Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software

Porting L4Re and Fiasco.OC to the Ben NanoNote (Part 1)

For quite some time, I have been interested in alternative operating system technologies, particularly kernels beyond the likes of Linux. Things like the Hurd and technologies associated with it, such as Mach, seem like worthy initiatives, and contrary to largely ignorant and conveniently propagated myths, they are available and usable today for anyone bothered to take a look. Indeed, Mach has had quite an active life despite being denigrated for being an older-generation microkernel with questionable performance credentials.

But one technological branch that has intrigued me for a while has been the L4 family of microkernels. Starting out with the motivation to improve microkernel performance, particularly with regard to interprocess communication, different “flavours” of L4 have seen widespread use and, like Mach, have been ported to different hardware architectures. One of these L4 implementations, Fiasco.OC, appeared particularly interesting in this latter regard, in addition to various other features it offers over earlier L4 implementations.

Meanwhile, I have had some success with software and hardware experiments with the Ben NanoNote. As you may know or remember, the Ben NanoNote is a “palmtop” computer based on an existing design (apparently for a pocket dictionary product) that was intended to offer a portable computing experience supported entirely by Free Software, not needing any proprietary drivers or firmware whatsoever. Had the Free Software Foundation been certifying devices at the time of its introduction, I imagine that it would have received the “Respects Your Freedom” certification. So, it seems to me that it is a worthy candidate for a Free Software porting exercise.

The Starting Point

Now, it so happened that Fiasco.OC received some attention with regards to being able to run on the MIPS architecture. The Ben NanoNote employs a system-on-a-chip (SoC) whose own architecture closely (and deliberately) resembles the MIPS architecture, but all information about the JZ4720 SoC specifies “XBurst” as the architecture name. In fact, one can regard XBurst as a clone of a particular version of the MIPS architecture with some additional instructions.

Indeed, the vendor, Ingenic, subsequently licensed the MIPS architecture, produced some SoCs that are officially MIPS-labelled, culminating in the production of the MIPS Creator CI20 product: a development board commissioned by the then-owners of the MIPS portfolio, Imagination Technologies, utilising the Ingenic JZ4780 SoC to presumably showcase the suitability of the MIPS architecture for various applications. It was apparently for this product that an effort was made to port Fiasco.OC to MIPS, and it was this effort that managed to attract my attention.

The MIPS Creator CI20 single-board computer

The MIPS Creator CI20 single-board computer

It was just as well others had done this hard work. Although I have been gradually immersing myself in the details of how MIPS-based CPUs function, having written some code that can boot the Ben, run a few things concurrently, map memory for different processes, read the keyboard and show things on the screen, I doubt that my knowledge is anywhere near comprehensive enough to tackle porting an existing operating system kernel. But knowing that not only had others done this work, but they had also targeted a rather similar system, gave me some confidence that I might be able to perform the relatively minor porting exercise to target the Ben.

But first I felt that I had to gain experience with Fiasco.OC on MIPS in a more convenient fashion. Although I had muddled through the development of code on the Ben, reusing existing framebuffer driver code and hacking away until I managed to get some output on the display, I felt that if I were to continue my experiments, a more efficient way of debugging my code would be required. With this in mind, I purchased a MIPS Creator CI20 and, after doing things with the pre-installed Debian image plus installing a newer version of Debian, I set out to try Fiasco.OC on the hardware.

The Missing Pieces

According to the Fiasco.OC features page, the “Ci20″ is supported. Unfortunately, this assertion of support is not entirely true, as we will come to see. Previously, I mentioned that the JZ4720 in the Ben NanoNote largely implements the instructions of a certain version of the MIPS architecture. Although the JZ4780 in the CI20 introduces some new features over the JZ4720, such as a floating point arithmetic unit, it still lacks various instructions that are present in commonly-used MIPS versions that might be taken as the “baseline” for software support: MIPS32 Release 2 (MIPS32r2), for instance.

Upon trying to get Fiasco.OC to start up, I soon encountered one of these instructions, or at least a particular variant of it: rdhwr (read hardware register) accessing SYNCI_Step (the instruction cache line size). This sounds quite fearsome, but I had been somewhat exposed to cache management operations when conjuring up my own code to run on the Ben. In fact, all this instruction variant does is to ask how big the step size has to be in a loop that invalidates the instruction cache, instead of stuffing such a value into the program when compiling it and thus making an executable that will then be specific to a particular processor.

Fortunately, those hardworking people who had already ported the code to MIPS had previously encountered another rdhwr variant and had written code to “trap” it in the “reserved instruction” handler. That provided some essential familiarisation with the kernel code, saving me the effort of having to identify the right place to modify, as well as providing a template for how such handlers should operate. I feel fairly competent writing MIPS assembly language, although I would manage to make an easy mistake in this code that would impede progress much later on.

There were one or two other things that also needed fixing up, mentioned briefly in my review of the year article, generally involving position-independent code that was not called correctly and may have been related to me using a generic version of GCC instead of some vendor-modified version. But as I described in that article, I finally managed to boot Fiasco.OC and run a program on top of it, writing the output via the serial connection to my personal computer.

The End of the Very Beginning

I realised that compiling such code for the Ben would either require the complete avoidance of floating point instructions, due to the lack of that floating point unit in the JZ4720, or that I would need to provide implementations of those instructions in software. Fortunately, GCC provides a mode to compile “soft-float” versions of C and C++ programs, and so this looked like the next step. And so, apart from polishing support for features of the Ben like the framebuffer, input/output pins, the clock circuitry, it didn’t really seem that there would be so much to do.

As it so often turns out with technology, optimism can lead to unrealistic estimates of how much time and effort remains in a project. I now know that a description of all this effort would be just too much for a single article. So, I will wrap this article up with a promise that the next one will descend into the details of compilers, assembly language, the SoC, and before too long, we will get to see the inconvenience of debugging low-level software with nothing more than a framebuffer.

2 Responses to “Porting L4Re and Fiasco.OC to the Ben NanoNote (Part 1)”

  1. Porting L4Re and Fiasco.OC to the Ben NanoNote (Part 2) « Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog Says:

    [...] Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software « Porting L4Re and Fiasco.OC to the Ben NanoNote (Part 1) [...]

  2. Porting L4Re and Fiasco.OC to the Ben NanoNote (Summary) « Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog Says:

    [...] Familiarisation with L4Re and Fiasco.OC on the MIPS Creator CI20, adding some missing pieces [...]