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Bootloaders in Embedded Linux Systems

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This chapter examines the role of the bootloader and explains the limited execution context in which a bootloader must exist. It also covers one of the most popular bootloaders, U-Boot, in some detail.
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Previous chapters have referred to and even provided examples of bootloader operations. A critical component of an embedded system, the bootloader provides the foundation from which the primary system software is spawned. This chapter starts by examining the bootloader's role in a system. We follow this with an introduction to some common features of bootloaders. Armed with this background, we take a detailed look at a popular bootloader used for embedded systems. We conclude this chapter by introducing a few of the more popular bootloaders.

Numerous bootloaders are in use today. It would be impractical to go into much detail on even the most popular ones. Therefore, we have chosen to explain concepts and use examples based on one of the more popular bootloaders in the open source community for Power Architecture, MIPS, ARM, and other architectures: the U-Boot bootloader.

7.1 Role of a Bootloader

When power is first applied to a processor board, many elements of hardware must be initialized before even the simplest program can run. Each architecture and processor has a set of predefined actions and configurations upon release of reset, which includes fetching initialization code from an onboard storage device (usually Flash memory). This early initialization code is part of the bootloader and is responsible for breathing life into the processor and related hardware components.

Most processors have a default address from which the first bytes of code are fetched upon application of power and release of reset. Hardware designers use this information to arrange the layout of Flash memory on the board and to select which address range(s) the Flash memory responds to. This way, when power is first applied, code is fetched from a well-known and predictable address, and software control can be established.

The bootloader provides this early initialization code and is responsible for initializing the board so that other programs can run. This early initialization code is almost always written in the processor's native assembly language. This fact alone presents many challenges, some of which we examine here.

Of course, after the bootloader has performed this basic processor and platform initialization, its primary role is fetching and booting a full-blown operating system. It is responsible for locating, loading, and passing control to the primary operating system. In addition, the bootloader might have advanced features, such as the capability to validate an OS image, upgrade itself or an OS image, or choose from among several OS images based on a developer-defined policy. Unlike the traditional PC-BIOS model, when the OS takes control, the bootloader is overwritten and ceases to exist.1

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