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Norman Feske avatar

Darling, I FORTHified my PinePhone!

This is my experience story behind Genode's forthcoming custom firmware for the PinePhone's AR100 system-control processor (SCP). It makes a case for using Forth for implementing SCP functionality and describes the process of bringing Forth to the OpenRISC instruction-set architecture.


Ever since I encountered the article "Forth: The Hacker’s Language" on HN, I got intrigued. The language - invented 1968 by Chuck Moore for controlling telescopes - grew popular in the 1980's but largely vanished from the public eye during the 1990's when the lineage of C-inspired programming languages including C++ and Java became dominant. Our today's universal expectation of how a proper programming language looks and smells was probably formed in this period. Like, we put the + in the middle when adding two numbers, correct? Who would dispute that?

Well, there is LISP, which puts the + to the left of the two numbers.

And then, there is Forth, which puts the + to the right of the two numbers.

The former, I certainly encountered at the university but it did not capture my imagination. The latter, I have never spotted in the wild after I booted a figFORTH disk on my Atari 800XE in 1992 and did not know what to type.

Now, literally decades later, the article mentioned above made me suddenly question my preoccupation with putting the + in the middle. Why is that? The promises of Forth sounded too phenomenal to be true and spawned my curiosity:

  • Forth can be bootstrapped from about 1000 lines of assembly code as demonstrated by Jonesforth with no further compiler infrastructure needed. That's the complete opposite to the craziness of tool complexity that we normally face.

  • Control structures like loops are implemented in the language itself! This also goes for concepts like exception-based error handling or object-oriented programming. How can this even work?

  • Forth is interactive but it is also a compiler. Programs can perform fast. The language presumably lends itself to meta programming.

  • Forth puts no obstacles in the way between the programmer and the hardware. Its low footprint make it suitable for tiny micro-controllers with just a few KiB of memory. Some programmers go as far as generating machine opcodes directly from Forth code.

The investigation of those points gave me countless of wonderful leisure evening hours. I got my toes wet with "Starting FORTH" and nodded along in ave while reading "Thinking FORTH". On other evenings, I enjoyed the rumblings of Jeff Fox, or tried to wrap my head around the clever tricks of Colorforth, or enjoyed the many insights of Samuel A. Falvo II served on a silver tablet. I found the trail of work of individuals like Bernd Paysan truly inspiring, dabbling with his bigFORTH on my Atari Falcon and playing with Gforth on my MNT Reform. Then, there is whole universe of the archived Forth Dimensions magazines, with a history that reaches all the way back to 1978. The German counterpart "Vierte Dimension" is still published four times a year! Works of love like the 2015 ARM Sonderheft expanded my mind in the best ways possible.

I took the learning and playing with Forth as a nice counter balance to my main dedication to Genode, which makes me deeply entrenched with C++. So I did not try too hard to draw any connection between Forth and Genode.

The PinePhone's system-control processor

As documented by my Pine fun article series, I'm pursuing the vision of a Genode-based smart phone with the PinePhone being the hardware platform of choice. When speaking of mobile phones, one of the most central topics is battery time, which ultimately led my attention to the so-called system-control processor (SCP). In modern ARM SoCs, the actual application processor has a little sidekick called SCP that can be powered independently from the high-performance ARM cores. The architecture diagram in A64 manual on page 78 shows the SCP at the upper-right corner.

The basic idea behind the architecture is that the management of power can be implemented independently from the chip that is being managed. Think of a suspend-resume cycle of the ARM CPU that relies on DRAM. The DRAM can be put into the energy-saving self-refresh mode not before the ARM CPU is down. But once it is down, it can no longer mingle with the DRAM controller. Vice versa, upon wakeup, the ARM CPU can not perform the sequence of steps for bringing itself up. Here is where the little low-power companion SCP becomes handy.

Surprisingly, even though the intended purpose is rather narrow, the SCP is a freely programmable general-purpose CPU with ultimate access to every corner of the SoC. It can control all peripherals including the modem, and access the entirety of physical memory. From a security and privacy perspective, the usual practice of operating an SCP with proprietary firmware in consumer devices is highly suspect. Fortunately, the PinePhone community has long shun the proprietary blobs. It has been replaced by the so-called Crust firmware. Besides creating the firmware, developer Samuel Holland tirelessly documented his findings around the SCP of the A64 SoC aka AR100.

Details and known limitations of the AR100

Interplay of the AR100 with the ARM CPU on the A64 SoC

The AR100 is based on the OpenRISC instruction-set architecture. OpenRISC (or1k) was one of the flagship projects of the OpenCores initiative in the early 2000s long before open-source IP cores became fashionable. It is similar to MIPS or RISC-V. The 32-bit processor has 16 general-purpose registers, a load-store architecture, and fixed-length instructions. When its ISA was conceived, it was still popular to expose pipeline effects at the ISA level via so-called branch-delay slots. The single instruction that follows a branch instruction is executed, which can trip up the reading of assembly code quite a bit. The concrete version of the OpenRISC used for the AR100 has a few known issues such as the support for the carry bit missing.

Even though OpenRISC is not a household name, it is officially supported by GNU binutils and GCC, and Qemu can handle it out of the box. The loading of SCP firmware on the PinePhone is routinely done by U-Boot in concert with the ARM Trusted Firmware.

Speaking of loading the SCP firmware, there is one interesting constraint: In order to operate independently from the DRAM, the AR100 is able to execute in a dedicated but rather small SRAM, which has a distinct power supply. This means, the AR100 can live even with DRAM powered off, which is nice. However, this also means that the firmware must fit into the tiny SRAM. To make matters a bit more hairy, most of the SRAM is already occupied by the ARM Trusted Firmware, which leaves merely 16 KiB to the AR100 (the Crust ABI documentation goes into details).

With that little memory, the fixed-function feature set of the Crust firmware is rather constrained, which is perfectly fine for augmenting a Linux system with suspend-resume functionality. But for running Genode on the PinePhone, I'd like to move more freely, e.g., letting the SCP interact with the modem while the application processor is powered off.

I wondered, could Forth and the AR100 be a good match?

Custom Forth-based SCP firmware

The recent annual New-Year's holiday lock-down was the perfect opportunity to exercise the idea of bootstrapping a custom Forth on the OpenRISC architecture. The primary inspiration for the implementation was the "eForth and Zen" document by Dr. C. H. Ting.

eForth and Zen

I took the text almost as a guide, reading it step by step, translating what I learned into my domain of GNU assembler and OpenRISC, solidifying my thoughts, playing around with optimization ideas, and once when being satisfied taking the next step.

For the initial work, I used the or1ksim simulator that is accompanied with very nice documentation and is easy to modify. For example, thanks to its clear code structure, I could tweak the virtual UART to 32-bit bus accesses as used on the A64 in a matter of minutes.

After getting a simple OpenRISC assembler program to output some hexadecimal numbers over the virtual serial interface, I started followed the "eForth and Zen" path. Since my main constraint is memory I always steered design decisions into the direction of conserving RAM. I found the following notes worth taking.

Direct versus indirect threading

Originally I was after building a direct threaded interpreter for simplicity (threaded code variants). However, once I found the branch-delay slots making this approach pretty wasteful when implementing literals, I switched over to indirect threaded interpreter.

Execution-token-address encoding

In contrast to the original eForth, I settled on using 16-bit execution-token addresses instead of 32-bit cell-sized addresses. This reduced the code density of Forth words by almost 50% but required me to adopt PIC-like coding patterns and pay close attention to alignment (or1k instructions must be 32-bit aligned).

Upward-growing stacks

To simplify stack-bounds checking, I let the stacks grow upward and start with stack pointer value 0 instead of an actual memory address. A stack-element addreess is the sum of three parts:

   (1)                   (2)                      (3)
 BSS start  +  stack base offset from BSS  +  stack pointer

The parts (1) and (3) are always held in registers. The part (2) is added as an (statically known) immediate offset. For example, here is the macro for taking the top-most element from the stack. (r13 is the BSS base pointer, r14 the stack position).

 .macro POPD
     l.add   r8,r13,r14            # BSS base + stack position
     l.lwz   r11,_dstack_rel(r8)   # fetch TOS
     l.addi  r14,r14,-CELL_BYTES

A little syntax invention of my own

The entire Forth interpreter is implemented in one assembler file (except for minor UART-related parts). Over time, the ratio between actual assembler code and the definition of Forth execution tokens shifted towards the latter. At first, I prefixed all execution-token definitions with xt_. But then, after a while, I found that almost all symbols carried this prefix. So I turned the convention around, giving the Forth execution tokens the privilege of using symbol names literally and prefixing assembler code with _.

It turns out that the macro mechanism provided by the GNU assembler has three features that I could combine to a great effect.

  1. Macros support varargs.

  2. It is possible to iterate over a list of arguments using .irp, similar to how xargs works on Unix.

  3. When calling a macro, commas between arguments are optional.

Leveraging these features, the following macro named .. can be used to create a list of execution-token addresses of arbitrary length. Note that the macro nicely converts the supplied address values into 16-bit execution-token addresses (_start refers to the start of the text segment).

 .macro .. elements:vararg
 .irp element,\elements
     .2byte \element - _start

With this macro, it becomes possible to define execution tokens in the assembly file with almost Forth syntax. For example, here is the definition of the execution token for "words", which traverses a linked list of the dictionary and prints each entry's name. It's almost like the GNU assembler was created for writing Forth code.

 LIST_XT words # list dictionary content
     .. current at
 1:  .. dup qbranch 2f
     .. dup dentry_name count space type  # print word
     .. at                                # traverse list
     .. branch 1b
 2:  .. drop exit

Targeting the PinePhone

Once the interpreter was running happily on the or1ksim simulator, I took it to Qemu as a warm-up for targeting the actual PinePhone hardware. The transition to Qemu was easy enough, once I figured out where to find the virtual UART.

To get to know how to sneak my custom code to the AR100, the Crust firmware became handy. I could just follow the instructions for compiling it from source, supplying it to the U-Boot, and adding a small debug message to see the effect on the PinePhone. Knowing that the SCP firmware loading works in principle, all I had to do is mimicking some features of the Crust binary with my custom firmware, such as a magic number expected by the ARM Trusted Firmware, the load address, and an endianess conversion of the binary. Viola, the interpreter showed the first life sign! But it had glitches. It turned out that the carry bit is indeed not operational on the AR100. After I implemented the carry handling in software, everything started to work perfectly.

Immediate use cases

From the interactive interface, the entirety of the PinePhone hardware becomes interactively accessible. For example, the following magic spells allow for the printing of a list of hardware registers in both hexadecimal and binary format.

 : .0x    48 emit 120 emit ;
 : .:     58 emit ;
 : .hex   .0x base @ >r hex <# # # # # # # # # #> type r> base ! ;
 : #8bit  base @ >r 2 base ! # # # # # # # # r> base ! ;
 : #.     46 hold ;
 : .bits  <# #8bit #. #8bit #. #8bit #. #8bit #> type ;
 : .reg   dup .hex space .: space space @ dup .hex space space .bits ;
 : .regs  FOR AFT dup .reg cr cell + THEN NEXT drop ;

The .regs word takes an address and number as arguments (the arguments are written before the command)

 0> 1c22c00 6 .regs

and produces output like this:

 0x01c22c00 :  0x00000000  00000000.00000000.00000000.00000000
 0x01c22c04 :  0x00000000  00000000.00000000.00000000.00000000
 0x01c22c08 :  0x00004020  00000000.00000000.01000000.00100000
 0x01c22c0c :  0x00000040  00000000.00000000.00000000.01000000
 0x01c22c10 :  0xffffffe0  11111111.11111111.11111111.11100000
 0x01c22c14 :  0x000400f5  00000000.00000100.00000000.11110101

It goes without saying that any interesting hardware register can be changed at will: Changing the PWM parameters of the backlight, or toggling the GPIO pin of the buzzer. This takes me back to the golden peek-and-poke days with Atari Basic.

Note that this can be done while the PinePhone happily executes a regular operating system, e.g., the Manjaro Linux distribution as shipped on the PinePhone.

Designated use cases

The actual goal is the flexible implementation of power-management schemes with tight interplay with Genode. E.g., letting the AR100 watch the modem for incoming calls and messages, booting Genode only when observing such an activity.

Metrics and sentiments

The Forth interpreter and compiler takes about 6 KiB of RAM, which means that 10 KiB remain available to application-specific code. Given that Forth code is more compact than assembly code, this is actually quite a lot of room.

The interpreter and compiler are implemented in an assembler file of less than 1000 lines (not counting comments and empty lines). On my laptop, the firmware binary can be created from source in 15 milliseconds.

I somehow regret not having discovered earlier the world of wonders of Forth. Given that the professional IT world is drowning in complexity, which includes the complexity of compilers that everyone takes as inevitable, the simplicity and power of Forth is mind bending. It feels like meeting with the computer half way. Instead of insisting on universal truths like the + having to be in the middle, giving a little leeway towards the way a computer can naturally operate unlocks a whole lot of advantages.

Trying it at home

I have now added the intermediate result of this line of work to the "scp" topic branch of the genode-allwinner repository. Note that it is in flux. As the actual firmware logic takes shape, it will likely change here and there. Until then, it is already useful as a low-level hardware debugging instrument.

SCP topic branch in the genode-allwinner repository


To build the firmware, the "or1k" flavor of GNU binutils must be installed. On Debian, the corresponding package is binutils-or1k-elf. For building this flavor of binutils from source, the configure script must be called with the argument --target or1k-elf.

The Makefile of the src/scp/ directory expects the following binutils accessible via the PATH variable: or1k-elf-as (assembler), or1k-elf-ld (linker), or1k-elf-objcopy (object converter).

Testing on Qemu

Qemu officially supports the or1k platform. On Debian, it is available as part of the qemu-system-misc package. The binary is named qemu-system-or1k.

With binutils and Qemu for the or1k architecture installed, the kernel of the firmware can be built and executed via make qemu. You are dropped right into the interactive console of the firmware, which is a minimalistic Forth interpreter. E.g., the words command prints the available commands, or the sequence 1 2 + . prints the number 3. To exit Qemu, press control-a followed by x.

Targeting the AR100 SCP

A firmware binary loadable by the ARM Trusted Firmware and U-Boot can be created by issuing make scp-ar100.bin. The path of the resulting binary can be supplied as SCP argument when building U-Boot. This will prompt U-Boot - in tandem with the ARM Trusted Firmware - to load the SCP binary into the appropriate memory location and bootstrap the AR100 processor.


The firmware's textual interface uses the same UART as U-Boot's interactive prompt, which naturally causes both drivers to interfere. To avoid trampling on each other's toes, the following options may be considered:

  • Removing U-Boot's interactive interface by configuring boot commands at build time.

  • Removing the textual input from the SCP firmware.

  • Letting the SCP firmware wait for an external event before going interactive.

The latter two options can easily be accomplished by customizing the app.f file with custom Forth code. This code is executed directly on startup. E.g., the example at examples/pinephone/pogopin.f illustrates a crude hack that let's SCP spin until two POGO pins of the PinePhone are connected. This way, the PinePhone can be used as usual - using any OS - while making the SCP command prompt appear when told so by a paperclip.