Building a small Debian root filesystem with Multistrap

There are several ways to build a root filesystem for an embedded Linux system: Buildroot and Open Embedded are the usual solutions to do this. They allow to fine tune the contents of your filesystem. The drawback is, in both cases, that you need to build everything from sources and this can take from tens of minutes to several hours.

Sometimes you don’t need all this flexibility and you just want to have a ready-to-use root filesystem, to which you just add a few extra programs. In this case using a distribution is a good solution. So let’s see what we need:

  • A binary distribution
  • Available on several architectures
  • Ability to generate a “small” root filesystem
  • A large choice of packages

Oh, I think it is a pretty good description of Debian!

Emdebian is a project to adapt Debian to embedded devices. A good description from the Debian wiki is:

“In short, what EmDebian does is wrap around the regular Debian package building tools to provide a more fine grained control over package selection, size, dependencies and content to enable creation of very small and efficient Debian packages for use on naturally resource limited embedded targets.”

And so, pretty recently (2009), Emdebian released Multistrap which is similar to Debootstrap but more appropriate for embedded devices. It seems better by the way it builds a system:

It works in a completely different way by simply using apt and dpkg, rather than avoiding to use them, which is how Debootstrap works.

And also more appropriate by its goals:

It is focused on producing rootfs images for devices, as opposed to chroots for existing machines

Practical case: build a root filesystem for the USB A9263 board from Calao Systems (arm926ejs based board).

A drawback of Multistrap is its limitation to Debian, but in fact it is also usable on any distribution based on Debian. In our case, we ran it on an Ubuntu 10.04 system.

First, let’s install Multistrap:

$sudo apt-get install multistrap dpkg-dev

Multistrap needs a config file. For our needs we just use the example one given by Embedian. Let’s name it multistrap.conf:


# space separated package list

Grip is the name of the lightweight Debian distro built by Emdebian.

Now we can run Multistrap:

$ multistrap -a armel -d $PWD/RFS -f multistrap.conf
em_multistrap 0.0.8 using multistrap.conf
Using foreign architecture: armel
em_multistrap building armel multistrap on 'amd64'
INF: Setting ./lib64 -> ./lib symbolic link.
Getting package lists: apt-get  -o Apt::Architecture=armel -o Apt::Get::AllowUnauthenticated=true -o Apt::Get::Download-Only=true -o Apt::Install-Recommends=false -o Dir=/home/mike/celf/multistrap/RFS/ -o Dir::Etc=/home/mike/celf/multistrap/RFS/etc/apt/ -o Dir::Etc::SourceList=/home/mike/celf/multistrap/RFS/etc/apt/sources.list.d/multistrap.sources.list -o Dir::State=/home/mike/celf/multistrap/RFS/var/lib/apt/ -o Dir::State::Status=/home/mike/celf/multistrap/RFS/var/lib/dpkg/status -o Dir::Cache=/home/mike/celf/multistrap/RFS/var/cache/apt/ update
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Reading package lists... Done
W: GPG error: lenny Release: The following signatures couldn't be verified because the public key is not available: NO_PUBKEY B5B7720097BB3B58
W: Duplicate sources.list entry lenny/main Packages (/home/mike/celf/multistrap/RFS/var/lib/apt/lists/www.emdebian.org_grip_dists_lenny_main_binary-armel_Packages)
Use of uninitialized value within %packages in join or string at /usr/sbin/em_multistrap line 294.
Use of uninitialized value within %keyrings in join or string at /usr/sbin/em_multistrap line 296.
apt-get -y  -o Apt::Architecture=armel -o Apt::Get::AllowUnauthenticated=true -o Apt::Get::Download-Only=true -o Apt::Install-Recommends=false -o Dir=/home/mike/celf/multistrap/RFS/ -o Dir::Etc=/home/mike/celf/multistrap/RFS/etc/apt/ -o Dir::Etc::SourceList=/home/mike/celf/multistrap/RFS/etc/apt/sources.list.d/multistrap.sources.list -o Dir::State=/home/mike/celf/multistrap/RFS/var/lib/apt/ -o Dir::State::Status=/home/mike/celf/multistrap/RFS/var/lib/dpkg/status -o Dir::Cache=/home/mike/celf/multistrap/RFS/var/cache/apt/ install balloon3-config base-files base-passwd bash bsdutils coreutils debianutils diff dpkg e2fslibs e2fsprogs findutils gcc-4.3-base grep grip-config gzip hostname initscripts libacl1 libattr1 libblkid1 libc6 libcap1 libcomerr2 libdevmapper1.02.1 libgcc1 liblocale-gettext-perl libncurses5 libpam-modules libpam-runtime libpam0g libselinux1 libsepol1 libslang2 libss2 libstdc++6 libtext-charwidth-perl libtext-iconv-perl libtext-wrapi18n-perl libuuid1 libvolume-id0 login lsb-base makedev mawk mktemp mount ncurses-base ncurses-bin passwd perl-base procps sed sysv-rc sysvinit sysvinit-utils tar tzdata util-linux zlib1g
Reading package lists... Done
Building dependency tree... Done
The following extra packages will be installed:
  apt debconf debconf-i18n debian-archive-keyring dhcp3-client dhcp3-common gnupg gpgv ifupdown libbz2-1.0 libdb4.6 libncursesw5 libnewt0.52 libpopt0
  libreadline5 libssl0.9.8 libusb-0.1-4 lzma module-init-tools nano net-tools netbase ntpdate readline-common udev wget whiptail
The following NEW packages will be installed:
  apt balloon3-config base-files base-passwd bash bsdutils coreutils debconf debconf-i18n debian-archive-keyring debianutils dhcp3-client dhcp3-common diff
  dpkg e2fslibs e2fsprogs findutils gcc-4.3-base gnupg gpgv grep grip-config gzip hostname ifupdown initscripts libacl1 libattr1 libblkid1 libbz2-1.0 libc6
  libcap1 libcomerr2 libdb4.6 libdevmapper1.02.1 libgcc1 liblocale-gettext-perl libncurses5 libncursesw5 libnewt0.52 libpam-modules libpam-runtime libpam0g
  libpopt0 libreadline5 libselinux1 libsepol1 libslang2 libss2 libssl0.9.8 libstdc++6 libtext-charwidth-perl libtext-iconv-perl libtext-wrapi18n-perl
  libusb-0.1-4 libuuid1 libvolume-id0 login lsb-base lzma makedev mawk mktemp module-init-tools mount nano ncurses-base ncurses-bin net-tools netbase
  ntpdate passwd perl-base procps readline-common sed sysv-rc sysvinit sysvinit-utils tar tzdata udev util-linux wget whiptail zlib1g
0 upgraded, 87 newly installed, 0 to remove and 0 not upgraded.
Need to get 15.4MB of archives.
After this operation, 48.4MB of additional disk space will be used.
WARNING: The following packages cannot be authenticated!
  libstdc++6 libbz2-1.0 readline-common libncurses5 libreadline5 libusb-0.1-4 zlib1g gpgv gnupg debian-archive-keyring apt debianutils dhcp3-common
  libattr1 libacl1 libselinux1 coreutils lzma dpkg perl-base liblocale-gettext-perl libtext-iconv-perl libtext-charwidth-perl libtext-wrapi18n-perl
  debconf-i18n debconf dhcp3-client sed ncurses-bin lsb-base module-init-tools libssl0.9.8 wget hostname net-tools ifupdown mawk libncursesw5 nano netbase
  libcap1 ntpdate libpam-runtime libpam0g libdb4.6 libpam-modules passwd libvolume-id0 udev libslang2 libnewt0.52 libpopt0 whiptail grip-config
  gcc-4.3-base libgcc1 libc6 base-passwd base-files bash diff libcomerr2 e2fslibs libuuid1 libblkid1 libss2 e2fsprogs findutils grep gzip login mktemp
  mount libsepol1 sysvinit-utils initscripts sysv-rc sysvinit tar tzdata util-linux balloon3-config bsdutils libdevmapper1.02.1 makedev ncurses-base procps
Authentication warning overridden.
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W: GPG error: lenny Release: The following signatures couldn't be verified because the public key is not available: NO_PUBKEY B5B7720097BB3B58

Multistrap system installed successfully in /home/mike/celf/multistrap/RFS/.

Let’s explain the parameters:

  • armel is the architecture, for our example: arm in little endian
  • -d $PWD/RFS is the output directory containing the root filesystem. Be careful to pass an absolute path.
  • -f multistrap.conf is the name of the configuration file

If you look at RFS/dev, you will see that there are no device files in it. This will be a problem at boot time, unless you build a kernel with the below options:


Thanks to these parameters, the kernel will automatically mount a tmpfs filesystem on /dev, and will populate it with devices present on the system.

Now we have a root filesystem, but we still need to run the package configuration scripts to make it usable. The packages were installed, but their configuration scripts couldn’t be executed, because they can only run on the target architecture.

The easiest way to do this is to use NFS. On the host side, you need to export the root filesystem directory through NFS. On the target side you have to select /bin/sh for the init process. A typical kernel command could be:

console=ttyS0,115200 root=/dev/nfs nfsroot= rw ip= init=/bin/sh

Then boot your board. You should reach a command line.

First mount /proc:

mount -t proc nodev /proc

Then configure your packages using this command line:

PATH=/usr/local/sbin:/usr/local/bin:/usr/sbin:/usr/bin:/sbin:/bin  dpkg --configure -a 

You will get a few questions about localization for tzdata, then the packages will be configured.

Finally go back to your host to change the RFS/etc/inittab file by uncommenting the below line and modifying it according to your serial console configuration (usually 115200). For example, replace

#T0:23:respawn:/sbin/getty -L ttyS0 9600 vt100


T0:23:respawn:/sbin/getty -L ttyS0 115200 vt100

As we built this root filesystem as a normal user we may have problems with some setuid programs, which need to be owned by the root user. So let’s change the ownership of some directories:

sudo chown root:root -R RFS/bin RFS/usr/bin RFS/sbin RFS/usr/sbin

The last trick is to delete the root password by modifying RFS/etc/passwd, by replacing




You can now reboot your system without the init=/bin/sh kernel parameter. We now have a ready to use embedded Linux root filesystem with the power of Debian.

Other things to fix and do:

  • Configure the /etc/resolv.conf file to be able to connect to the Internet.
  • Configure the gateway in the ip= kernel parameter (ip=client-ip:server-ip:gw-ip:netmask:hostname:device:autoconf). For example:
    bootargs=console=ttyS0,115200n8 root=/dev/nfs ip= nfsroot=
  • Install other packages such as mtd-utils and vim
  • Install kernel modules (either manually or through a kernel package)
  • Add a new user
  • Create a minimum /etc/fstab file

You now have a Debian system for which it is very easy to add new software, and which can be configured in a very familiar way. That’s great to make product prototypes, small, low-power and secure servers for home or office use, and in some cases, even real products.

Snowball, a new community Linux development platform

Snowball platformThe success of the BeagleBoard platform, a low-cost development platform, that has greatly contributed to the success of Texas Instruments OMAP3 processor in the embedded Linux industry, seems to have inspired another processor manufacturer: ST Ericsson. They have recently unveiled Snowball, a low-cost development platform for their AP9500 processor, which features a dual Cortex A-9 ARM core and a Mali 400 GPU.

The development board is designed and produced by our partner Calao Systems, and offers the following features:

  • The AP9500 processor, dual Cortex-A9 and Mali 400 GPU
  • 4 to 8 GB of e-MMC storage
  • 1 GB of LP-DDR2 RAM
  • Micro-SD slot
  • Ethernet connector, Wifi and Bluetooth
  • HDMI output, composite video output
  • Audio in/out
  • USB On The Go
  • Battery charger
  • On-board battery to keep time
  • Serial port connector, JTAG connector, MiPi 34 debug connector
  • Builtin GPS
  • 3-axis accelerometer, magnetometer and gyrometer, one pressure sensor
  • Expansion connectors to access SPI, I2C, LCD, MiPi devices, GPIO, UART, etc.
  • Last but not least, the board can be powered via USB (through a regular cable or through a Y one if power hungry devices like Wifi are used.)

The technical documentation page has a few more details, but at this time, they isn’t a lot of public information available about the AP9500 processor. I hope that ST Ericsson will fully understand how open source works and will soon release datasheets for the AP9500 in an open way. Interestingly, the AP9500 does not use the traditional PowerVR SGX 3D graphics core designed by Imagination Technologies and found in many other ARM processors, but instead uses the Mali graphics core, which is designed directly by ARM. It seems ARM has already open-sourced the kernel side bits of their graphic drivers, but it looks like a proprietary binary blob in userspace is still present.

The board will be available in two variants:

  • A Product Development Kit variant for 241 Euros.
  • A Software Development Kit variant for 165 Euros. My understanding is that the only difference between the two are the expansion connectors, present on the PDK variant but not on the SDK variant.

The board should be widely available at the end of Q2 2011, i.e around June, though at Bootlin, we will receive our first samples by the end of March thanks to our partnership with Calao Systems. The Snowball platform is supported by the Igloo Community, which hosts mailing-lists, an IRC channel, documentation and will also provide Meego and Android builds for the Snowball in the future.

Stay tuned on this blog. As soon as we get our own boards, we will write about our experiments with them.

Linux 2.6.33 features for embedded systems

Interesting features for embedded Linux system developers

Penguin workerLinux 2.6.33 was out on Feb. 24, 2010, and to incite you to try this new kernel in your embedded Linux products, here are features you could be interested in.

The first news is the availability of the LZO algorithm for kernel and initramfs compression. Linux 2.6.30 already introduced LZMA and BZIP2 compression options, which could significantly reduce the size of the kernel and initramfs images, but at the cost of much increased decompression time. LZO compression is a nice alternative. Though its compression rate is not as good as that of ZLIB (10 to 15% larger files), decompression time is much faster than with other algorithms. See our benchmarks. We reduced boot time by 200 ms on our at91 arm system, and the savings could even increase with bigger kernels.

This feature was implemented by my colleague Albin Tonnerre. It is currently available on x86 and arm (commit, commit, commit, commit), and according to Russell King, the arm maintainer, it should become the default compression option on this platform. This compressor can also be used on mips, thanks to Wu Zhangjin (commit).

For systems lacking RAM resources, a new useful feature is Compcache, which allows to swap application memory to a compressed cache in RAM. In practise, this technique increases the amount of RAM that applications can use. This could allow your embedded system or your netbook to run applications or environments it couldn’t execute before. This technique can also be a worthy alternative to on-disk swap in servers or desktops which do need a swap partition, as access performance is much improved. See this article for details.

This new kernel also carries lots of improvements on embedded platforms, especially on the popular TI OMAP platform. In particular, we noticed early support to the IGEPv2 board, a very attractive platform based on the TI OMAP 3530 processor, much better than the Beagle Board for a very similar price. We have started to use it in customer projects, and we hope to contribute to its full support in the mainline kernel.

Another interesting feature of Linux 2.6.33 is the improvements in the capabilities of the perf tool. In particular, perf probe allows to insert Kprobes probes through the command line. Instead of SystemTap, which relied on kernel modules, perf probe now relies on a sysfs interface to pass probes to the kernel. This means that you no longer need a compiler and kernel headers to produce your probes. This made it difficult to port SystemTap to embedded platforms. The arm architecture doesn’t have performance counters in the mainline kernel yet (other architectures do), but patches are available. This carries the promise to be able to use probe tools like SystemTap at last on embedded architectures, all the more if SystemTap gets ported to this new infrastructure.

Other noticeable improvements in this release are the ability to mount ext3 and ext2 filesystems with just an ext4 driver, a lightweight RCU implementation, as well as the ability to change the default blinking cursor that is shown at boot time.

Unfortunately, each kernel release doesn’t only carry good news. Android patches got dropped from this release, because of a lack of interest from Google to maintain them. These are sad news and a threat for Android users who may end up without the ability to use newer kernel features and releases. Let’s hope that Google will once more realize the value of converging with the mainline Linux community. I hope that key contributors that this company employs (Andrew Morton in particular) will help to solve this issue.

As usual, this was just a selection. You will probably find many other interesting features on the Linux Changes page for Linux 2.6.33.

Demo: tiny qemu arm system with a DirectFB interface

A tiny embedded Linux system running on the qemu arm emulator, with a DirectFB interface, everything in 2.1 MB (including the kernel)!


This demo embedded Linux system has the following features:

  • Very easy to run demo, just 1 file to download and 1 command line to type!
  • Runs on qemu (easy to get for most GNU/Linux distributions), emulating an ARM Versatile PB board.
  • Available through a single file (kernel and root filesystem), sizing only 2.1 MB!
  • DirectFB graphical user interface.
  • Demonstrates the capabilities of qemu, the Linux kernel, BusyBox, DirectFB, and
    shows the benefits of system size and boot time reduction techniques as advertised and supported by the CE Linux Forum.
  • License: GNU GPL for root filesystem scripts. Each software component has its own license.

How to run the demo

  • Make sure the qemu emulator is installed on your GNU/Linux distribution. The demo works with qemu 0.8.2 and beyond, but it may also work with earlier versions.
  • Download the vmlinuz-qemu-arm-2.6.20
  • Run the below command:
    qemu-system-arm -M versatilepb -m 16 -kernel vmlinuz-qemu-arm-2.6.20 -append "clocksource=pit quiet rw"
  • When you reach the console prompt, you can try regular Unix commands but also the graphical demo:

FAQ / Troubleshooting

  • Q: I get Could not initialize SDL - exiting when I try to run qemu.

    That’s a qemu issue (qemu used the SDL library). Check that you can start graphical applications from your terminal (try xeyes or xterm for example). You may also need to check that you have name servers listed in /etc/resolv.conf. Anyway, you will find solutions for this issue on the Internet.


console screenshot df_andi program screenshot
df_dok program screenshot df_dok2 program screenshot
df_neo program screenshot df_input program screenshot

How to rebuild this demo

All the files needed to rebuild this demo are available here:

  • You can rebuild or upgrade the (Vanilla) kernel by using the given kernel configuration file.
  • The configuration file expects to find an initramfs source directory in ../rootfs, which
    you can create by extracting the contents of the rootfs.tar.7z archive.
  • Of course, you can make changes to this root filesystem!

Tools and optimization techniques used in this demo

Software and development tools

  • The demo was built using Scratchbox, a fantastic development tool that makes cross-compiling transparent!
  • The demo includes BusyBox 1.4.1, an toolbox implementing most UNIX commands in a few hundreds of KB. In our case, BusyBox includes the most common commands (like a vi implementation), and only sizes 192 KB!
  • The root filesystem is shipped within the Linux kernel image, using the initramfs technique, which makes the kernel simpler and saves a dramatic amount of RAM (compared to an init ramdisk).
  • The demo is interfaced by DirectFB example programs (version 0.9.25, with DirectFB 1.0.0-rc4), which demonstrate the amazing capabilities of this library, created to meet the needs of embedded systems.

Size optimization techniques

The below optimization techniques were used to reduce the filesystem size from 74 MB to 3.3 MB (before compression in the Linux kernel image):

  • Removing development files: C headers and manual pages copied when installing tools and libraries, .a library files, gdbserver, strace, /usr/lib/libfakeroot, /usr/local/lib/pkgconfig
  • Files not used by the demo programs: libstdc++, and any library or resource file.
  • Stripping and even super stripping (see sstrip) executables and libraries.
  • Reducing the kernel size using CONFIG_EMBEDDED switches, mainly from the
    Linux Tiny project.

Techniques to reduce boot time

We used the below techniques to reduce boot time:

  • Disabled console output (quiet boot option, printk support was disabled anyway), which saves time scrolling the framebuffer console.
  • Use the Preset Loops per Jiffy technique to disable delay loop calculation, by feeding the kernel with a value measured in an earlier boot (lpj setting, which you may update according to the speed of your own workstation).

All these optimization techniques and other ones we haven’t tried yet are described either on the Wiki or in our embedded Linux optimizations presentation.

Future work

We plan to implement a generic tool which would apply some of these techniques in an automatic way, to shrink an existing GNU/Linux or embedded Linux root filesystem without any loss in functionality. More in the next weeks or months!