Linux and the Road to Development

Linux has long been on the edge of breaking into embedded systems, but one barrier has been the lack of affordable development boards with fast enough processors and large enough storage to cope with Linux. In the last few years, the situation has changed and there are a number of low-cost development boards, each with an array of plug-in peripherals and carrying processors with the power and memory to comfortably execute Linux-based applications. This article will look at Beagle Board/Beagle Bone and Panda Board. It will also look at a manufacturer’s approach to the same problem – The Free scale Tower development system with a special emphasis on the MPC8309 Power QUICC II Pro processor.
Both Beagle Boards and Panda Boards are open-source hardware – the details of the boards including Bills of Materials and the Gerber files needed to create the boards are freely available – with a community developing add-ons and other tools, with the powerful support of Texas Instruments (TI) and Digit-Key.
The first Beagle Board was developed to show off the capabilities of the TI OMAP3530 system-on-a-chip. OMAP™ (Open Multimedia Applications Platform) products, part of TI’s Da Vinci™ platform, are aimed, as the name suggests, at media processing, but can also be seen as a very powerful “computer on a chip”. The 3530 is powered by an ARM® Cortex™-A8 core running at up to 720 MHz, and it has, on-chip, a TI TMS320C84x DSP and an Imagination Technologies Power VR SGX graphics engine. Additionally on-chip is a display sub-system, a camera interface, a range of serial interfaces and four USB controllers, as well as memory caches for the cores and 64 kB SRAM and 128 kB ROM. Add in low power consumption (TI does not provide an overall power figure, claiming it is application dependent) and the fact that it was the most powerful ARM-based device available at the time, and you have a very attractive little computer.
Within TI, a small group decided that a dramatic demonstration would be to mount the 3530 on a very minimal board. Instead of adding features like an LCD or Wi-Fi or Ethernet, the team decided to provide only standard expansion buses, such USB 2.0, SDIO, and DVI-D and an MMC/SD (Multi-Media Card/Secure Digital) card socket. With these, almost any peripheral or external device could be added, to create a low cost computer. With an overall board power consumption of under 2 watts, it needs no fan and can be powered from a USB connection to a PC, from a powered USB hub or from a 5 V external supply. Added to this is a low price ($125 = £105) is an Angstrom distribution of Linux, loaded through the card reader.
Very quickly, professionals and enthusiastic hobbyists embraced the board, and began sharing their experiences on The Beagle Board community now has over 5,000 members. That they were able to work on projects with no extra costs for software or specialist interfaces was a significant driver in increasing the take-up of the device, and very quickly many other distributions of Linux, including Android, Fedora and Ubuntu, were ported to the device. Expansion boards, for a range of functions, were also developed. The list of projects on shows an amazing range of creativity, from robots to an electronic Tibetan Singing Bowl.
The original board design has undergone several revisions, and in 2010, a new version, the BeagleBoard-xM, was introduced. This hosts the TI OMAP 3730, which has a faster (1000 MHz) version of the ARM Cortex-A8 and with the other functions, including DSP and graphics, correspondingly upgraded. The Beagle Board-xM is physically larger and has an integrated Ethernet port, four USB ports, and a camera port.
In 2011, the same team that developed Beagle Board created a new product – the BeagleBone. This uses the TI Sitara™ AM335X family, a very cheap (the volume price is below $5.00) device, again using the ARM Cortex-A8. The board is very basic, the size of a credit card, with USB connectivity and a Micro SD card reader. Speed is dependent on power supply: if the board is powered by USB, then processor speed is limited to 500 MHz, while using the 5 V connector allows 720 MHz.

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