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ARM gets a fast boot Linux stack

Feb 11, 2009 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 1 views

PC BIOS giant Phoenix Technologies announced a new ARM version of its new previously x86-only Linux fast-boot add-on. HyperSpace has now been optimized for the ARM Cortex-A8 architecture running on netbooks, and is initially targeted at Freescale Semiconductor's new i.MX515 system-on-chip (SoC), says Phoenix.

For a company that is almost as psychologically linked to the x86 architecture as Intel itself, Phoenix's move to ARM is significant. It suggests that the Cortex-A8 architecture, first offered by Texas Instruments (TI) in its OMAP3x SoCs, and now in Freescale's new netbook-specific i.MX515 processor, is seen as a worthy contender with Intel's Atom in the hot netbook market. A number of analysts are predicting a growing battle between Intel and ARM over the control of emerging mobile platforms like netbooks and MIDs.

HyperSpace debuts

Released in January, HyperSpace comprises a minimalist, stripped down Linux environment with a Gecko- and Firefox-based browser, a slick WiFi connection manager, and a teensy kernel that leaves most peripherals (such as USB controllers) powered off to save power. In PCs at least, it was marketed as a secondary OS option that boots much faster and offers much better battery life than Windows. On systems with virtualization hardware enabled, Hyperspace can also boot Windows in the background, after which the user can toggle between the two environments.

Phoenix calls ARM's Cortex A8 an “optimum platform” for HyperSpace, lauding the architecture's support for dense code (presumably referring to the 8-bit Thumb2 instructions supported universally by all Cortex-series ARM processor cores). Phoenix also lauds the A8's performance. HyperSpace boots up and powers down “in seconds,” Phoenix says, rather begging the question of start-up time.

In recent review of HyperSpace (x86 version), our sister site, DesktopLinux, found it possible to cold-boot into HyperSpace, launch a Firefox 3.0-based browser, acquire a previously configured WiFi connection, and begin working in about 40 seconds. The review praised HyperSpace for redressing slow boot times, WiFi connection hassles, and short battery life, but criticized the technology for its lack of hardware and software flexibility. For instance, HyperSpace's Linux environment offers very limited support for hardware devices like USB mice, and users cannot install their own browser plugins.

Phoenix also offers a “Dual” version of HyperSpace for chips lacking virtualization hardware, such as Intel's Atom processor for netbooks. Without virtualization support, the Linux environment must be shut down in order to boot Windows. But, according to the review, a “nifty hand-off mechanism” enables some communication between the OSes: networking details survive the reboot, for instance, and clicking on an unsupported file type in the Linux environment's browser brings up the option to “open the file with Windows.”

Stated Ian Drew, EVP Marketing, ARM, “Mobile computing is a key initiative from ARM and we are pleased to work with Phoenix on technologies that support ARM Cortex-A8 processor-based products today, especially in netbooks.”

Stated Glen Burchers, sales and marketing director for Freescale's consumer segment, “The netbook market is poised for significant growth due to the paradigm shift in how Generation Y is satisfying computing and connectivity needs. HyperSpace accomplishes this plus complements the power savings and high performance our technology delivers.”

Does ARM really need this?

Phoenix is the first Linux quick-boot environment we've seen to tout ARM support. Other similar technologies include Intervideo's InstantOn, DeviceVM's Splashtop, Dell Latitude On, and Toshiba Qosmio.

Traditionally, ARM chips have been used in devices such as phones and PDAs that are expected to boot essentially instantaneously. Such devices often use XIP (execute-in-place), a way of running the OS from NOR flash, without first instantiating it in RAM. However, XIP on netbooks would likely not be practical, due to the high cost of NOR flash and the large and dynamic size of netbook OS kernels.

Meanwhile, PC-like devices based on ARM, such as Nokia's Linux-based web tablets, are starting to use increasingly advanced boot schemes that parallelize boot operations, or even read filesystem details from packed binary files. The most recent firmware update to Nokia's Maemo-based TabletOS cut boot time approximately in half, the LinuxDevices editors noticed — to about 35 seconds, we'd guess, including WiFi acquisition time.

Additionally, ARM-based devices have traditionally greatly outshined x86 in terms of the power they use when idle. Thus, most ARM-based devices are booted only on rare occasions, and simply suspended or allowed to fall asleep most of the time. It would be nice if some of these characteristics follow ARM as it moves upward into more netbook-like devices.

Still, if it does move up into netbooks, ARM systems will have to offer increasingly complex software stacks that could take longer to boot. ARM can now support memory sizes similar to PCs, and large RAM banks use more power in suspended states. ARM-based systems include an increasing number of peripherals, such as GPS radios and cellular networking cards, all of which take power to initialize during boot. So, if it starts to take too long, or too much power, to boot (for example) an Android netbook stack, HyperSpace could be a nice alternative.


HyperSpace will be on display at the 2009 GSMA Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona from Feb. 16-19, at the ARM booth 1C01, Hall 1m, and at the Freescale booth 1HS57, Hall 1. More information on HyperSpace may be found here, and the HyperSpace review in our sister site, DesktopLinux, is here.

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