Beyond boot testing: custom tests with LAVA

Since April 2016, we have our own automated testing infrastructure to validate the Linux kernel on a large number of hardware platforms. We use this infrastructure to contribute to the KernelCI project, which tests every day the Linux kernel. However, the tests being done by KernelCI are really basic: it’s mostly booting a basic Linux system and checking that it reaches a shell prompt.

However, LAVA, the software component at the core of this testing infrastructure, can do a lot more than just basic tests.

The need for custom tests

With some of our engineers being Linux maintainers and given all the platforms we need to maintain for our customers, being able to automatically test specific features beyond a simple boot test was a very interesting goal.

In addition, manually testing a kernel change on a large number of hardware platforms can be really tedious. Being able to quickly send test jobs that will use an image you built on your machine can be a great advantage when you have some new code in development that affects more than one board.

We identified two main use cases for custom tests:

  • Automatic tests to detect regression, as does KernelCI, but with more advanced tests, including platform specific tests.
  • Manual tests executed by engineers to validate that the changes they are developing do not break existing features, on all platforms.

Overall architecture

Several tools are needed to run custom tests:

  • The LAVA instance, which controls the hardware platforms to be tested. See our previous blog posts on our testing hardware infrastructrure and software architecture
  • An appropriate root filesystem, that contains the various userspace programs needed to execute the tests (benchmarking tools, validation tools, etc.)
  • A test suite, which contains various scripts executing the tests
  • A custom test tool that glues together the different components

The custom test tool knows all the hardware platforms available and which tests and kernel configurations apply to which hardware platforms. It identifies the appropriate kernel image, Device Tree, root filesystem image and test suite and submits a job to LAVA for execution. LAVA will download the necessary artifacts and run the job on the appropriate device.

Building custom rootfs

When it comes to test specific drivers, dedicated testing, validation or benchmarking tools are sometimes needed. For example, for storage device testing, bonnie++ can be used, while iperf is nice for networking testing. As the default root filesystem used by KernelCI is really minimalist, we need to build our owns, one for each architecture we want to test.

Buildroot is a simple yet efficient tool to generate root filesystems, it is also used by KernelCI to build their minimalist root filesystems. We chose to use it and made custom configuration files to match our needs.

We ended up with custom rootfs built for ARMv4, ARMv5, ARMv7, and ARMv8, that embed for now Bonnie++, iperf, ping (not the Busybox implementation) and other tiny tools that aren’t included in the default Buildroot configuration.

Our Buildroot fork that includes our custom configurations is available as the buildroot-ci Github project (branch ci).

The custom test tool

The custom test tool is the tool that binds the different elements of the overall architecture together.

One of the main features of the tool is to send jobs. Jobs are text files used by LAVA to know what to do with which device. As they are described in LAVA as YAML files (in the version 2 of the API), it is easy to use templates to generate them based on a single model. Some information is quite static such as the device tree name for a given board or the rootfs version to use, but other details change for every job such as the kernel to use or which test to run.

We made a tool able to get the latest kernel images from KernelCI to quickly send jobs without having a to compile a custom kernel image. If the need is to test a custom image that is built locally, the tool is also able to send files to the LAVA server through SSH, to provide a custom kernel image.

The entry point of the tool is, which allows to create new jobs, providing a lot of options to define the various aspects of the job (kernel, Device Tree, root filesystem, test, etc.).

This tool is written in Python, and lives in the custom_tests_tool Github project.

The test suite

The test suite is a set of shell scripts that perform tests returning 0 or 1 depending on the result. This test suite is included inside the root filesystem by LAVA as part of a preparation step for each job.

We currently have a small set of tests:

  • boot test, which simply returns 0. Such a test will be successful as soon as the boot succeeds.
  • mmc test, to test MMC storage devices
  • sata test, to test SATA storage devices
  • crypto test, to do some minimal testing of cryptographic engines
  • usb test, to test USB functionality using mass storage devices
  • simple network test, that just validates network connectivity using ping

All those tests only require the target hardware platform itself. However, for more elaborate network tests, we needed to get two devices to interact with each other: the target hardware platform and a reference PC platform. For this, we use the LAVA MultiNode API. It allows to have a test that spans multiple devices, which we use to perform multiple iperf sessions to benchmark the bandwidth. This test has therefore one part running on the target device (network-board) and one part running on the reference PC platform (network-laptop).

Our current test suite is available as the test_suite Github project. It is obviously limited to just a few tests for now, we hope to extend the tests in the near future.

First use case: daily tests

As previously stated, it’s important for us to know about regressions introduced in the upstream kernel. Therefore, we have set up a simple daily cron job that:

  • Sends custom jobs to all boards to validate the latest mainline Linux kernel and latest linux-nextli>
  • Aggregates results from the past 24 hours and sends emails to subscribed addresses
  • Updates a dashboard that displays results in a very simple page
A nice dashboard showing the tests of the Beaglebone Black and the Nitrogen6x.

Second use case: manual tests

The custom test tool has a simple command line interface. It’s easy for someone to set it up and send custom jobs. For example: -b beaglebone-black -m network

will start the network test on the BeagleBone Black, using the latest mainline Linux kernel built by KernelCI. On the other hand: -b armada-7040-db armada-8040-db -t mmc --kernel arch/arm64/boot/Image --dtb-folder arch/arm64/boot/dts/

will run the mmc test on the Marvell Armada 7040 and Armada 8040 development boards, using the locally built kernel image and Device Tree.

The result of the job is sent over e-mail when the test has completed.


Thanks to this custom test tool, we now have an infrastructure that leverages our existing lab and LAVA instance to execute more advanced tests. Our goal is now to increase the coverage, by adding more tests, and run them on more devices. Of course, we welcome feedback and contributions!

Introducing lavabo, board remote control software

In two previous blog posts, we presented the hardware and software architecture of the automated testing platform we have created to test the Linux kernel on a large number of embedded platforms.

The primary use case for this infrastructure was to participate to the testing effort, which tests the Linux kernel every day on many hardware platforms.

However, since our embedded boards are now fully controlled by LAVA, we wondered if we could not only use our lab for, but also provide remote control of our boards to Free Electrons engineers so that they can access development boards from anywhere. lavabo was born from this idea and its goal is to allow full remote control of the boards as it is done in LAVA: interface with the serial port, control the power supply and provide files to the board using TFTP.

The advantages of being able to access the boards remotely are obvious: allowing engineers working from home to work on their hardware platforms, avoid moving the boards out of the lab and back into the lab each time an engineer wants to do a test, etc.

User’s perspective

From a user’s point of view, lavabo is used through the eponymous command lavabo, which allows to:

  • List the boards and their status
    $ lavabo list
  • Reserve a board for lavabo usage, so that it is no longer used for CI jobs
    $ lavabo reserve am335x-boneblack_01
  • Upload a kernel image and Device Tree blob so that it can be accessed by the board through TFTP
    $ lavabo upload zImage am335x-boneblack.dtb
  • Connect to the serial port of the board
    $ lavabo serial am335x-boneblack_01
  • Reset the power of the board
    $ lavabo reset am335x-boneblack_01
  • Power off the board
    $ lavabo power-off am335x-boneblack_01
  • Release the board, so that it can once again be used for CI jobs
    $ lavabo release am335x-boneblack_01

Overall architecture and implementation

The following diagram summarizes the overall architecture of lavabo (components in green) and how it connects with existing components of the LAVA architecture.

lavabo reuses LAVA tools and configuration files
lavabo reuses LAVA tools and configuration files

A client-server software

lavabo follows the classical client-server model: the lavabo client is installed on the machines of users, while the lavabo server is hosted on the same machine as LAVA. The server-side of lavabo is responsible for calling the right tools directly on the server machine and making the right calls to LAVA’s API. It controls the boards and interacts with the LAVA instance to reserve and release a board.

On the server machine, a specific Unix user is configured, through its .ssh/authorized_keys to automatically spawn the lavabo server program when someone connects. The lavabo client and server interact directly using their stdin/stdout, by exchanging JSON dictionaries. This interaction model has been inspired from the Attic backup program. Therefore, the lavabo server is not a background process that runs permanently like traditional daemons.

Handling serial connection

Exchanging JSON over SSH works fine to allow the lavabo client to provide instructions to the lavabo server, but it doesn’t work well to provide access to the serial ports of the boards. However, ser2net is already used by LAVA and provides a local telnet port for each serial port. lavabo simply uses SSH port-forwarding to redirect those telnet ports to local ports on the user’s machine.

Different ways to connect to the serial
Different ways to connect to the serial

Interaction with LAVA

To use a board outside of LAVA, we have to interact with LAVA to tell him the board cannot be used anymore. We therefore had to work with LAVA developers to add endpoints for putting online (release) and for putting offline (reserve) boards and an endpoint to get the current status of a board (busy, idle or offline) in LAVA’s API.

These additions to the LAVA API are used by the lavabo server to make reserve and release boards, so that there is no conflict between the CI related jobs (such as the ones submitted by and the direct use of boards for remote development.

Interaction with the boards

Now that we know how the client and the server interact and also how the server communicates with LAVA, we need a way to know which boards are in the lab, on which port the serial connection of a board is exposed and what are the commands to control the board’s power supply. All this configuration has already been given to LAVA, so lavabo server simply reads the LAVA configuration files.

The last requirement is to provide files to the board, such as kernel images, Device Tree blobs, etc. Indeed, from a network point of view, the boards are located in a different subnet not routed directly to the users machines. LAVA already has a directory accessible through TFTP from the boards which is one of the mechanisms used to serve files to boards. Therefore, the easiest and most obvious way is to send files from the client to the server and move the files to this directory, which we implemented using SFTP.

User authentication

Since the serial port cannot be shared among several sessions, it is essential to guarantee a board can only be used by one engineer at a time. In order to identify users, we have one SSH key per user in the .ssh/authorized_keys file on the server, each associated to a call to the lavabo-server program with a different username.

This allows us to identify who is reserving/releasing the boards, and make sure that serial port access, or requests to power off or reset the boards are done by the user having reserved the board.

For TFTP, the lavabo upload command automatically uploads files into a per-user sub-directory of the TFTP server. Therefore, when a file called zImage is uploaded, the board will access it over TFTP by downloading user/zImage.

Availability and installation

As you could guess from our love for FOSS, lavabo is released under the GNU GPLv2 license in a GitHub repository. Extensive documentation is available if you’re interested in installing lavabo. Of course, patches are welcome!

Software architecture of Free Electrons’ lab

As stated in a previous blog post, we officially launched our lab on 2016, April 25th and it is contributing to KernelCI since then. In a series of blog post, we’d like to present in details how our lab is working.

We previously introduced the lab and its integration in KernelCI, and presented its hardware infrastructure. Now is time to explain how it actually works on the software side.

Continuous integration in Linux kernel

Because of Linux’s well-known ability to run on numerous platforms and the obvious impossibility for developers to test changes on all these platforms, continuous integration has a big role to play in Linux kernel development and maintenance.

More generally, continuous integration is made up of three different steps:

  • building the software which in our case is the Linux kernel,
  • testing the software,
  • reporting the tests results;
KernelCI complete process
KernelCI complete process

KernelCI checks hourly if one of the Git repositories it tracks have been updated. If it’s the case then it builds, from the last commit, the kernel for ARM, ARM64 and x86 platforms in many configurations. Then it stores all these builds in a publicly available storage.

Once the kernel images have been built, KernelCI itself is not in charge of testing it on hardware. Instead, it delegates this work to various labs, maintained by individuals or organizations. In the following section, we will discuss the software architecture needed to create such a lab, and receive testing requests from KernelCI.

Core software component: LAVA

At this moment, LAVA is the only supported software by KernelCI but note that KernelCI offers an API, so if LAVA does not meet your needs, go ahead and make your own!

What is LAVA?

LAVA is a self-hosted software, organized in a server-dispatcher model, for controlling boards, to automate boot, bootloader and user-space testing. The server receives jobs specifying what to test, how and on which boards to run those tests, and transmits those jobs to the dispatcher linked to the specified board. The dispatcher applies all modifications on the kernel image needed to make it boot on the said board and then fully interacts with it through the serial.

Since LAVA has to fully and autonomously control boards, it needs to:

  • interact with the board through serial connection,
  • control the power supply to reset the board in case of a frozen kernel,
  • know the commands needed to boot the kernel from the bootloader,
  • serve files (kernel, DTB, rootfs) to the board.

The first three requirements are fulfilled by LAVA thanks to per-board configuration files. The latter is done by the LAVA dispatcher in charge of the board, which downloads files specified in the job and copies them to a directory accessible by the board through TFTP.

LAVA organizes the lab in devices and device types. All identical devices are from the same device type and share the same device type configuration file. It contains the set of bootloader instructions to boot the kernel (e.g.: how and where to load files) and the bootloader configuration (e.g.: can it boot zImages or only uImages). A device configuration file stores the commands run by a dispatcher to interact with the device: how to connect to serial, how to power it on and off. LAVA interacts with devices via external tools: it has support for conmux or telnet to communicate via serial and power commands can be executed by custom scripts (pdudaemon for example).

Control power supply

Some labs use expensive Switched PDUs to control the power supply of each board but, as discussed in our previous blog post we went for several Devantech ETH008 Ethernet-controlled relay boards instead.

Linaro, the organization behind LAVA, has also developed a software for controlling power supplies of each board, called pdudaemon. We added support for most Devantech relay boards to pdudaemon.

Connect to serial

As advised in LAVA’s installation guide, we went with telnet and ser2net to connect the serial port of our boards. Ser2net basically opens a Linux device and allows to interact with it through a TCP socket on a defined port. A LAVA dispatcher will then launch a telnet client to connect to a board’s serial port. Because of the well-known fact that Linux devices name might change between reboots, we had to use udev rules in order to guarantee the serial we connect to is the one we want to connect to.

Actual testing

Now that LAVA knows how to handle devices, it has to run jobs on those devices. LAVA jobs contain which images to boot (kernel, DTB, rootfs), what kind of tests to run when in user space and where to find them. A job is strongly linked to a device type since it contains the kernel and DTB specifically built for this device type.

Those jobs are submitted to the different labs by the KernelCI project. To do so, KernelCI uses a tool called lava-ci. Amongst other things, this tool contains a big table of the supported platforms, associating the Device Tree name with the corresponding hardware platform name. This way, when a new kernel gets built by KernelCI, and produces a number of Device Tree Blobs (.dtb files), lava-ci knows what are the corresponding hardware platforms to run the kernel on. It submits the jobs to all the labs, which will then only run the tests for which they have the necessary hardware platform. We have contributed a number of patches to lava-ci, adding support for the new platforms we had in our lab.

LAVA overall architecture

Reporting test results

After KernelCI has built the kernel, sent jobs to contributing labs and LAVA has run the jobs, KernelCI will then get the tests results from the labs, aggregate them on its website and notify maintainers of errors via a mailing list.

Challenges encountered

As in any project, we stumbled on some difficulties. The biggest problems we had to take care of were board-specific problems.

Some boards like the Marvell RD-370 need a rising edge on a pin to boot, meaning we cannot avoid pressing the reset button between each boot. To work out this problem, we had to customize the hardware (swap resistors) to bypass this limitation.

Some other boards lose their serial connection. Some lose it when resetting their power but recover it after a few seconds, problem we found acceptable to solve by infinitely reconnecting to the serial. However, we still have a problem with a few boards which randomly close their serial connection without any reason. After that, we are able to connect to the serial connection again but it does not send any character. The only way to get it to work again is to physically re-plug the cable used by the serial connection. Unfortunately, we did not find yet a way to solve this bug.

The Linux kernel of our server refused to bind more than 13 USB devices when it was time to create a second drawer of boards. After some research, we found out the culprit was the xHCI driver. In modern computers, it is possible to disable xHCI support in the BIOS but this option was not present in our server’s BIOS. The solution was to rebuild and install a kernel for the server without the xHCI driver compiled. From that day, the number of USB devices is limited to 127 as in the USB specification.


We have now 35 boards in our lab, with some being the only ones represented in KernelCI. We encourage anyone, hobbyists or companies, to contribute to the effort of bringing continuous integration of the Linux kernel by building your own lab and adding as many boards as you can.

Interested in becoming a lab? Follow the guide!