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Norman Feske avatar

What does it take to bring Sculpt OS to another ARM SoC?

Since I wrote the article about the ARM SoC landscape from Genode's perspective, I got repeatedly asked about the principle steps needed to enable Sculpt OS for various ARM-based hardware platforms. Drawing from our experience with the initial port of Sculpt OS to a 64-bit ARM device in Genode version 20.02, let me try to provide a rough guide for the steps needed to port Sculpt OS to a new ARM-based hardware platform.

The Genode-based Sculpt OS is a general-purpose operating system originally targeted at PC hardware. Sculpt along with its documentation is available at the following website.

Sculpt Operating System


Our goal would be to get the bare-bones Sculpt system up and running on an ARM SoC not yet supported by Genode. This bare-bones Sculpt system entails

  • The principal ability for the user to interact with the system via a graphical user interface,

  • Support for installing and deploying the existing arsenal of Genode components from regular packages,

  • The ability to store information persistently on the device, and

  • Network connectivity.

Thanks to Sculpt's built-in ability to integrate 3rd-party components - including functionality that is traditionally attributed to the core of the operating system - into the system in the form of packages, this bare-bones system enables a great variety of usage scenarios.


That said, the following features remain beyond the scope of this document because they are either too vendor-specific to be described in a general fashion or can be realized in the form of supplemental components.

  • Hardware-accelerated graphics,

  • Audio,

  • Power management,

  • Mobile data communication,

  • Secure boot.

Working steps

The work of enabling Genode for a new SoC requires the following steps in the described order. To give an indicator of the effort to be expected, each step is accompanied with a rough estimation.

  1. Preparing the development testbed

    Before the actual development work can start, a few preparations are needed or at least recommended.

    One of our team members typically spends up to one month for this step.

    • Building and running a working Linux-based OS on the target board as reference, following the instructions of the vendor

    • Exploration and configuration of the target's boot mechanism

    • Creation of a test-control loop for triggering the booting the target board via the run tool, serving the boot image over the local network, and obtaining the log output.

    • Familiarization with the available board and SoC-vendor documentation and the Vendor-specific subsystems in the vendor's Linux kernel

    • Studying the device tree, correlating it with information gathered from the documentation.

  2. Code skeleton for a new SoC

    Given the impressions gathered during the preparatory step, we take one of the SoCs that are already supported by Genode as reference. One should select the SoC with the most similarities such as the same ARM core revision or the same interrupt controller. The goal of this step is an almost empty skeleton code of Genode that gives us a little life sign when booted on the real hardware.

    It does not take a seasoned Genode developer longer than two weeks to complete this step. However, for a developer with no prior experience with Genode's code base, an additional effort of two weeks for the required familiarization should be planned for.

    • Mirroring the files of another SoC but with empty bodies, (describing roles of the individual files)

    • Creating a bare-bone base-hw kernel ELF image

    • Booting the custom image on the target hardware

    • Serial output driver

  3. Basic kernel functionality

    The goal of this step is getting the most basic Genode system scenario to run on the new SoC. This scenario comprises three components, namely the Genode core component (including the kernel), the init component, and a test program that produces some log output.

    On this way, one has to overcome the challenges of initializing the kernel, enabling the MMU, and exercising the kernel's IPC and context-switching mechanism. Assuming that the new SoC has the same architecture revision as the ones already supported by Genode, this step should take no longer than two weeks.

    • Enabling the MMU

    • Enabling caches

    • Memory layout parameters

    • Entering and returning from the user land (IPC, context switches)

    • Running Genode's log scenario

  4. Support for user-level device drivers

    With the principal ability of running multiple user-level components, it is time to enable preemptive scheduling and the kernel mechanisms needed by user-level device drivers. Assuming the new SoC uses standard ARM building blocks like the core-local timer and the GIC interrupt controller as readily supported by Genode, this step does not entail much risks and should be completed within a week.

    However, should the SoC deviate from the beaten track of standard ARM building blocks, e.g., using a custom interrupt controller, the step may additionally require the development of an in-kernel driver for such a device. Genode provides several existing drivers that can be taken as a blue print. Depending of the quirkiness of the device, the development can take one or two weeks. Fortunately, vendor-specific timers and interrupt controllers are largely a problem of the past.

    • Enabling the in-kernel interrupt controller driver

    • Enabling in-kernel timer driver

    • Definition of I/O resources

    • IOMUX configuration (board-specific)

    Once the principal support for user-level device drivers is in place, the development work can be tackled by multiple developers in parallel.

  5. Network driver

    We usually plan to spend about one month for enabling a network driver for Genode. Depending on the complexity of the network controller, the driver may be ported from the Linux kernel, from the U-Boot boot loader, or written from scratch.

  6. SD-card driver

    For driving SD-cards, we usually extend Genode's custom SD-card driver with SoC-specific support, which takes usually two weeks. One should be prepared for device-specific peculiarities though. In some cases, in the presence of flaky hardware, it took us up to 3 weeks more to reach a stable and performant state.

  7. Framebuffer driver

    In the past, we used to develop framebuffer drivers from scratch. But nowadays, we prefer to reuse the vendor-provided driver code from the Linux kernel to attain feature parity with Linux. That said, depending on the driver, such porting work still requires substantial manual labour because the driver often does not only drive one device but multiple (such as power-gating via additional I2C-connected controllers, or a dedicated HDMI chip). As an indicator for the expected effort, the i.MX framebuffer driver took us two months to bring to life.

  8. USB host-controller driver

    Genode's USB host-controller driver is based on the Linux USB driver. Adding supplemental support for a new SoC should generally possible within one month. With the USB host-controller driver in place, the actual USB device drivers (e.g., for HID and storage) should work out of the box.

    As a note of caution, in rare cases, in particular for the Raspberry Pi, the USB host controller driver can become an almost infinite time sink though.

  9. Multi-processor support

    Real-world workloads demand multi-processor support. In theory, this should generally be covered well by Genode's ARM support as long as the SoC stays close to ARM's reference design. However, the bring-up of secondary CPUs, inter-processor interrupts, and the maintenance of TLB/cache coherence still poses risks because those topics may involve upcalls to vendor-specific firmware or may depend on the unexpected vendor-specific boot-time configuration (like the surprise of one CPU core left configured with a different byte order). To stay on the safe side, one should plan one month for the potential troubleshooting around these areas.

  10. Sculpt OS integration

    With the four peripheral drivers in place, Sculpt's demands on the platform's feature set is satisfied. The remaining task is the integration of those drivers into Sculpt, which should be doable in no more than two weeks.

    • Drivers subsystem definition

    • Sculpt-manager tweaks

    • Configuration


Based on the steps outlined above, the effort seems to be modest but - given a healthy dose of enthusiasm - quite doable for an individual or a small team. The biggest risk is the incomplete or lacking documentation for most ARM SoCs.

Granted, such a bare-bone system is still a far cry from a sophisticated product like a smart phone, which features plenty of additional peripheral devices, an aggressive power-management regime, GPU-accelerated rendering, or Bluetooth. But once a bare-bones Sculpt system is ready to run, further device drivers can be developed as regular components independent from each other, which is the beauty of a component-based operating system like Sculpt OS.