[U-Boot] Announcing easy Linux installation on Allwinner devices for non-geek users

Siarhei Siamashka siarhei.siamashka at gmail.com
Thu Jan 22 13:49:03 CET 2015


This is a somewhat long e-mail.

1. The problem
2. A possible solution
3. Relocatable SD card
5. Support more devices!
6. Reliability tests
7. FEL mode installer application
8. A31+ support
9. Summary

== 1. The problem

First of all, let's see what is the difference between various
Allwinner boards/devices and the Raspberry Pi (which is considered
by many as a role model of being user friendly and easy to use).

Raspberry Pi offers only a few hardware variants with minor differences.
And Raspberry Pi users are familiar with the concept of downloading SD
card images with Raspbian distro and writing them to the SD card (there
are tools to easily do this even in Windows). This works as a way to
quickly get the system up and running on their devices. And this is
the skill that they already have and expect to be applicable to other

On the other hand, http://linux-sunxi.org/Category:Devices lists 124
pages dedicated to different Allwinner based devices at the moment.
Most of the Allwinner based devices have a HDMI connector and are able
to run a "desktop" GNU/Linux system with a big desktop monitor just
like the Raspberry Pi. Many Allwinner devices have USB host ports.
And the ones which don't, are at least equipped with USB OTG. While
definitely not prefect, USB OTG is still suitable for a "desktop"
system when used with something like

And here we have a problem. The linux-sunxi wiki contains a lot of
useful information about the hardware and reasonably detailed
instructions about compiling the u-boot and the kernel for each of
the devices. But that's not what the non-geek users want. The non-geek
users expect to find SD card images for their devices, just like
this is handled for the Raspberry Pi.

What happens if non-geek users do not find the right SD card images
for their devices? Do they follow the instructions to compile the
u-boot and the kernel themselves? Of course not. The users just pick
some random SD card image, which "seems" to be likely compatible.
That's why they are trying Cubieboard SD card images on random
tablets or other devboards. This rarely ends up well. Want an
example? Here it is:

Also have a look at
for a nice warning message "EDIT: Something important! Debian and
Android images for LIME and LIME2 are different because of the memory
and Gigabit ethernet, so if you have LIME download the images for
LIME if you have LIME2 download the images for LIME2!!!". And check
the discussion in comments about Cubian, Bananian and other board
specific distributions.

Surprisingly, compiling u-boot just happens to be rather difficult
for non-geeks. Geeks are of course perfectly fine with the nice and
detailed instructions, which are readily available:

== 2. A possible solution

While working on DRAM controller bugfixes for Allwinner A10/A13/A20,
it was discovered that, among other things, DRAM bus width and density
autodetection can be implemented:

This alone provides an obvious opportunity to use the same u-boot
binary on multiple devices even if they use different DRAM
size/configuration. And the natural evolution of this is the support
of Allwinner A10/A13/A20 SoC in the same u-boot binary by just doing
runtime SoC type detection:

This was a cool demo, but having only the u-boot prompt on the serial
console and the ability to boot from the SD card is not something
that can immediately help non-geek users.

Now there is an important thing to consider. The same u-boot
binary can boot on different Allwinner devices and initialize
DRAM successfully. But what about the other peripherals? Some of
the peripherals strictly need configuration parameters, which can't
be automatically detected at runtime in any way (LCD displays for
example). So what is the safe subset of hardware, which is
universally usable in generic u-boot binaries? Basically, we can
rely on the assumption that everything that is used by BROM, can be
safely autodetected and used by the universal u-boot binaries too.

For example, the UART serial console is not really used by BROM, and
this was a kind of hack in the previous demo. At that time it looked
like the serial console could be configured correctly according to
some heuristic rules. However later it turned out that the heuristics
does not really work on some A13 devices and they may have mutually
incompatible UART configurations:
This particular problem just confirms the general rule about
relying only on what is also used by BROM. Oh, and some functionality
is also provided by dedicated SoC pins, which are strictly used only
for a single purpose and can't be re-configured for doing anything
else. This can be safely used too.

Anyway, the really missing part was the user friendly output and user
friendly input for generic u-boot binaries. HDMI is widely used in
Allwinner hardware and it supports autoconfiguration. USB host ports
use dedicated pins and only enabling/disabling power can be device
specific. The missing USB power can be solved by using a powered USB
hub, which is not very convenient, but still a workable solution.

After the initial discussion and planning on the IRC, Luc Verhaegen
stepped in to implement the video driver for u-boot, together
with simplefb support for the linux kernel:

And Roman Byshko stepped in to implement the USB EHCI support:

Many thanks to them for spearheading the development of these
important features! And of course, Hans de Goede did a great
job bugfixing and further improving this code, probably investing
even more efforts than the initial contributors. Not to mention
the participation in lengthy simplefb political battles, which
looked really scary and discouraging, but ended up well.

With all these features in place, now we can do something like this:

It is a demo of a universal SD card image, which should be bootable
on any Allwinner A10/A10s/A20 device. With an installer of u-boot
v2015.01-rc3 as the initial demo simple payload. By using a
HDMI monitor for output and a USB keyboard or FEL button for input,
it offers a menu based user interface. The menu allows to select
the exact type of the user's Allwinner device and install the
right bootloader for it.

In principle, even now it is usable as a base for the SD card distro
image. Maybe with http://www.berryterminal.com/doku.php/berryboot
chained as the next installation stage.

There is of course a huge room for improvements, which are yet to be
done. Some of the potential improvements are listed below.

== 3. Relocatable SD card

Maybe not every user really needs a full-fledged bootloader, so a basic
device independent bootloader with just SD card support and HDMI can
be probably used not only for the initial setup of the hardware type,
but kept indefinitely for booting the linux kernel too. Naturally, in
order to get good performance, the DRAM parameters need to be patched
into the SPL, replacing the generic failsafe ones.

The DRAM parameters can (and should) be tied to the unique chip ID:
So that if anyone tries to move the SD card to a different Allwinner
device, this situation can be detected and the menu with the device
type selection can be shown again on the HDMI monitor instead of
failing in a non-obvious way. Storing SID values and DRAM settings
for more than one device is also an option, so repeatedly swapping
between two devices will trigger the device type selection menu
activation only once for each device.

== 4. NAND

NAND is the hardware, which is supported by BROM. Which means that it
should be usable in a generic way by the universal device independent
u-boot binary. NAND is a perfect place to store the device specific
information. So that the user can avoid the annoying device type
selection choices.

== 5. Support more devices!

The number of supported Allwinner devices in u-boot v2015.01 is
really small. A few more devices are being added for v2015.04
While the progress is steady, I'm not convinced that the support
for all the 100+ Allwinner devices can be added in a reasonable
time frame.

The owners of some these devices are non-geeks and will not be able
to submit patches to u-boot and the linux kernel on their own, even
if provided with detailed instructions. This process just does not
scale. Moreover, it is not very nice to force the users to master
a useless skill, such as FEX knowledge.

So I see the automatic conversion as the only reasonable solution.

Yes, something like this already supposedly exits:

I don't know how much progress has the 'sunxi-babelfish' project
made so far (and to be honest, even did not try it). But in my
opinion it has some fatal deficiencies in the design, based on
just reading its README:
  1. Implemented in the C language, while scripting languages are
     orders of magnitude more suitable for such task and allow much
     faster development.
  2. This approach does not look very testable/debuggable.
  3. It apparently does not help mainlining. The output of the
     conversion does not look like it is intended to be used as
     a template for the DTS file submission to the mainline kernel.

So the right solution in my opinion is a set of scripts for the
sunxi-boards repository. The scripts need to parse the FEX files,
which are conveniently already collected in sunxi-boards. They
need to support different FEX dialects as input (this is really
important!) and 3 types of output:
  1. The defconfigs for u-boot
  2. The DTS files for the linux kernel
  3. The FEX file in a dialect, which is compatible with the sunxi-3.4

The type of the FEX dialect can be derived from the soc-specific
directory names in the sunxi-boards repository. 

Just to get an idea of how this could possibly work, one may look at
These are the results of automatic conversion of FEX into the LCD
parameters for u-boot. The manual work needs to be reduced as much
as possible.

== 6. Reliability tests

The problem is explained in

These tests just need to be added as part of the installation process.
Maybe also do speed grading of the CPU and DRAM to store this
information for use by cpufreq and DRAM init.

The undervolting/overclocking functionality can be also provided.
Because some users are trying overclocking regardless of any warnings,
it's better to provide at least some safety parachute to ensure that
they don't hurt themselves.

== 7. FEL mode installer application

Instead of booting from the SD card (which does not require the
desktop PC), the installation can be done in FEL mode by running a
special application on the desktop PC. Other than this, a lot of
functionality can be shared between these two installation methods.

This feature is critical for the devices without HDMI, such A13 and A23.

== 8. A31+ support

The current demo only supports A10, A10s and A20. Naturally, A31
support is also very much desired.

== 9. Summary

Here is the demo, please try it and provide feedback:

This demo may be already fully usable to provide device independent SD
card images with Linux distributions for Allwinner devices (maybe with
some minor tweaks). If you are maintaining one of these Cubian, Bananian
or the other pre-made SD card images, it is possible to extend them to
support more devices. Feel free to ask if you need some help.

This is not a finished work, more improvements are coming. And this is
posted to the mainline u-boot mailing list, because I want to see some
essential features implemented in the mainline u-boot. Forking is
definitely not the goal.

The key assumption about the device independent u-boot binaries:

    Anything that is supported by BROM, can be autoconfigured and
    used by the generic device independent u-boot binaries too.

The key assumption about FEX files conversion:

    The FEX files originate from Android devices, do work on Android
    devices and allow to use all the hardware properly, so all the
    necessary information is available for conversion. But we need to
    be aware of mutually incompatible FEX dialects used by different
    SoC generations and handle them gracefully.

Thanks for reading and reaching the end of this e-mail.

Special thanks to Luc Verhaegen, Roman Byshko and Hans de Goede for
their work on u-boot.

Best regards,
Siarhei Siamashka

More information about the U-Boot mailing list