Strategies for Deploying Embedded Software

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While many Embedded Linux Conference talks cover emerging technologies, some of the most useful are those that survey the embedded development tools and techniques that are already available. These summaries are not only useful for newcomers but can be a helpful reality check and a source for best practices for more experienced developers.

In “Strategies for Developing and Deploying your Embedded Applications and Images,” Mirza Krak, an embedded developer at Mender.io, surveys the many options for prepping and deploying software on devices. These range from cross-device development strategies between the desktop and embedded platforms to using IDEs to working with Yocto/OE-Core with package managers. Krak, who spoke at this October’s ELC Europe conference in Edinburgh, also covered configuration management tools, network boot utilities, and update solutions such as swupdate and Mender.

Basic desktop/embedded cross development

It’s easier to do your development on a desktop PC rather than directly on an embedded device, said Krak. Even if your device can run the required development software and distributions, you cannot easily integrate all the tools that are available on the desktop. In addition, compile times tend to be very slow.

On the desktop, “everything is available to you via apt-get install, and there is high availability of trace and debug tools,” said Krak. “You have a lot more control when doing things like running a binary, and you can build, debug, and test on the same machine so there are usually very short development cycles.”

Eventually, however, you’ll probably need to do some cross-device development. “You can use some mock hardware to do some basic sanity testing on the desktop, but you are not testing on the hardware where the software will run, which may have some constraints.”

A typical approach for cross-device development is to run Yocto Project or Buildroot on your PC and then cross compile and transfer the binaries to the embedded device. This adds to the complexity because you are compiling the code on one device and you may need to transfer it to multiple devices for testing.

You can use the secure copy (scp) command or transfer data by USB stick. However, “It’s a lot of manual work and prone to error, and it’s hard to replicate across many devices,” said Krak. “I’m surprised at how many people don’t go beyond this entry point.”

IDEs and Package Managers

An easier and more reliable approach is to use an IDE such as Eclipse or Qt Creator, which have plug-ins to cross compile. “IDEs usually have post-build hooks that transfer the binary to the device and run it,” said Krak. “With Qt Creator, you can launch the debug server on the device and do remote debugging remotely.”

IDEs are great for simpler projects, especially for beginning or casual developers, but they may lack the flexibility required for more complex jobs. Krak generally prefers package managers — collections of tools for automating the processing of installing, upgrading, configuring, and removing software — which are much the same as those you’d find on a desktop Linux PC.

“Package managers give you more sanity checks and controls, and the ability to state dependencies,” said Krak. Package managers for embedded targets include deb, rpm, and opkg, and you can also turn to package utilities like apt, yum, dnf, pacman, zipper, and smart.

“If you’re compiling your Debian application in a build system you could say ‘make dpkg’, which will package your binary and any configuration files you might have,” said Krak. “You can then transfer the binary to your device and install. This is less error prone since you have dependency tracking and upstream and custom package feeds.”

Package managers are useful during prototyping and early development, but you typically won’t make them available to the embedded end user, said Krak. In addition, not all embedded devices support platforms such as Ubuntu or Raspbian that include package managers.

Krak typically works with a Yocto Project/Open Embedded environment and uses the OE-core Angstrom distribution, which maintains opkg package feeds. “You can include meta-angstrom in your Yocto build and set DISTRO = ‘angstrom’ to you get package feeds,” said Krak. “But there’s a lot more to Angstrom that you may not want, so you may want to create a more customized setup based on Poky or something.”

Yocto generates package feeds when you do an image build, giving you a choice of rpm, deb, or ipk. Yet, “these are only packages, not a complete package feed,” said Krak. To enable a feed, “there’s a bitbake package-index command that generates the files. You expose the deploy server where all your packages are to make it available on your device.”

While this process handles the “service side” package feed, you still need tools on your embedded device. Within Yocto, “there’s an EXTRA_IMAGE_FEATURES setting you can set to package-management,” said Krak. “There’s also a recipe in meta-openembedded/meta-oe called distro-feed-configs.bb. If you include it in your build it will generate the config files needed for your package manager.”

Config management, network boot, and update solutions

Krak went on to discuss configuration management tools such as CFEngine, Puppet, Chef, and Ansible. “These are very common in the enterprise server world if you need to manage a fleet of servers,” said Krak. “some apply workflows to embedded devices. You install a golden image on all your devices, and then set up connectivity and trust between the CM server and device. You can then script the configuration.”

Krak also surveyed solutions for more complex projects in which the application extends beyond a single binary. “You may be developing a specialized piece of hardware for a very specific use case or perhaps you depend on some custom kernel options,” said Krak.

Network booting is useful here because you can “deploy all the resources necessary to boot your device,” said Krak. “On boot, the system fetches the Linux kernel device tree and file system, so you just need to reboot the device to update the software. The setup can be complex, but it has the advantage of being easily extended to boot multiple devices.”

Typical network booting schemes such as PXELINUX and PXE boot use a tftp server setup on a laptop where you put the build artifacts you want to deploy. Alternatively, you can script it using the NFS root file-system.

A final alternative for complex systems is to use an update solution such as Mender, rauc, or swupdate. “You can use these early in the development process to deploy your builds,” said Krak. “If you build the same device in production, you can use the same software to test it throughout the development process, which builds confidence. Some use image-based updates, which is nice because your devices are stateless, which simplifies testing. Updaters fit well into development workflow and make it easier to integrate build artifacts. They often have features to avoid bricking devices.”

As a developer for Mender.io, Krak is most familiar with Mender, which provides an A/B image update strategy. “You have two copies of the OS and you do image-based updates so you always update the whole system,” explained Krak. You can watch the complete presentation below.