and convicted for their activities.

It is tempting to think that “they” do not want “us” to have a more reliable form of mail-based communication because that would involve things like encryption and digital signatures. Even when these things are deemed necessary, they always seem to be rolled out as part of a special service that hosts “our” encryption and signing keys for us, through which we must go to access our messages. It is, I suppose, yet another example of the abandonment of common infrastructure: that when something better is needed, effort and attention is siphoned off from the “commons” and ploughed into something separate that might make someone a bit of money.

There are certainly challenges involved in making e-mail better, with any discussion of managing identities, vouching for and recognising correspondents, and the management of keys most likely to lead to dispute about the “best” way of doing things. But in the end, we probably find ourselves pursuing perfect solutions that do everything whilst proprietary competitors just focus on doing a handful of things effectively. So I envisage turning this around and evaluating whether a more limited form of mail-based communication can be done in the way that most people would need.

I did look fairly recently at a selection of different projects seeking to advise and support people on providing their own e-mail infrastructure. That is perhaps worth an article in its own right. And on the subject of mail-based communication, I hope to look a bit more at imip-agent again after neglecting it for so long.

Sustaining a Python Alternative

One motivation for developing my Python-like language and toolchain, Lichen, was to explore ways in which Python might have been developed to better suit my own needs and preferences. Although I still use Python extensively, I remain mindful of the need to write conservative, uncomplicated code without the kind of needless tricks and flourishes that Python’s expanding feature set can tempt the developer with, and thus I almost always consider the possibility of being able to use the Lichen toolchain with my projects one day.

Lichen may still be a proof of concept, but there has been work done on gradually pushing it towards being genuinely usable. I spent some time considering the way floating point numbers might be represented, and this raised some interesting issues around how they might be stored within instances. Like the tuple performance optimisations, I hope to introduce floating point support into the established feature set of Lichen and hopefully offer decent-enough performance, with the latter aspect being yet another path of investigation this year.

Documenting and Publishing

A continuing worry I have is whether I should still be running MoinMoin sites or even sites derived from MoinMoin “export dumps” for published information that is merely static. I have spent some time developing a parsing and formatting tool to generate static content from Moin content, thus avoiding running Moin altogether and also avoiding having to run a script acting as a URL-preserving front-end to exported Moin content (which is unfortunately required because of how the “export dump” seems to work).

Currently, this tool supports HTML and Moin output, the latter to test the parsing activity, with Graphviz content rendered as inline SVG or in other supported formats (although inline SVG is really what you want). Some macros are supported, but I need to add support for others, like the search macros which are useful for generating page listings. Themes are also supported, but I need to make sure that things like tables of contents – already supported with a macro – can be styled appropriately.

Already, I can generate the bulk of my existing project documentation, and the aim here is to be able to focus on improving that documentation, particularly for things like Lichen that really need explanations to be written before I need to start reviewing the code from scratch as if I were a total newcomer to the work. I have also considered using this tool as the basis for a decentralised wiki solution, but that can probably wait for a while given how many other things I have said I want to do!

Anything More?

There are probably other things that are worth looking at, but these are perhaps the ones I feel are most pressing. It could be said that pursuing all these at once would spread me and my efforts very thin, but I tend to cycle through projects periodically and hope that I can catch up with what I was previously doing, hence the mention above of documenting my work.

I wonder how much other people think about the year ahead, whether it is a productive and ultimately rewarding exercise to state aspirations and goals in this kind of way. New Year’s resolutions are a familiar practice, of course, but here I make no promises!

Nevertheless, a belated Happy New Year to anyone still reading! I hope we can all pursue our objectives enthusiastically over the year ahead and make a real and positive difference to computing, its users and to our societies.

Shared-Mode Executables in L4Re for MIPS-Based Devices

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

I have been meaning to write about my device driver experiments with L4Re, following on from my porting exercises, but that exercise took me along various routes and I haven’t yet got back to documenting all of them. Meanwhile, one thing that did start to bother me was how much space the software was taking up when compiled, linked and ready to deploy.

Since each of my device drivers is a separate program, and since each one may be linked to various libraries, they each started to contribute substantially to the size of the resulting file – the payload – needing to be transferred to the device. At one point, I had to resize the boot partition on the memory card used by the Letux 400 notebook computer to make the payload fit in the available space.

The work done to port L4Re to the MIPS Creator CI20 had already laid the foundations for functioning payloads, and once the final touches were put in place to support the peculiarities of the Ingenic JZ4780 system-on-a-chip, it was possible to run both the conventional “hello” example which is statically linked to its libraries, as well as a “shared-hello” example which is dynamically linked to its libraries. The latter configuration of the program results in a smaller executable program and thus a smaller payload.

So it seemed clear that I might be able to run my own programs on the Letux 400 or Ben NanoNote with similar reductions in payload size. Unfortunately, nothing ever seems to be as straightforward as it ought to be.

Exceptional Obstructions and Observations

Initially, I set about trying one of my own graphical examples with the MODE variable set to “shared” in its Makefile. This, upon powering up, merely indicated that it had not managed to start up properly. Instead of a blank screen, the viewports set up by the graphical multiplexer, Mag, were still active and showing their usual blankness. But these regions did not then change in any way when I pressed keys on the keyboard (which is functionality that I will hopefully get round to describing in another article).

I sought some general advice from the l4-hackers mailing list, but quickly realised that to make any real progress, I would need a decent way of accessing the debugging output produced by the dynamic linker. This took me on a diversion that led to my debugging capabilities being strengthened with the availability of a textual output console on the screen of my devices. I still don’t like the idea of performing hardware modifications to get access to the serial console, so this is a useful and welcome alternative.

Having switched out the “hello” program with the “shared-hello” program in the system configuration and module list demonstrating the framebuffer terminal, I deployed the payload and powered up, but I did not get the satisfying output of the program operating normally. Instead, the framebuffer terminal appeared and rewarded me with the following message:

L4Re: rom/ex_hello_shared: Unhandled exception: PC=0x800000 PFA=8d7a LdrFlgs=0

This isn’t really the kind of thing you want to see. Having not had to debug L4Re or Fiasco.OC in any serious fashion for a couple of months, I was out of practice in considering the next step, but fortunately some encouragement arrived in a private e-mail from Jean Wolter. This brought the suggestion of triggering the kernel debugger, but since this requires serial console access, it wasn’t a viable approach. But another idea that I could use involved writing out a bit more information in the routine that was producing this output.

The message in question originates in the pkg/l4re-core/l4re_kernel/server/src/ file, within the Region_map::op_exception method. The details it produces are rather minimal and generic: the program counter (PC) tells us where the exception occurred; the loader flags (LdrFlags) presumably tell us about the activity of the library loader; the mysterious “PFA” is supposedly the page fault address but it actually seemed to be the stack pointer address on these MIPS-based systems.

On their own, these details are not particularly informative, but I suppose that more useful information could quickly become fairly specific to a particular architecture. Jean suggested looking at the structure describing the exception state, l4_exc_regs_t (defined with MIPS-specific members in pkg/l4re-core/l4sys/include/ARCH-mips/utcb.h), to see what else I might dig up. This I did, generating the following:


A few things interested me, thus motivating my choice of registers to dump. The global pointer (gp) register tells us about symbols in the problematic code, and I felt that having once made changes to the L4Re sources – way back in the era of getting the CI20 to run GCC-generated code – so that another register (t9) would be initialised correctly, this so that the gp register would be set up correctly within programs, it was entirely possible that I had rather too enthusiastically changed something that was now causing a problem.

The stack pointer (sp) is useful to check, just to see if it located in a sensible region of memory, and here I discovered that this seemed to be the same as the “PFA” number. Oddly, the “PFA” seems to occupy the same place in the exception structure as any “bad virtual address” featuring in an address exception, and so I started to suspect that maybe the stack pointer was referencing the wrong part of memory. But this was partially ruled out by examining the value of the stack pointer in the “hello” example, which appeared to reference broadly the same part of memory. And, of course, the “hello” example works just fine.

In fact, the cause register indicated another kind of exception entirely, and it was one I was not really expecting: a “coprocessor unusable” exception indicating that coprocessor 1, typically a floating point arithmetic unit, was being illegally requested by an instruction. Here is how I interpreted that register’s value:

hex value   binary value
1000002c == 00010000000000000000000000101100
              --                     -----
              CE                     ExcCode

=> CE == 1; ExcCode == 11 (coprocessor unusable)
=> coprocessor 1 unusable

Now, as I may have mentioned before, the hardware involved in this exercise does not support floating point instructions itself, and this is why I have configured compilers to use “soft-float” (software-based floating point arithmetic) support. It meant that I had to find places that might have wanted to use floating point instructions and eliminate those instructions somehow. Fortunately, only code generated by the compiler was likely to contain such instructions. But now I wondered if there weren’t some instructions of this nature lurking in places I hadn’t checked.

I had also thought to check the return address (ra) register. This tells us where the processor will jump to when it has finished executing the current routine, and since this is usually a matter of “returning” somewhere, it tells us something about the code that was being executed before the problematic routine was called. I figured that the work being done before the exception was probably going to be more important than the exception itself.

Floating Point Magic

Another debugging suggestion that now became unavoidable was to inspect the erroneous instruction. I noted above that this instruction was causing the processor to signal an illegal attempt to use an unusable – actually completely unavailable – coprocessor. Writing a numeric representation of the instruction to the display provided me with the following hexadecimal (base 16) value:


This can be interpreted as follows in binary, with groups of bits defined for interpretation according to the MIPS instruction set architecture, and with tentative interpretations of these groups provided beneath:

010001 10010  01100 01000 10101 111111
COP1   rs/fmt rt/ft rd/fs       C.ABS.NGT

The first group of bits is the opcode field which is interpreted as a coprocessor 1 (COP1) opcode. Should we then wish to consider what the other groups mean, we might then examine the final group which could indicate a comparison instruction. However, this becomes rather hypothetical since the processor will most likely interpret the opcode field and then decide that it cannot handle the instruction.

So, I started to look for places where the instruction might have been written, but no obvious locations were forthcoming. One peculiar aspect of all this is that the location of the instruction is at a rather “clean” location – 0×800000 – and some investigations indicated that this is where the library containing the problematic code gets loaded. I actually don’t remember precisely how I figured this out, but I think it was as follows.

I had looked at linker scripts that might give some details of the location of program objects, and one of them (pkg/l4re-core/ldscripts/ARCH-mips/main_dyn.ld) seemed to be related. It gave an address for the code of 0×400000. This made me think that some misconfiguration or erroneous operation was putting the observed code somewhere it shouldn’t be. But changing this address in the linker script just gave another exception at 0×400000, meaning that I had disrupted something that was intentional and probably working fine.

Meanwhile, emitting the t9 register’s value from the exception state yielded 0×800000, indicating that the calling routine had most likely jumped straight to that address, not to another address with execution having then proceeded normally until reaching the exception location. I decided to look at the instructions around the return address, these most likely being the ones that had set up the call to the exception location. Writing these locations out gave me some idea about the instructions involved. Below, I provide the stored values and their interpretations as machine instructions:

8f998250 # lw $t9, -32176($gp)
24a55fa8 # addiu $a1, $a1, 0x5fa8
0320f809 # jalr $t9
24844ee4 # addiu $a0, $a0, 0x4ee4
8fbc0010 # lw $gp, 16($sp)

One objective of doing this, apart from confirming that a jump instruction (jalr) was involved, with the t9 register being employed as is the convention with MIPS code, was to use the fragment to identify the library that was causing the error. A brute-force approach was employed here, generating “object dumps” from the library files and writing them out as files in a new directory:

mkdir tmpdir
for FILENAME in mybuild/lib/mips_32/l4f/* ; do
    mipsel-linux-gnu-objdump -d "$FILENAME" > tmpdir/`basename "$FILENAME"`

The textual dump files were then searched for the instruction values using grep, narrowing down the places where these instructions were found in consecutive locations. This yielded the following code, found in the library:

    2f5c:       8f998250        lw      t9,-32176(gp)
    2f60:       24a55fa8        addiu   a1,a1,24488
    2f64:       0320f809        jalr    t9
    2f68:       24844ee4        addiu   a0,a0,20196
    2f6c:       8fbc0010        lw      gp,16(sp)

The integer operands for the addiu instructions are the same, of course, just being shown as decimal rather than hexadecimal values. Now, we previously saw that the return address (ra) register had the value 0x802f6c. When a MIPS processor executes a jump instruction, it will also fetch the following instruction and execute it, this being a consequence of the way the processor architecture is designed.

So, the instruction after the jump, residing in what is known as the “branch delay slot” is not the instruction that will be visited upon returning from the called routine. Instead, it is the instruction after that. Here, we see that the return address from the jump at location 0x2f64 would be two locations later at 0x2f6c. This provides a kind of realisation that the program object – the library – is positioned in memory at 0×800000: 0x2f6c added to 0×800000 gives the value of ra, 0x802f6c.

And this means that the location of the problematic instruction – the cause of our exception – is the first location within this object. Anyone with any experience of this kind of software will have realised by now that this doesn’t sound like a healthy situation: the first location within a library is not actually going to be code because these kinds of objects are packaged up in a way that permits their manipulation by other programs.

So what is the first location of a library used for? Since such objects employ the Executable and Linkable Format (ELF), we can take a look at some documentation. And we see that the first location is used to identify the kind of object, employing a “magic number” for the purpose. And that magic number would be…


In the little-endian arrangement employed by this processor, the stored bytes are as follows:

45 ('E')
4c ('L')
46 ('F')

The value was not a floating point instruction at all, but the magic number at the start of the library object! It was something of a coincidence that such a value would be interpreted as a floating point instruction, an accidentally convenient way of signalling something going badly wrong.

Missing Entries

The investigation now started to focus on how the code trying to jump to the start of the library had managed to get this incorrect address and what it was trying to do by jumping to it. I started to wonder if the global pointer (gp), whose job it is to reference the list of locations of program routines and other global data, might have been miscalculated such that attempts to load the addresses of routines would then be failing with data being fetched from the wrong places.

But looking around at code fragments where the gp register was being calculated, they seemed to look set to calculate the correct values based on assumptions about other registers. For example, from the object dump for

00002780 <_ftext>:
    2780:       3c1c0003        lui     gp,0x3
    2784:       279cb5b0        addiu   gp,gp,-19024
    2788:       0399e021        addu    gp,gp,t9

Assuming that the processor has t9 set to 0×2780 and then jumps to the value of t9, as is the convention, the following calculation is then performed:

gp = 0x30000 (since lui loads the "upper" half-word)
gp = gp - 19024 = 0x30000 - 19024 = 0x2b5b0
gp = gp + t9 = 0x2b5b0 + 0x2780 = 0x2dd30

Using the nm tool, which tells us about symbols in program objects, it was possible to check this value:

mipsel-linux-gnu-nm -n mybuild/lib/mips_32/l4f/

This shows the following at the end of the output:

0002dd30 d _gp

Also appearing somewhat earlier in the output is this, telling us where the table of symbols starts (as well as the next thing in the file):

00025f90 g __dso_handle

Some digging around in the L4Re source code gave a kind of confirmation that the difference between _gp and _GLOBAL_OFFSET_TABLE_ was to be expected. Here is what I found in the pkg/l4re-core/uclibc/lib/contrib/uclibc/ldso/ldso/mips/elfinterp.c file:

#define OFFSET_GP_GOT 0x7ff0

If gp, when recalculated in other places, ended up getting the same value, there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. Some quick inspections of neighbouring calculations indicated that this wasn’t likely to be the problem. But what about the values used in conjunction with gp? Might they be having an effect? In the case of the erroneous jump, the following calculation is involved:

lw t9,-32176(gp) => load word into t9 from the location at gp - 32176
                 => ...               from 0x2dd30 - 32176
                 => ...               from 0x25f80

The calculated address, 0x25f80, is after the start of _GLOBAL_OFFSET_TABLE_ providing entries for program routines and other things, which is a good sign, but what is perhaps more troubling is how far after the start of the table such a value is. In the above output, another symbol (__dso_handle) indicates something that is located at the end of the table. Now, although its address is still greater than the one computed above, meaning that the computation does not cause us to stray off the end of the table, the computed address is suspiciously close to the end.

There was nothing else to do than to have a look at the table contents itself, and here it was rather useful to have a way of displaying a number of values on the screen. At this point, we have to note that the addresses in use in the running system are adjusted according to the start of the loaded object, so that the table is positioned at 0x25d40 in the object dump, but in the running system we would see 0×800000 + 0x25d40 and thus 0x825d40 instead.

What I saw was that the table contained entries that varied in the expected way right up until 0x825f60 (corresponding to 0x25f60 in the object dump) being only 0×30 (or 48 bytes, or 12 entries) before the end of the table, but then all remaining entries starting at 0x825f64 (corresponding to 0x25f64) yielded a value of 0×800000, apart from 0x825f90 (corresponding to 0x25f90, right at the end of the table) which yielded itself.

Since the calculated address above (0x25f80, adjusted to 0x825f80 in the running system) lies in this final region, we now know the origin of this annoying 0×800000: it comes from entries at the end of the table that do not seem to hold meaningful values. Indeed, the object dump for the library seemed to skip over this region of the table entirely, presumably because it was left uninitialised. And using the readelf tool with the –relocs option to show “relocations”, which applies to this table, it appeared that the last entries rather confirmed my observations:

00025d34  00000003 R_MIPS_REL32
00025f90  00000003 R_MIPS_REL32

Clearly, something is missing from this table. But since something has to adjust the contents of the table to add the “base address”, 0×800000, to the entries in order to provide valid addresses within the running program, what started to intrigue me was whether the code that performed this adjustment had any idea about these missing entries, and how this code might be related to the code causing the exception situation.

Routines and Responsibilities

While considering the nature of the code causing the exception, I had been using the objdump utility with the -d (disassemble) and -D (disassemble all) options. These provide details of program sections, code routines and the machine instructions themselves. But Jean pointed out that if I really wanted to find out which part of the source code was responsible for producing certain regions of the program, I might use a combination of options: -d, -l (line numbers) and -S (source code). This was almost a revelation!

However, the code responsible for the jump to the start of the library resisted such measures. A large region of code appeared to have no corresponding source, suggesting that it might be generated. Here is how it starts:

    2dac:       00000000        nop
    2db0:       3c1c0003        lui     gp,0x3
    2db4:       279caf80        addiu   gp,gp,-20608
    2db8:       0399e021        addu    gp,gp,t9
    2dbc:       8f84801c        lw      a0,-32740(gp)
    2dc0:       8f828018        lw      v0,-32744(gp)

There is no function defined in the source code with the name _ftext. However, _ftext is defined in the linker script (in pkg/l4re-core/ldscripts/ARCH-mips/main_rel.ld) as follows:

  .text           :
    _ftext = . ;
    *(.text.unlikely .text.*_unlikely .text.unlikely.*)
    *(.text.exit .text.exit.*)
    *(.text.startup .text.startup.*)
    *(.text .stub .text.* .gnu.linkonce.t.*)
    /* .gnu.warning sections are handled specially by elf32.em.  */
    *(.mips16.fn.*) *(*)

If you haven’t encountered linker scripts before, then you probably don’t want to spend too much time looking at this, linker scripts being frustratingly terse and arcane, but the essence of the above is that a bunch of code is stuffed into the .text section, with _ftext being assigned the address of the start of all this code. Now, _ftext in the linker script corresponds to a particular label in the object dump (which we saw earlier was positioned at 0×2780) whereas the _ftext function in the code occurs later (at 0x2dac, above). After the label but before the function is code whose source is found by objdump.

So I took the approach of removing things from the linker script, ultimately removing everything from the .text section apart from the assignment to _ftext. This removed the annotated regions of the code and left me with only the _ftext function. It really did appear that this was something the compiler might be responsible for. But where would I find the code responsible?

One hint that was present in the _ftext function code was the use of another identified function, __cxa_finalize. Searching the GCC sources for code that might use it led me to the libgcc sources and to code that invokes destructor functions upon program exit. This wasn’t really what I was looking for, but the file containing it (libgcc/crtstuff.c) would prove informative.

Back to the Table

Jean had indicated that there might be a difference in output between compilers, and that certain symbols might be produced by some but not by others. I investigated further by using the readelf tool with the -a option to show almost everything about the library file. Here, the focus was on the global offset table (GOT) and information about the entries. In particular, I wanted to know more about the entry providing the erroneous 0×800000 value, located at (gp – 32176). In my output I saw the following interesting thing:

 Global entries:
   Address     Access  Initial Sym.Val. Type    Ndx Name
  00025f80 -32176(gp) 00000000 00000000 FUNC    UND __register_frame_info

This seems to tell us what the program expects to find at the location in question, and it indicates that the named symbol is presumably undefined. There were some other undefined symbols, too:


Meanwhile, Jean was seeing symbols with other names:


During my perusal of the libgcc sources, I had noticed some of these symbols being tested to see if they were non-zero. For example:

  if (__register_frame_info)
    __register_frame_info (__EH_FRAME_BEGIN__, &object);

These fragments of code appear to be located in functions related to program initialisation. And it is also interesting to note that back in the library code, after the offending table entry has been accessed, there are tests against zero:

    2f34:       3c1c0003        lui     gp,0x3
    2f38:       279cadfc        addiu   gp,gp,-20996
    2f3c:       0399e021        addu    gp,gp,t9
    2f40:       27bdffe0        addiu   sp,sp,-32
    2f44:       8f828250        lw      v0,-32176(gp)
    2f48:       afbc0010        sw      gp,16(sp)
    2f4c:       afbf001c        sw      ra,28(sp)
    2f50:       10400007        beqz    v0,2f70 <_ftext+0x7f0>

Here, gp gets set up correctly, v0 is set to the value of the table entry, which we now believe refers to __register_frame_info, and the beqz instruction tests this value against zero, skipping ahead if it is zero. Does that not sound a bit like the code shown above? One might think that the libgcc code might handle an uninitialised table entry, and maybe it is intended to do so, but the table entry ends up getting adjusted to 0×800000, presumably as part of the library loading process.

I think that the most relevant function here for the adjustment of these entries is _dl_perform_mips_global_got_relocations which can be found in the pkg/l4re-core/uclibc/lib/contrib/uclibc/ldso/ldso/ldso.c file as part of the L4Re C library code. It may well have changed the entry from zero to this erroneous non-zero value, merely because the entry lies within the table and is assumed to be valid.

So, as a consequence, the libgcc code acts as if it has a genuine __register_frame_info function to call, and doing so causes the jump to the start of the library object and the exception. Maybe the code is supposed to be designed to handle missing symbols, those symbols potentially being deliberately omitted, but it doesn’t function correctly under these particular circumstances.

Symbol Restoration

However, despite identifying this unfortunate interaction between C library and libgcc, the matter of a remedy remained unaddressed. What was I to do about these missing symbols? Were they supposed to be there? Was there a way to tell libgcc not to expect them to be there at all?

In attempting to learn a bit more about the linking process, I had probably been through the different L4Re packages several times, but Jean then pointed me to a file I had seen before, perhaps before I had needed to think about these symbols at all. It contained “empty” definitions for some of the symbols but not for others. Maybe the workaround or even the solution was to just add more definitions corresponding to the symbols the program was expecting? Jean thought so.

So, I added a few things to the file (pkg/l4re-core/ldso/ldso/fixup.c):

void __deregister_frame_info(void);
void __register_frame_info(void);
void _ITM_deregisterTMCloneTable(void);
void _ITM_registerTMCloneTable(void);

void __deregister_frame_info(void) {}
void __register_frame_info(void) {}
void _ITM_deregisterTMCloneTable(void) {}
void _ITM_registerTMCloneTable(void) {}

I wasn’t confident that this would fix the problem. After all the investigation, adding a few lines of trivial code to one file seemed like too easy a way to fix what seemed like a serious problem. But I checked the object dump of the library, and suddenly things looked a bit more reasonable. Instead of referencing an uninitialised table entry, objdump was able to identify the jump target as __register_frame_info:

    2e14:       8f828040        lw      v0,-32704(gp)
    2e18:       afbc0010        sw      gp,16(sp)
    2e1c:       afbf001c        sw      ra,28(sp)
    2e20:       10400007        beqz    v0,2e40 <_ftext+0x7f0>
    2e24:       8f85801c        lw      a1,-32740(gp)
    2e28:       8f84803c        lw      a0,-32708(gp)
    2e2c:       8f998040        lw      t9,-32704(gp)
    2e30:       24a55fa8        addiu   a1,a1,24488
    2e34:       04111c39        bal     9f1c <__register_frame_info>

Of course, the code had been reorganised and so things were no longer in quite the same places, but in the above, (gp – 32704) is actually a reference to __register_frame_info, and although this value gets tested against zero as before, we can see that enough is now known about the previously-missing symbol that a branch directly to the location of the function has been incorporated, rather than a jump to the address stored in the table.

And sure enough, powering up the Letux 400 produced the framebuffer terminal showing the expected output:

Hi World! (shared)

It had been a long journey for such a modest reward, but thanks to Jean’s help and a bit of perseverance, I got there in the end.

L4Re: Textual Debugging Output on the Framebuffer

Monday, May 21st, 2018

I have actually been in the process of drafting another article about writing device drivers to run within the L4 Runtime Environment (L4Re) on top of the Fiasco.OC microkernel, this being for the Ben NanoNote and Letux 400 notebook computers. That article started to trail behind a lot of the work being done, and there are a few loose ends to be tied up before I can finish it.

Meanwhile, on the way towards some kind of achievement with L4Re, confounded somewhat by the sometimes impenetrable APIs, I managed to eventually get something working that I had thought would have been one of the first things to demonstrate. When initially perusing the range of software in the “pkg” directory within the L4Re distribution, I saw a package called “fbterminal” providing a terminal program that shows itself on the framebuffer (or display).

I imagined being able to launch this on top of the graphical user interface multiplexer, Mag, and then have the “hello” program provide some output to this terminal. I even imagined having the terminal accept input from the keyboard, but we aren’t quite at that point, and that is where my other article comes in. Of course, I initially had no idea how to achieve this, and there needed to be a lot of work put in just to get back to this particular point of entry.

Now, however, the act of launching fbterminal and have it work is fairly straightforward. A few additional packages are required, but the framebuffer works satisfactorily as far as the other components are concerned, and the result will be a blank region of the screen with the terminal showing precisely nothing. Obviously, we want it to show something in order to confirm that it is working. I had to get used to seeing this blank terminal for a while.

The intended companion to fbterminal for testing purposes is the hello program which merely writes output to what might be described as a logging destination. This particular output channel is usually the serial console for the device, which meant that when porting the system to the Ben and the Letux, the hello program was of no use to me. But now, with a framebuffer to show things on, and with a terminal that might be able to accept output from other things, it becomes interesting to see if the hello program can be persuaded to send its output elsewhere.

It was useful to investigate how the output from the hello program actually makes its way to its destination. Since it uses standard C library functions, there has to be a mechanism for those functions to use. As far as I know, these would typically involve various system calls concerning files and streams. A perusal of the sources dredged up an interesting symbol called “__rtld_l4re_env_posix_vfs_ops”. Further investigation led me to the L4Re virtual filesystem (Vfs) functionality and the following interesting files:

  • pkg/l4re-core/l4re_vfs/include/vfs.h
  • pkg/l4re-core/l4re_vfs/include/impl/vfs_impl.h

And these in turn led me to the virtual console (Vcon) functionality:

  • pkg/l4re-core/l4re_vfs/include/impl/vcon_stream.h
  • pkg/l4re-core/l4re_vfs/include/impl/vcon_stream_impl.h

It seems that standard output from the hello program goes via the standard C calls and Vfs functions and is packaged up and sent using the Vcon mechanisms to the logging destination, which is typically provided by the root task, Moe. Given that fbterminal understands the Vcon protocol and acts as a console server, there appeared to be some potential in looking at Vcon mechanisms more closely. It seemed that fbterminal might be able to take the place of Moe.

Indeed, the documentation offers some clues. In the description of the init process, Ned, a mention is made of a program loader configuration parameter called “log_fab” that indicates an object that can create a suitable logging destination. When starting a program, the program loader creates such an object using “log_fab” and presents it to the new program as a capability (or object reference).

However, this is not quite what we want because we don’t need anything else to be created: we already have fbterminal ready for us to use. I suppose something could be conjured up to act as a factory and provide a fbterminal instance, and maybe this is not too arduous in the Lua-based configuration environment used by Ned, but I wanted a more direct solution.

Contemplating this, I went and rediscovered the definitions used by Ned to support its configuration scripting (found in pkg/l4re-core/ned/server/src/ned.lua). Here, the workings of the “log_fab” mechanism can be found and studied. But what I started to favour was a way of just indicating a capability to the hello program and not have the loader create something else. This required a simple edit to one of the functions:

function App_env:log()
  Class.check(self, App_env);
  if self.loader.log_fab == nil or self.loader.log_fab.create == nil then
    error ("Starting an application without valid log factory", 4);
  return self.loader.log_fab:create(Proto.Log, table.unpack(self.log_args));

Here, we want to ignore “log_fab” and just have our existing capability used instead. So, I introduced another clause to the if statement:

  if self.log_cap then
    return self.log_cap
  elseif self.loader.log_fab == nil or self.loader.log_fab.create == nil then
    error ("Starting an application without valid log factory", 4);

Now, if we specify “log_cap” when starting a program, it should want to direct logging messages to the referenced object instead. So, with this available to us, it becomes possible to adjust the way the hello program is started. First of all, we define the way fbterminal is set up and started:

local term = l:new_channel();

    caps = {
      fb = mag_caps.svc:create(L4.Proto.Goos, "g=320x230+0+0", "barheight=10"),
      term = term:svr(),

Since fbterminal needs to “export” its console abilities using a capability called “term”, this needs to be indicated in the “caps” table. (It doesn’t matter what the local variable for the channel is called.) So, the hello program is defined accordingly:

    log_cap = term,

Here, we make use of “log_cap” and allow the output to be directed to the terminal that has already been started. And the result is this:

fbterminal on the Ben NanoNote showing the hello program's output

fbterminal on the Ben NanoNote showing the hello program's output

And at long last, it becomes possible to see what programs are printing out to the log!

Extending L4Re/Fiasco.OC to the Letux 400 Notebook Computer

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

In my summary of the port of L4Re and Fiasco.OC to the Ben NanoNote, I remarked that progress had been made on supporting other products and hardware peripherals. In fact, such progress occurred more rapidly than I had thought possible, and I have been able to extend the work to support the Letux 400 notebook computer. It is perhaps worth describing the Letux 400 in a bit more detail because it has an interesting place in the history of netbook computers.

Some History

Back in the early 21st century, laptop computers were becoming increasingly popular at the expense of desktop computers, but as laptops began to take the place of desktops in homes and workplaces, this gradually led each successive generation of laptops to sacrifice portability and affordability in favour of larger, faster, higher-resolution screens and general hardware specifications more competitive with the desktop offerings they sought to replace. Laptops were becoming popular but also bigger, heavier and more expensive.

Things took an interesting turn in 2006 with the introduction of the XO-1 from the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative. With rather different goals to those of the mainstream laptop vendors, the focus was to deliver a relatively-inexpensive yet robust portable computer for use by schoolchildren, many of whom might be living in places with limited infrastructure where increasingly power-hungry mainstream laptops would have been unsuitable, even unusable.

One unexpected consequence of the introduction of the XO-1 was the revival in interest in modestly-performing portable computing hardware. People were actually interested in a computer that did the things they needed, rather than having to buy something designed for gamers, software developers, or corporate “power users” (of both the pretend and genuine kinds). Rather than having to haul increasingly big and heavy laptops and all the usual accessories in a big dedicated bag, they liked the idea of slipping a smaller, lighter device into their everyday bag, as had probably been the idea with subnotebooks while they were still a thing.

Thus, the Asus Eee PC came about, regarded as the first widely-available netbook of recent times (acknowledging the earlier Psion netBook, of course), bringing with it the attention of large-volume manufacturers and economies of scale. For “lightweight tasks”, netbooks were enough for many people: a phenomenon that found itself repeating with tablets, particularly as recreational usage of technology became more important to buyers and evolved in certain ways.

Now, one thing that had been a big part of the OLPC initiative’s objectives was a $100 price point. At first, despite fairly radical techniques being used to reduce cost, and despite the involvement of a major original equipment manufacturer in the production of the XO-1, that price point of $100 was out of reach. Even the Eee PC retailed for a few hundred dollars.

This is where a product known as the Skytone Alpha 400 enters the picture. Some vendors, rebranding this product, offered it as possibly the first $100 laptop – or netbook – to be made available for sale. One of the vendors offers it as the Letux 400, and it has been available for as little as €125 during its retail lifespan. Noting that it has rather similar hardware to the Ben NanoNote, but has a more conventional physical profile and four times as much RAM, my brother bought one to investigate a few years ago. That is how I eventually ended up embarking on this experiment.

Extending Recent Work

There are many similarities between the JZ4720 system-on-a-chip (SoC) used in the Ben and the JZ4730 used in the Letux 400. However, it can be said that the JZ4720 is much better understood. The JZ4740 and closely-related devices like the JZ4720 have appeared in a number of different devices, documentation has surfaced for these products, and vendor source code has always been available, typically using or implicitly documenting most of the hardware.

In contrast, limited documentation is known to exist for the JZ4730, and the available vendor source code has not always described every detail of the hardware, even though the essential operations and register details appear to be present. Having looked at the Linux kernel sources that support the JZ4730, together with U-Boot source code, the similarities and differences between the JZ4720 and JZ4730 began to take shape in my mind.

I took an optimistic approach that mostly paid off. The Fiasco.OC kernel needs augmenting with the details of the JZ4730, but these are similar in some ways to the JZ4720 and familiar otherwise. For instance, the JZ4730 has a 32-bit “operating system timer” (OST) that curiously does not appear in the JZ4740 but does appear in more recent products such as the JZ4780. Bearing such things in mind, the timer and interrupt support was easily enough added.

One very different thing about the JZ4730 is that it does not seem to support the “set” and “clear” register locations that are probably common to most modern SoCs. Typically, one might want to update a hardware-related register to change a peripheral’s configuration, and it must have become apparent to hardware designers that such updates mostly want to either set or clear bits. Normally in a program, to achieve such things involves reading a value, performing a logical operation that combines the value with a description of the bits to be set or cleared, and then the value is written back to where it came from. For example:

define bits to set
load value from location (exposing a hardware register, perhaps)
logical-or value with bits
store result in location

Encapsulating this in a single instruction avoids potential issues with different things competing to update the location at the same time, if the hardware permits this, and just offers something that is more efficient and convenient, anyway. Separate locations are provided for “set” and “clear” operations, and the original location is provided to read and to overwrite the hardware register’s value. Sometimes, such registers might only support read-only access, in fact. But the JZ4730 does not support such additional locations, and so we have to do things the hard way when updating registers and doing things like clearing and setting bits.

One odd thing that caught me out was a strange result from the special “exception base” (EBASE) register that does not seem to return zero for the CPU identifier, something that the bootstrap code in L4Re expects. I suppressed this test and made the kernel always return zero when it asks for this identifier. To debug such things, I could not use the screen as I had done with the Ben since the bootloader does not configure it on the Letux. Fortunately, unlike the Ben, the Letux provides a few LEDs to indicate things like keyboard and network status, and these can be configured and activated to communicate simple status information.

Otherwise, the exercise mostly involved me reworking some existing code I had (itself borrowing somewhat from existing driver code) that provides driver support for the Letux hardware peripherals. The clock and power management (CPM) arrangement is familiar but different from the JZ4720; the LCD driver can actually be used as is; the general-purpose input/output (GPIO) arrangement is different from the JZ4720 and, curiously enough once again, perhaps more similar to the JZ4780 in some ways. To support the LCD panel’s backlight, a pulse-width modulation (PWM) driver needed to be added, but this involves very little code.

I also had to deal with the mistakes I made myself when not concentrating hard enough. Lots of testing and re-testing occurred. But in the space of a weekend or so, I had something to show for all the previous effort plus this round’s additional effort.

The Letux 400 and Ben NanoNote running the "spectrum" example

The Letux 400 and Ben NanoNote running the "spectrum" example

Here, you can see what kind of devices we are dealing with! The Letux 400 is less than half the width of a normal-size keyboard (with numeric keypad), and the Ben NanoNote is less than half the width of the Letux 400. Both of them were inexpensive computing devices when they were introduced, and although they may not be capable of running “modern” desktop environments or Web browsers, they offer computing facilities that were, once upon a time, “workstation class” in various respects. And they did, after all, run GNU/Linux when they were introduced.

And that is why it is attractive to consider running other “proper” operating system technologies on them now. Maybe we can revisit the compromises that led to the subnotebook and the netbook, perhaps even the tablet, where devices that are not the most powerful still have a place in fulfilling our computing needs.