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Archive for April, 2018

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.

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

Monday, April 16th, 2018

As promised, here is a summary of the work involved in porting L4Re and Fiasco.OC to the Ben NanoNote. First of all, a list of all the articles with some brief descriptions of what they cover:

  1. Familiarisation with L4Re and Fiasco.OC on the MIPS Creator CI20, adding some missing pieces
  2. Setting up and introducing a suitable compiler for the Ben, also describing the hardware in the kernel
  3. Handling instructions unsupported by the JZ4720 (the Ben’s SoC) in the kernel
  4. Describing the Ben and dealing with unsupported instructions in the L4Re portion of the system
  5. Configuring the memory layout and attempting to bootstrap the kernel
  6. Making the kernel support the MIPS architecture revision used by the JZ4720, also fixing the interrupt system description
  7. Investigating context/thread switching and fixing an inadvertently-introduced fault in the unsupported instruction handling
  8. Configuring user space examples and getting a simple framebuffer demonstration working
  9. Getting the framebuffer driver, GUI multiplexer, and “spectrum” example working

As I may have noted a few times in the articles, this work just builds on previous work done by a number of people over the years, obviously starting with the whole L4 microkernel effort, the development of Fiasco.OC, L4Re and their predecessors, and the work done to port these components to the MIPS architecture. On the l4-hackers mailing list, Adam Lackorzynski was particularly helpful when I ran into obstacles, and Sarah Hoffman provided some insight into problems with the CI20 just as it was needed.

You really don’t have to read all the articles or even any of them! The point of this article is to summarise the work and perhaps make similar porting efforts a bit more approachable for others in the same position: anyone having a vague level of familiarity with L4Re/Fiasco.OC or similar systems, also having a device that might be supported, and being somewhat familiar with writing code that drives hardware.

Practical Details

It might be useful to give certain practical details here, if only to indicate the nature of the development and testing routine employed in this endeavour. First of all, I have been using a chroot containing the Debian “unstable” distribution for the i386 architecture. Although this was essential for a time when building the software for the CI20 and trying to take advantage of Debian’s cross-compiler packages, any fairly recent version of Debian would probably be fine because I ended up using a Buildroot toolchain to be able to target the Ben. You could probably choose any Free Software distribution and reproduce what I have done.

The distribution of patches contains instructions regarding preparation and the building of the software. It isn’t too useful to repeat that information here, but the following things need doing:

  1. Installing packages for build tools
  2. Obtaining or building a cross-compiler
  3. Checking out the source code for L4Re and Fiasco.OC from its repository
  4. Applying the patches
  5. Configuring and building the kernel
  6. Configuring and building the runtime environment
  7. Copying the payload to a memory card
  8. Booting the device

Some scripts have been included in the patch distribution, one of which should do the tricky job of applying patches to the repository checkout according to the chosen device configuration. Because a centralised version control system (Subversion) has been used to publish the L4Re and Fiasco.OC sources, I had to find a way of working with my own local changes. Consequently, I wrote a few scripts to maintain bundles of changes associated with certain files, and I then managed these bundles in a different version control system. Yes, this effectively meant versioning the changes themselves!

Things would be simpler with a decentralised version control system because local commits would be convenient, and upstream updates would be incorporated into the repository separately and merged with local changes in a controlled fashion. One of the corporate participants has made a Git repository for Fiasco.OC available, which may alleviate some issues, although I am increasingly finding larger Git repositories to be unusable on my modest hardware, and I also tend to disagree with everybody deciding to put everything on GitHub.

Fixing and Building

Needing to repeatedly build, test, go back and fix, I found myself issuing the same command sequences a lot. When working with the kernel, I tended to enter the kernel build directory, which I called “mybuild”, edit the kernel sources, and then re-run the make command:

cd mybuild
vi ../src/kern/mips/exception.S # edit a familiar file with vim
make

Having built a new kernel, I would then need to build a new payload to deploy, which meant ascending the directory hierarchy and building an image in the L4Re section of the sources:

cd ../../../l4
make O=mybuild uimage E=mips-qi_lb60-spectrum-example

Given a previously-built “user space”, this would bundle the new kernel together with code that might be able to test it. Of particular importance is the bootstrap code which launches the kernel: without that, there is no point in even trying to test the kernel!

I found that re-building L4Re components seemed to require a general build to be performed:

make O=mybuild

If that proved successful, an image would then be built and tested. In general, focusing on either the kernel or some user space component meant that there was rarely a need to build a new kernel and then build much of the user space.

Work Summary

The patches accumulated during this process cover a range of different areas of functionality. Looking at them organised by functional area, instead of in the more haphazard fashion presented throughout the series of articles, allows for a more convenient review of the work actually needed to get the job done.

Build System Adjustments and Various Fixes

As early as my experiments with the CI20, I experienced the need to fix some things that didn’t work on my system, either due to some Debian peculiarities or differences in compiler behaviour:

  • l4util-mips-thread.diff (fixes a symbol visibility issue with certain compiler versions)
  • mips-gcc-cpload.diff (fixes the initialisation of certain L4Re components)
  • no-at.diff (allows the build to work on Debian for the i386 architecture)

Other adjustments are required to let the build system do its job, setting paths for other components and for the toolchains:

  • conf-makeconf-boot.diff (lets the L4Re build system find things like the kernel, modules and hardware descriptions)
  • qi_lb60-gcc-buildroot-fiasco.diff (changes the compiler and architecture settings)
  • qi_lb60-gcc-buildroot-l4re.diff (changes the compiler, architecture and soft-float settings)

The build system also needs directing towards new drivers, and various files need to be excluded or changed:

  • ingenic-mips-drivers-top.diff (enables drivers added by this work)
  • qi_lb60-fbdrv.diff (changes the splash image for the framebuffer driver)
  • qi_lb60-l4re.diff (includes a temporary fix disabling a Mag plugin)

The first of these is important to remember when adding drivers since it changes the l4/pkg/drivers/Control file and defines the driver “packages” provided by each of the driver libraries. These package definitions help the build system work out which other parts of the system need to be consulted when building a particular driver.

Supporting MIPS32r1 Devices

Throughout the kernel and L4Re, changes need making to support the earlier architecture version provided by the JZ4720. The bulk of the following patch files deals with such changes:

  • qi_lb60-fiasco.diff
  • qi_lb60-l4re.diff

Maybe I will try and break out the architecture version changes into specific patch files, provided this does not result in the original source files ending up being patched by multiple patch files. My aim has been to avoid patches having to be applied in a particular order, and that starts to happen when multiple patches modify the same file.

Describing the Ben NanoNote

The kernel needs some knowledge of the Ben with regard to timers and interrupts. Meanwhile, L4Re needs to set the Ben up correctly when booting. Both sections of the system need an awareness of how memory is going to be used, and extra configuration options need to be provided to merely allow the selection of the Ben for building. Currently, the following patch files include things concerned with such matters:

  • qi_lb60-fiasco.diff (contains timer, interrupt and memory details, plus configuration system changes)
  • qi_lb60-l4re.diff (contains bootstrap and memory details, plus configuration system changes)
  • qi_lb60-platform.diff (platform definitions for the Ben in L4Re)

One significant objective here is to be able to offer the Ben as a “first class” configuration option and have the build system do the right thing, setting up all the components and code regions that the Ben needs to function.

Introducing Driver Code

To be able to activate the framebuffer on the Ben, driver code needs introducing for a few peripherals provided by the JZ4720: CPM (clock/power management), GPIO (general-purpose input/output) and LCD (liquid crystal display, or similar). A few different patch files cover these areas:

  • ingenic-mips-cpm.diff (CPM support for JZ4720 and JZ4780)
  • ingenic-mips-gpio.diff (GPIO support for JZ4720 and JZ4780)
  • qi_lb60-lcd.diff (LCD support for JZ4720)

The JZ4780 support is intended for the CI20 and will not be used with the Ben. However, it is convenient to incorporate support for these different platforms in the same patch file in each instance.

Meanwhile, the LCD driver should work with a range of JZ4700-series devices (labelled as JZ4740 in the patches). While focusing on getting things working, the only panel supported by this work was that provided by the Ben. Since then, support has been made slightly more general, just as was done with the Linux kernel support for products employing this particular SoC family and, subsequently, for panels in general. (Linux has moved towards a “device tree” approach for specifying things like panels and displays, although this is arguably just restating things that were once C-coded structures in another, rather peculiar, format.)

To support these drivers, some useful code has been copied from elsewhere in L4Re:

  • drivers_frst-register-block.diff

This provides a convenient abstraction for registers that is exposed via an include directive:

#include <l4/drivers/hw_mmio_register_block.h>

Indeed, it is worth focusing on the LCD driver briefly. The code has its origins in existing driver code written for the Ben that I adapted to get working as part of a simple “bare metal” payload. I have maintained a separation between the more intricate hardware configuration and aspects that deal with the surrounding software. As part of L4Re, the latter involves obtaining access to memory using the appropriate API calls and invoking other drivers.

In L4Re, there is a kind of framework for LCD drivers, and the existing drivers seem to be written in C rather than C++. Reminiscent of Linux, there is a mechanism for exporting driver operations using a well-defined data structure, and this permits the “probing” of drivers to see if they can be enabled and if meaningful information can be obtained about things like the supported resolution, colour depth and pixel format. To make the existing code compatible with L4Re, a fair amount of the work involves translating the information already known (and used) in the hardware configuration activity to a form that other L4Re components can understand and use.

Originally, for the GPIO driver, I had intended it to operate as part of the Io server framework. Components using GPIO functionality would then employ the appropriate API to configure and interact with the exposed input and output pins. Unfortunately, this proved rather cumbersome, and so I decided to take a simpler approach of providing the driver as an abstraction that a program would use together with explicitly-requested memory. I did decide to preserve the general form of the API for this relocated abstraction, however, meaning that various classes and methods are provided that behave in the same way as those “left behind” in the Io server framework.

Thus, a program would itself request access to the GPIO-related memory, and it would then use GPIO-related abstractions to “do the right thing” with this memory. One would envisage that such a program would not be a “normal”, unprivileged program as such, but instead be more like a server or driver in its own right. Indeed, the LCD driver employs these abstractions to use SPI-based signalling with the LCD panel, and it uses the same techniques to configure the LCD clock frequencies using the CPM-related memory and CPM-related abstractions.

Although the GPIO driver follows existing conventions, the CPM driver has no obvious precedent in L4Re, but I adopted some of the conventions employed in the GPIO driver, adding more specialised methods and functions to expose functionality specific to the SoC. Since I had previously written a CPM driver for the JZ4780, the main objective was to make the JZ4720/JZ4740 driver resemble the existing driver as much as possible.

Introducing and Configuring Example Programs

Throughout the series of articles, I was working towards running one specific example program, making some new ones on the way for testing purposes. These additional programs are provided together with their configuration, accompanied by suitable configurations for existing examples and components, by the following patch files:

  • ingenic-mips-modules.diff (example program definitions)
  • qi_lb60-examples.diff (example program implementations and configuration details)

The additional programs (defined in l4/conf/modules.list) are as follows:

  • mips-qi_lb60-lcd-example (implemented by qi_lb60_lcd, configured by the mips-qi_lb60-lcd files)
  • mips-qi_lb60-lcd-driver-example (implemented by qi_lb60_lcd_driver, configured by the mips-qi_lb60-lcd-driver files)

Configurations are provided for the existing examples and components as follows:

  • mips-qi_lb60-fbdrv-example (configured by the mips-qi_lb60-fbdrv files)
  • mips-qi_lb60-spectrum-example (configured by the mips-qi_lb60-spectrum files)

All configurations reside in the l4/conf/examples directory. All new examples reside in the l4/pkg/examples/misc directory.

Further Work

In the final article in the series, I mentioned a few ideas for further work based on that described above:

Since completing the above work, I have already made some progress on the first two of these topics. More on that in an upcoming post!