2.2 Types of Host/Target Development Setups

Three different host/target architectures are available for the development of embedded Linux systems: the linked setup, the removable storage setup, and the standalone setup. Your actual setup may belong to more than one category or may even change categories over time, depending on your requirements and development methodology.

2.2.1 Linked Setup

In this setup, the target and the host are permanently linked together using a physical cable. This link is typically a serial cable or an Ethernet link. The main property of this setup is that no physical hardware storage device is being transferred between the target and the host. All transfers occur via the link. Figure 2-1 illustrates this setup.

Figure 2-1. Host/target linked setup

As illustrated, the host contains the cross-platform development environment, which we will discuss in Chapter 4, while the target contains an appropriate bootloader, a functional kernel, and a minimal root filesystem.

Alternatively, the target can use remote components to facilitate development. The kernel could, for instance, be available via Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP). The root filesystem could also be NFS-mounted instead of being on a storage media in the target. Using an NFS-mounted root filesystem is actually perfect during development, because it avoids having to constantly copy program modifications between the host and the target, as we'll see in Section 2.6.

The linked setup is the most common. Obviously, the physical link can also be used for debugging purposes. It is, however, more common to have another link for debugging purposes, as we shall see in Section 2.3. Many embedded systems, for instance, provide both Ethernet and RS232 link capabilities. In such a setup, the Ethernet link is used for downloading the executable, the kernel, the root filesystem, and other large items that benefit from rapid data transfers between the host and the target, while the RS232 link is used for debugging.

2.2.2 Removable Storage Setup

In this setup, there are no direct physical links between the host and the target. Instead, a storage device is written by the host, is then transferred into the target, and is used to boot the device. Figure 2-2 illustrates this setup.

Figure 2-2. Host/target removable storage setup

As with the previous setup, the host contains the cross-platform development environment. The target, however, contains only a minimal bootloader. The rest of the components are stored on a removable storage media, such as a CompactFlash IDE device or any other type of drive, which is programmed on the host and loaded by the target's minimal bootloader upon startup.

It is possible, in fact, that the target may not contain any form of persistent storage at all. Instead of a fixed flash chip, for instance, the target could contain a socket where a flash chip could be easily inserted and removed. The chip would be programmed by a flash programmer on the host and inserted into the socket in the target for normal operation.

This setup is mostly popular during the initial phases of embedded system development. You may find it more practical to move on to a linked setup once the initial development phase is over, so you can avoid the need to physically transfer a storage device between the target and the host every time a change has to be made to the kernel or the root filesystem.

2.2.3 Standalone Setup

Here, the target is a self-contained development system and includes all the required software to boot, operate, and develop additional software. In essence, this setup is similar to an actual workstation, except the underlying hardware is not a conventional workstation but rather the embedded system itself. Figure 2-3 illustrates this setup.

Figure 2-3. Host/target standalone setup

Contrary to the other setups, this setup does not require any cross-platform development environment, since all development tools run in their native environment. Furthermore, it does not require any transfer between the target and the host, because all the required storage is local to the target.

This type of setup is quite popular with developers building high-end PC-based embedded systems, such as high-availability systems, since they can use standard off-the-shelf Linux distributions on the embedded system. Once development is done, they then work at trimming down the distribution and customizing it for their purposes. Although this gets developers around having to build their own root filesystems and configure the systems' startup, it requires that they know the particular distribution they are using inside out. If you are interested in this approach, you may want to take a look at Running Linux and, if you plan to use Red Hat, Learning Red Hat Linux, both published by O'Reilly.