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4 Fine Linux ARM Distros

The ARM platform is exploding like a mad wet cat out of the bath. Here are four good distros cram-full of ARM fun.

Linux has had ARM support since forever, but it's been bumpy. There are hundreds of vendors of ARM devices (see Tiny Pluggable Linux ARM Computers Are Red-Hot for a sampling), all shoving their own personal hacked code out the door as fast as possible. This made Linux support complicated and unwieldy, to the point that Linus Torvalds threatened to stop accepting ARM changes in the mainline Linux kernel.

So, in classic Linux fashion, vendors and developers banded together and coordinated and consolidated their efforts, formed the Linaro non-profit engineering organization, and performed a sizable cleanup of redundant and bad code. Jonathan Corbet, editor of Linux Weekly News, predicts that "ARM will take its place as one of the primary Linux architectures" in 2012. This seems a safe prediction as ARM-based mobile devices are going to continue to sell like ice water in hell.

Android is also expected to harmonize, over time, with the mainline Linux kernel. So this confluence of ARM events means that we who like to play with stuff will have a little easier time of it. Me, I dream of embedded and mobile devices being as friendly to experimentation as the x86 platform. Don't laugh, it could happen. So which Linux is best for ARM? Why, lots of them.

There are a lot of different ARM processors, so this guide should help you sort them out. Wikipedia has an invaluable table that lists all the ARM microprocessor cores, so when you see terms like ARMv5TE or ARM9TDMI or Cortex-something, consult this table to know what the heck these are.


Arch Linux ARM

Arch Linux ARM is based on the excellent Arch Linux distribution. It's an active, fast-moving rolling release that is compatible with Arch, and in fine Arch fashion has good documentation. It's a complete Linux distribution with thousands of packages. This is the one I recommend to ARM noobs; it's lightweight, efficient, and the community support is quite good.

Arch Linux ARM runs on any processor that supports ARMv5TE or higher, which includes fun cheap boards and gadgets like Pogoplug, SheevaPlug, TonidoPlug, Raspberry Pi, BeagleBoard, CuBox, PandaBoard, and TrimSlice. Adventurous users have installed it on various smartphones.

Ubuntu ARM

Ubuntu is everywhere, including ARM devices. Like Arch ARM, Ubuntu ARM is a complete distribution with thousands of packages, both desktop and server. For example, you can install a complete LAMP stack and Drupal on a PandaBoard.

UNR, the Ubuntu Netbook Remix made an early attempt at an Ubuntu ARM netbook spin. One of its most promising features, in my un-humble opinion, was using the Enlightenment Foundation Libraries to power a beautiful 2D user interface with similar features to its 3D desktop. This made it possible to have a rich environment on ARM, which is plagued with licensing hassles for graphics hardware.

But UNR went away with Ubuntu 11.04. Or rather, it was "unified" with Ubuntu Desktop, and the UNR ARM port went away. The current Ubuntu ARM port supports ARMv7 and up, and targets the Thumb-2 instruction set, which is the modern 32-bit ARM instruction set. So this targets the newer higher-powered devices that support good video, audio, networking, and decent processing power for running applications.

Debian ARM

Debian has always supported more hardware architectures than any other Linux distribution, including ARM. The nomenclature is a bit confusing until you understand that it's specific to each ARM version. The first Debian ARM port was arm-linux-gnu, which supported ARMv3. arm-linux-gnu packages are in the arm section. The last arm packages appeared in Lenny. These were replaced with arm-linux-gnueabi in Lenny in the armel section, supporting ARMv4t and up. armel has been replaced by the arm-linux-gnueabihf port, armhf in Wheezy. armhf is ARMv7 and up, with the Thumb-2 instruction set.

The Debian documentation is rather shy of installation and hacking how-to's. This page in the Bodhi Linux forums, Debian ARM on Android tablets is a good starting point.

Fedora ARM

Fedora's ARM port has lagged behind Debian, Ubuntu, and Arch ARM, though it found new energy for Fedora 17, and it should be pretty solid for Fedora 18.

The interesting bit is a proposal to promote it to a primary Fedora architecture, from its current secondary status. Just as the names imply, a secondary architecture (SA) doesn't have to meet the same standards as a primary architecture (PA). All of the packages in a PA must build and work correctly, while an SA can sit on the back burner and not get a lot of attention. The proposal is looking to a future of 64-bit enterprise ARM servers, and ARM becoming the dominant hardware architecture over x86_64.

Fedora needs to get moving, because Canonical has already been grooming their original design manufacturers (ODMs) to make Ubuntu the first operating system ready to run ARMv8. There are two interesting PDFs to read on Index of /uhs/2011: Ubuntu-ARM-knowledge.pdf and Ubuntu ARM Roadmap.pdf. These have a lot of useful information on ARM and Canonical's roadmap.

The trusty old x86_64 platform has served us well for many years now, but its dominance is being challenged by ARM. As always there will be hurdles to openness, such as patents and loony experiments like Windows locking down the ARM bootloader. Maybe someday technological progress will be limited only by our ingenuity, rather than by lockin and lockdown.



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  • Alberto Maria Fiaschi Said:

  • John Said:

    Glad someone else brought up ArmedSlack. I was scrolling down, reading, looking for it in the article ... and..... WTF!?! no armedslack love!? ;-) It runs all my plugs (sheeva, guru, dockstar) and this week it will run my Pi

  • nelson munz Said:

    Since many geeks and semi-geeks are interested in the Pi, its worth mentioning that: UBUNTU WONT RUN ON THE PI. Many people are asking the same question about Pi but Buntu dropped support for ARMv6 in favor of optimizing for ARMv7 and above. I remember that Debian was being ported a few months ago to ARM V6 Hard Float so its not like its not possible. Debian gives everything that Ubuntu does except the name. But Ubuntu does not want to support the PI and was pretty clear about it. I remember reading the Pi folks saying that one of their contacts with Canonical was when they told the Pi people ‘how can we get you to stop saying that Ubuntu runs on the Pi?’ which I thought was rather abrupt way of doing things especially since the other distros were totally the opposite. But what I took out of that whole thingis that Canonical wontt support the chip, they’re not interested in supporting the chip, and have been pretty clear about not mentioning Ubuntu along with the Pi which is why the guy said they dont use 'that' word anymore. Look, most of us geeks already have Arduinos and Pandas but the visibility of these is almost nil. The Pi has the chance to change all that even for the boards that cost more. But it has GREAT world of mouth, lots of mainstreams press attention NOT because of what it can do technically but because of the price point and KIDS. Rev Lovejoy's wife laments aside, the PI's big hook is its goals which while not as over reaching as the 100$ laptop still makes it a feel good project. Its a shame that those in the community that stand the most to gain financially from Linux cant see the benefits for many different parties in this venture. I use Arch Linux on desktop and Beagleboard but since the Pi I have been taking a look at Fedora Remix and liking it. I will give Debian ARM a try one day when I get the chance . Ubuntu on ARM I will bypass totally on this platform. Wasnt enamored by them before and this latest example was just another reason I can waste my time on other things the community has to offer instead of its offering.

  • GrueMaster Said:

    While I no longer have any vested interest in Canonical or Ubuntu (other than as a user), the problem we faced for supporting the R.PI when I was there was both lack of manpower and hardware. On the hardware side, unlike the other distro's, ubuntu is compiled natively, not cross-compiled. For arm, this is a major endeavor, especially with the lack of hardware up until 11.10 (we literally only had a handful of beagleXM boards until recently). As it is, some packages still take ages to build (libreOffice - 2-3 days for example). This will start to resolve itsself now that multi-core SATA based arm servers are starting to come out, but until they are stable and more available, it is still a bit slow (current build farm has multiple pandas with usbsata drives and 100Mb USB ethernet- still not optimal). On the manpower side, we had an entire team dedicated to fixing build issues, debugging arch specific issues (Mono anyone?) and QA testing arm images to make sure it was at the best quality possible (it was actually very close to the x86/amd64 desktop quality, when you discount parts outside of our control, like video and audio drivers). To ramp up yet another architecture would have been very difficult, especially for very little return for Canonical (remember, they are a business after all). Most OEM/ODM manufacturers that are using arm processors are using armv7. Very little new OEM/ODM hardware is coming out that is lower than V7 compatible, and even they are moving on. It would be like starting a new architecture build specifically for i586 cpu's. Yes they are still out there (mainly in embedded and industrial applications), but there is no market. Canonical would probably do it if someone were to pay for the resources needed. Ubuntu, on the other hand is part Canonical, part community. If the Raspberry Pi community were to help fund additional build hardware (Panda's could be used as buildd's for this), drive space, QA, and debugging support, I'm sure the Ubuntu community would welcome them in. It just takes manpower and hardware.

  • Fish_Kungfu Said:

    Ditto.....armedslack is running great on my Raspberry Pi.

  • Matthew Fernandez Said:

    Best opening sentence ever. Also, nice article to follow :)

  • Brian Masinick Said:

    I am so glad to see that the thing truly bringing Linux forces together is the very small, mobile systems space. In 1999-2001, I was attending graduate school, and virtually every paper I wrote proclaimed that free software would ultimately take over and dominate computing, with it just being a matter of time. Back then, I theorized that Linux based software was already doing well on servers, especially Web servers, but noted little action on desktops. My reasoning was that embedded systems (truly an exploding market) and other hand held mobile devices would drive the need for servers to communicate with them, and that it would make sense to have all three of them integrated by a solid desktop environment. Well, my vision wasn't 100% on, but it was darn close, and I see that the tipping point is really just about there. I do not see Linux overtaking Windows on the traditional desktop, but if the model of where most computer usage changes in favor of every increasing mobile usage, which is certainly seems to be doing, this is the market that Linux must not miss if it wants to have a really long, prominent role in the future of computing, and the good news is that it seems to be happening - at last!

  • Neelesh G Said:

    Is there any way to install any of those linux distros to a phone which is currently running android rom? Is any rom available ? if yes links please

  • Fabian Said:

    opensuse is now avaiable for armv5 and armv7 too. Almost every package provides by the official repos has been rebuilt (with opensuse build service) for arm.

  • Toby Jug Said:

    "These were replaced with arm-linux-gnueabi in Lenny in the armel section, supporting ARMv4t and up. armel has been replaced by the arm-linux-gnueabihf port, armhf in Wheezy. armhf is ARMv7 and up, with the Thumb-2 instruction set." This is just waffle. Nonsense like this will just confuse users, not clear things up. A Google search makes more sense than this.

  • orlando Said:

    What is available for the jpornada 820? I was just given one and would like to use it as a portable terminal.

  • jw Said:

    Hey Carla, Newb here! Do these linux distros run on a touchscreen? I just got this 2-in-1 laptop tablet thing and I want to take out windows RT and put something more... flattering on it. Can you point me somewhere or give me advice? Thanks!

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