EmbLogic's Blog

Introduction to cross-compiling for Linux

Host vs Target

A compiler is a program that turns source code into executable code. Like all programs, a compiler runs on a specific type of computer, and the new programs it outputs also run on a specific type of computer.[1]

The computer the compiler runs on is called the host, and the computer the new programs run on is called the target. When the host and target are the same type of machine, the compiler is a native compiler. When the host and target are different, the compiler is a cross compiler.[2]
Why cross-compile?

In theory, a PC user who wanted to build programs for some device could get the appropriate target hardware (or emulator), boot a Linux distro on that, and compile natively within that environment. While this is a valid approach (and possibly even a good idea when dealing with something like a Mac Mini), it has a few prominent downsides for things like a linksys router or iPod:

Speed – Target platforms are usually much slower than hosts, by an order of magnitude or more. Most special-purpose embedded hardware is designed for low cost and low power consumption, not high performance. Modern emulators (like qemu) are actually faster than a lot of the real world hardware they emulate, by virtue of running on high-powered desktop hardware.[3]

Capability – Compiling is very resource-intensive. The target platform usually doesn’t have gigabytes of memory and hundreds of gigabytes of disk space the way a desktop does; it may not even have the resources to build “hello world”, let alone large and complicated packages.

Availability – Bringing Linux up on a hardware platform it’s never run on before requires a cross-compiler. Even on long-established platforms like Arm or Mips, finding an up-to-date full-featured prebuilt native environment for a given target can be hard. If the platform in question isn’t normally used as a development workstation, there may not be a recent prebuilt distro readily available for it, and if there is it’s probably out of date. If you have to build your own distro for the target before you can build on the target, you’re back to cross-compiling anyway.

Flexibility – A fully capable Linux distribution consists of hundreds of packages, but a cross-compile environment can depend on the host’s existing distro from most things. Cross compiling focuses on building the target packages to be deployed, not spending time getting build-only prerequisites working on the target system.

Convenience – The user interface of headless boxes tends to be a bit crampled. Diagnosing build breaks is frustrating enough as it is. Installing from CD onto a machine that hasn’t got a CD-ROM drive is a pain. Rebooting back and forth between your test environment and your development environment gets old fast, and it’s nice to be able to recover from accidentally lobotomizing your test system.

Why is cross-compiling hard?
Portable native compiling is hard.

Most programs are developed on x86 hardware, where they are compiled natively. This means cross-compiling runs into two types of problems: problems with the programs themselves and problems with the build system.

The first type of problem affects all non-x86 targets, both for native and for cross-builds. Most programs make assumptions about the type of machine they run on, which must match the platform in question or the program won’t work. Common assumptions include:

Word size – Copying a pointer into an int may lose data on a 64 bit platform, and determining the size of a malloc by multiplying by 4 instead of sizeof(long) isn’t good either. Subtle security flaws due to integer overflows are also possible, ala “if (x+y < size) memset(src+x,0,y);”, which results in a 4 gigabyte memset on 32-bit hardware when x=1000 and y=0xFFFFFFF0…

Endianness – Different systems store binary data iternally in different ways, which means that block-reading int or float data from disk or the network may need translation. Type “man byteorder” for details.

Alignment – Some platforms (such as arm) can only read or write ints from addresses that are an even multiple of 4 bytes, otherwise they segfault. Even the ones that can handle arbitrary alignments are slower dealing with unaligned data (they have to fetch twice to get both halves), so the compiler will often pad structures to align variables. Treating structures as a lump of data that can be sent to disk or across the network thus requires extra work to ensure a consistent representation.

Default signedness – Whether the “char” data type defaults to signed or unsigned varies from platform to platform (and in some cases from compiler to compiler), which can cause some really surprising bugs. The easy workaround for this is to provide a compiler argument like “-funsigned-char” to force the default to a known value.

NOMMU – If your target platform doesn’t have a memory management unit, several things need to change. You need vfork() instead of fork(), only certain types of mmap() work (shared or read only, but not copy on write), and the stack doesn’t grow dynamically.

Most packages aim to be portable when compiled natively, and will at least accept patches to fix any of the above problems (with the possible exception of NOMMU issues) submitted to the appropriate development mailing list.

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