LJ Archive

Booting Linux from EPROM

Dave Bennett

Issue #33, January 1997

This is a quick look at making Linux bootable from EPROM on a 486 single board computer.

This article describes one way to run Linux in an embedded system with no hard disk. The application described is an Operator Interface in a monitor and display system developed by Boeing Flight Test. The airborne environment requires something fairly rugged which can withstand common power interruptions. To meet these requirements we decided to build the operator interface without a hard disk.


The basic concept includes booting from a solid state disk (SSD) in Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory (EPROM), copying a root file system from EPROM to a RAM disk, loading the operator interface software from a host and executing it. This article focuses on the details of how the system works, and on development techniques used.

The hardware selected is a VME-based Single Board Computer (SBC) 80486 with 16M of RAM, a PC104 SSD cable of holding a 4Meg EPROM, and some other PC104 boards. This SBC has built in BIOS support for using the SSD. The system uses a programmable keyboard and a standard VGA display.

System Operation

For booting, two options were considered:

  • booting DOS, then running the loadlin program (to load Linux) from autoexec.bat

  • installing LILO and booting Linux directly

The advantage of the second option would be a slightly shorter boot time. However, we implemented the first option, because we wanted to use a programmable keyboard—the software for programming the keyboard runs under DOS.

A bit of kernel-hacking was needed to make the system work. The ramdisk.c code was changed to load from any block device, not just a floppy (see Listing 1, ramdisk.c). Also, a new block driver was written to read from the EPROM device (see Listing 2, epromdsk.c).

When deciding how to implement the EPROM device driver, the first idea was to create an image of a disk in the EPROM. This would provide a RAM disk of the same size as the EPROM, 3.5MB in this case (the DOS portion of the SSD takes 1/2 MB). Instead, to allow a larger RAM disk, a compressed disk image is used. The compression used is simple—any sectors which are identical are only stored once. The primary advantage this gives is blank areas of the disk image don't need to take up EPROM space. Listing 1 shows the SSD disk compression used.

EPROM Disk Compression

In order to automatically run the operator interface application, a program was written to replace getty. This program (dboot.c) will run login for a given user, and set the stdin, stdout and stderr to the specified virtual console.

The boot sequence is:

  • Power up and run memory tests

  • load DOS which executes AUTOEXEC.BAT

    • run the keyboard programming application

    • run loadlin—this reads a linux kernel from the DOS disk & executes it

  • the linux kernel takes over

  • load the RAM disk from the EPROM disk

  • switch the root file system to the RAM disk

  • init will read inittab which executes dboot instead of getty

  • the operator interface application is started


After the fun part—figuring how to make an EPROM driver and how to boot the system—the more mundane task of putting together the EPROM disk contents had to be done. This was done using a development disk which was partitioned as follows:

  • /dev/hda1 - 80MB “full” Linux system

  • /dev/hda2 - 6MB EPROM development

  • /dev/hda3 - 20MB DOS partition

  • LILO was used to allow booting of either Linux or DOS.

Programming EPROMs is a time-consuming task and to be avoided as much as possible. As a result, most of the development is done using the disk.

The first phase of disk image development was identifying the required and the desired items. The first step was to come up with a minimal system and then add the items required for the operator interface. Not being a Unix expert, coming up with the minimal system ended up being something of a trial and error process. I started with what I thought was needed, then tried running it. When an error occurred because of a missing program or library, that file was added. This process went on until the system ran happily.

The bulk of this was done by copying files from the “full” Linux partition to the 6MB partition, booting DOS and using the loadlin line:

loadlin zimage root=/dev/hda2 ro

Once the system was fairly stable, the 6MB partition was loaded into the RAM disk. This is very similar to how the RAM disk is loaded from EPROM, but development went faster since EPROMs weren't being programmed. To test the system without programming EPROMs, the system booted DOS and ran loadlin with the line:

loadlin zimage root=/dev/hda2 ramdisk=6144 ro

Because of the modification to ramdisk.c, the /dev/hda2 disk image is loaded into the RAM disk, then the root file system is switched to the RAM disk. The process of refining the disk image continues until everything is “perfect”.

Programming EPROMs

The process of programming (“burning”) the EPROMs starts out by archiving the small disk drive with tar, then extracting the files onto a clean (zeroed out) file system. By putting the file system onto a clean disk, all unused sectors are zeroed out, and the disk compression works (Listing 1).

To tar the disk image, the “full ”Linux partition was booted, and the 6MB partition mounted. By doing this, the proc file system is not included in the tar. The following commands can be used:

mount -t ext2 /dev/hda2 /mnt
cd /mnt
tar -cpf /tmp/eprom.tar *

To create the (uncompressed) disk image, I used a different machine with a 6MB RAM disk and the following commands:

dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/ram count=12288
mke2fs /dev/ram 6144
mount -t ext2 /dev/ram /mnt
cd /mnt
tar -xpf ~/eprom.tar .
dd if=/dev/ram of=~/eprom.dsk count=12288

This creates a file (eprom.dsk) which is a sector-by-sector image of the disk. The data to be programmed into the EPROMs is the compressed image. This is done with a program (med.c) which reads the disk image (eprom.dsk), runs the disk compression, and outputs a binary file (eprom.img) which will be programmed into the EPROMs.

med ~/eprom.dsk ~/eprom.img

The EPROM image is then moved to an EPROM programmer and the images are burned.

DOS boot SSD

Fortunately the SBC came with SSD utilities to help build the disk image. The DOS SSD disk has a bare minimum of files in it: the DOS boot files, command.com, autoexec.bat, the keyboard loading program, loadlin and zImage.

Listing 3

Listing 4


The development of what goes on the disk is a large part of the job, and methods need to be developed to minimize this effort. Using the EPROM disk is working well in our application.

Dave Bennett “works with computers” at Boeing in the commercial Flight Test group. When not at work, he enjoys the company of his significant other, two cats, a bunch of fish and millions of yeasties. Dave enjoys building things, a few of which are featured on the web page www.halcyon.com/bennett. Dave can be reached at bennett@halcyon.com or dave.bennett@boeing.com.

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