Following up: “Avoiding the UK IoT Disaster” (BrisTech, 2015-12-03)

I thought I’d take the time to write a short blog post following up on my presentation that I gave to BrisTech the other night (2015-02-03) titled “Avoiding the UK IoT Disaster”. In the talk, I highlighted not security or technical problems with IoT but a key educational problem that will be putting our industry at serious risk: Low-level development is not being taught in schools and is barely taught at Universities. Slides are available here.

During the presentation I highlighted a couple of possible problem-applications, where IoT devices are being programmed using high-level code (often Python) on top of an embedded Linux stacks. Such stacks and programming in Python allows rapid development and ease-of-update in future (which is useful/key for security) but sacrifices hardware efficiency and, even more so, battery life.

The specific example that I brought up was an IoT thermometer programmed in Python with wireless connectivity. I stated during the presentation that such a setup was not a good idea because thermometers were relatively simple devices that didn’t require such a complex stack and also that, as a device installed in a home, you would want a decent battery life.

This example caused some controversy and was the subject of a lot of the discussion at the end of the talk. One member of the audience, who works in the IoT industry, gave an interesting piece of analysis which is where I would like to start. His key point I feel worth highlighting is that, in his work, he sees three types of IoT device:

  1. Long-term, hard-to-replace devices, such as tremor and stress sensors built into bridges which often can’t be replaced, need to be extremely reliable and last a very, very long time (relative to standard technology cycles).
  2. Long-term, easy-to-replace devices, such as the thermometer example I gave earlier. These are devices which the user may want to have for a long time but they are easily replaceable.
  3. Short-term devices, where short-term is roughly the length of a standard technology cycle, 18 months to 2 years. These are devices which we would only expect to last that length of time before they need replacing.

The design approach for type (1) devices is relatively straightforward to analyse. These are devices which we may never be able to replace and which need to last a long time thus battery life is a top priority. So is reliability and security, which is easier to assure when there is less hardware and less software to test. Minimising the amount of hardware and minimising the amount of software executing for any length of time is key to increasing battery life. This is only possible using low-level software where modules can be stripped to a minimum and Python certainly doesn’t come under the heading of “low-power”.

The design approach for type (3) is arguably equally simple because the developers are likely to need the device to come quickly to market and to rapidly develop the next version and the version after that. This means Python and embedded Linux, which has regular security updates, and keep be developed and reasonably tested pretty quickly, makes sense.

The design approach for type (2) is what caused the most debate. Arguably, it is better for the user if the battery life is longer since, for a long-term device, it will be cheaper to not have to replace the battery or entire device so often. However, since the device can easily be replaced, it will probably not be an expensive, critical device with high per-unit margins (or at least, replacing the battery will be cheap so in the long-term, the per-unit profit is massively affected by the initial and maintained development cost). So using entirely low-level favours battery life but increases development cost. Using high-level significantly reduces development cost but also battery life and (possibly) user satisfaction. Which side of the line you go for probably depends on the specific device. Popular opinion at the talk was that Python for a thermometer was reasonable and on reflection I am inclined to agree.

In conversation after the event, Adam B. from Simpleweb showed me an unusual (but very cool) little device called an iBeacon. For those unfamiliar with iBeacons, they are small, thumb-sized low-energy Bluetooth devices which you can track the location of. This allows tracking people as they move through a shop or similar areas. The devices shown to me were sealed units, extremely small (so no space for big memory chips and processors nor heat dissipation) and without a replaceable battery. But per-unit they are pretty expensive and typical use cases require longevity. Thus software for such a device is likely to need to be entirely low-level, for battery life, despite the fact that the devices themselves are easily replaceable. This is an example of a type (2) device better suited to C-based dev than Python-based dev.

This example brought us to think about the development process for the devices. Adam, Roger Shepherd, a few others and I discussed the following areas which we agreed make sense as ideas but need significant work to improve or integrate with standard IoT development practices:

  1. As an example, using a Creator CI40 for rapid development (in Python or otherwise), experimenting with features, nailing down an exact design and then creating the final product in proper low-level code (if necessary). In an ideal world, it would be an easy, automated process to go from Python to pure low-level so that any device can be developed for best battery life. As it stands at the moment, this isn’t possible, which brings me on to points 2 and 3.
  2. GCC and similar C compilers are a nightmare to set up. Which makes development with them flaky and hard to do, all of which contributes to extended development time.
  3. Also, the C language and C libraries have poor modularisation in most code bases and there is a distinct lack of open-source, free systems for C-based package management. Thus, dedicated IoT software is either written from scratch every time or bought (at great expense) from another company (but often the bought libraries aren’t stripped down to just what is required). Thus low-level development for IoT (in C) is currently very expensive whereas in Python, there is great package management and modularisation.

Furthermore, as highlighted in my talk, C development is only going to get more expensive, as knowledge and understanding of low-level development by graudates entering the IoT industry decreases and the onus falls on companies to train new developers.

In conclusion then, while the example I gave during the talk was not the strongest technical example, there is still a strong case for teaching low-level development in schools and universities (though not to the exclusion of everything else). Furthermore, if  as an industry we could perfect a technique for high-level prototype development with easy transition to production low-level code, that’d be great. It would cut development costs, improve products (and reduce hardware costs). In the meantime, we will have to rely on team leaders to make an informed per-device choice of the tools and language used.

World first: C# kernel running on MIPS

Exciting news today as we announce our working kernel for MIPS based on the Creator CI20 board.

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time in the world that anyone has got a C# kernel or operating system (of any form) working on a MIPS processor.

How did we do it?

We started the week by setting up the environment in which we were able to send a kernel binary file to the CI20. To see how this setup process is done, please read Ed’s post published earlier this week. After the connections were established we started to implement the necessary IL operations for the MIPS architecture to get the test kernel working.

The conversion of IL implementations from x86 to MIPS has been relatively smooth, except for the fact that in the MIPS architecture data stored in the memory must be half- or full-word aligned. This caused some initial headaches, however, Ed was determined to get to the bottom of the issue and in little time the problem was solved.

Other differences that required a lot of study and thought were related to the assembly code syntax for MIPS (GNU assembler – GAS) and the instructions available (reduced instruction set for MIPS). Although MIPS is a RISC architecture, meaning that more instructions must be used to perform the equivalent computation compared to x86, there are 16 general purpose registers available (as opposed to 4 on the x86) which makes implementation much easier. Furthermore, the programmer can also make use of pseudo-instructions which speed up implementation.

What does it do?

So what does the test kernel actually do? The answer is both not that much and quite a lot.

Although the functionality of the kernel is limited to changing the colour of the on-board LED and reading/writing characters from/to the UART ports, the fact that the kernel does that much proves that the FlingOS compiler is in a stable and solid state. It is a great proof of concept and initial step from which the new MIPS kernel can progress.

This has been a very exciting week and we are looking forward to completing the target architecture library and expanding the test kernel. In a few weeks time we will have a fully functioning IL compiler for MIPS.

Can I try it?

We’ll be releasing a compiler package and stable copy of the test kernel in the next month. We’d like to expand our compiler and proof-of-concept, test kernel a bit before releasing it to the wild.

Keep an eye on this space! Please ask questions below.

Ed and Roland

Stage 2 : Boot a custom OS

Earlier this week I tweeted that “Stage1: Boot a different OS – complete” meaning that I had successfully booted an alternative OS on the Creator CI20s (which were kindly provided by our sponsor Imagination Technologies®. Well, today I succeeded in booting a very basic custom operating system on the CI20s, so here’s how I did it.

For starters, I downloaded and installed the current compiler toolchain for Windows – Sourcey Codebench for MIPS available here. I installed mine to a non-standard directory but it works just fine. We’ll come on to how to use it later.

I also downloaded and install Putty and Serva – both of which are necessary tools. Putty provides a console interface to the serial connection required to talk to the CI20’s U-Boot bootloader. Serva provides an easy way to set up a TFTP server on Windows. Both of these tools are free. Again, we’ll come on to how to use them later.

Lastly, I had to buy one small (cheap) bit of extra hardware – a USB to UART converter. Be aware that there are two chips widely used to produce these devices. One of them only supports Linux and version of Windows 7 and earlier. The other chip supports Linux and all current versions of Windows – so make sure you get the right one! I bought one for Windows 8.1 (i.e. the second type of chip) from Amazon (with one day delivery on a Sunday no less!). I ordered from 3C4u who use Amazon. (The first time I tried to order two of these the package never arrived. I re-ordered and they were delivered fine. Amazon gave me a refund and Prime subscription extension for the first order so I’m not complaining too much!)

For the custom OS I wanted to try out something which I knew worked. So I went online and found’s great series of tutorials on writing a custom CI20 OS. I cloned the Git repo and started following the instructions. For the USB to TTL chip I have, the tutorial is correct, you need to connect RXD on the converter to TXD on the CI20, and visa-versa for TXD on the converter and RXD on the CI20. To avoid having to use the power cable, you can also attach the 5V pin to abny of the CI20’s 5V_IN pins on the primary expansion header. The board will power on as soon as you connect the 5V pin so hold off until later for that! You’ll also need to connect an Ethernet cable to the same hub or switch your PC/laptop/WiFi hub is connected to – this will be so the CI20 can connect to the TFTP server.

After cloning the Git repo I ran across a few issues. The tutorials were written for Max/Linux and for if you compile GCC yourself. Since I installed Sourcery CodeBench , the Makefile was not set up to compile properly. I eventually worked out how to it so it works properly. Here is a copy of my make file:

AS=mips-linux-gnu-as -mips32

OBJS=start.o main.o

hello.bin: hello.elf
 $(OBJCOPY) -O binary $< $@

hello.elf: $(OBJS)
 $(LD) -EL -T -o $@ $+

%.o: %.[Sc]
 $(CC) $(CFLAGS) -EL -c -o $@ $<

 rm -f *.o *.elf *.bin

I combined this with a simple batch script called build.bat in the same directory as the Makefile which allows me to specify the path to Sourcery CodeBench’s bin folder, instead of other version of GCC which I have installed. The batch script looked like this:

@echo off
SET BD=C:\Users\Ed\Documents\Coding\C\2015\MIPS\Compiler\bin
@echo on

Where BD is set to the path to Sourcery CodeBench’s “bin” folder.

Having compiled the “hello.bin” file I proceeded to set up Putty and the TFTP server. Here are a series of images I took showing the process. By the time I was done entering the commands into Putty (also shown below), the CI20 showed the nice, purple LED as expected.

2015-08-02 - Putty Config
Putty configuration

For the Putty configuration shown above, remember to update the COM port name to the name of the COM port device on your computer. This can be found by opening Device Manager and looking under the Ports node of the tree.

Serva config
Serva config

For the Serva configuration shown above, remember to update the “TFTP Server root directory” to the same folder as your “hello.bin” file is in.

2015-08-02 - Putty Console
Putty console

For the commands to U-Boot, remember to replace the serverip “” and the ipaddr “” with values for your network. The IP should be the IP address of the computer which is running Serva (which can be looked up by doing “ipconfig /all” in a Windows command prompt on the server computer). The “ipaddr” can be any value you like but the first three parts must match the IP address of your server.

2015-08-02 - Serva Log
Serva log

If the boot completes successfully, you should see a Serva log similar to the one above. The LED on the CI20 should turn purple as shown below.

Final result
Final result

Detecting ATAPI drives

In the past few days I’ve been tackling a problem I’ve had for a while now – how to make ATAPI detection and retrieving device information reliable. I found that if I confined myself to a virtual machine then the existing code was pretty stable. However, with the large range of real-hardware I now have available to me, “it works in a VM” just wasn’t satisfactory. So I started testing and researching.

What I found was that I could reliably detect CD / DVD drives on all hardware. However, almost completely consistently, issuing the Device Identify Packet command resulted in the error bit being set. Yet my code worked exactly the same as many other people’s online examples. I reached the following conclusions:

  1. My code wasn’t doing something properly. It must be missing a step that would allow the ATAPI disc to respond properly.
  2. Other people’s code clearly hadn’t been tested on real hardware. There were various other indications of this which I won’t go into detail about here.

What I realised, however, was that once an ATA device has reported an error, it does not clear the error flag until you send it a new command. I also noted that part of the process of detecting an ATAPI disc, involves issuing the Identify command and then checking various registers to look for the PATAPI/SATA/SATAPI signatures. You check for the signatures even if the device reports an error.

So what was happening was some devices flagged up an error for the Identify command and some didn’t. The ones which did, required an additional command to be sent prior to the Identify Device Packet command otherwise it would still report an error. I went looking for a reset command and found one. Technically it only affects PATA/SATA not PATAPI/SATAPI devices. However, because it reset everything on the bus, and ATAPI devices have to be ATA responsive, ATAPI devices count this as a command. Thus issuing the Reset command clears the error flag. The problem was solved 🙂

Head over to this file on my dev branch in FlingOS’s BitBucket repository for sample Reset method code and usage.

Easy PXE Network boot

I had been meaning to set up a network boot system for FlingOS for a while. Yesterday I finally got around to it and after several hours of trying different software and solutions, I finally found one which worked nicely.

I had been meaning to set up a network boot system for FlingOS for a while. Yesterday I finally got around to it and after several hours of trying different software and solutions, I finally found one which worked nicely.

There is a modest selection of software out there which will let you set up PXE Network booting. The majority of it focuses around Windows installation and updating. What I needed was a system that would allow me to switch on any network-connected laptop and have it boot the latest version of FlingOS that I just compiled on my PC or main laptop. FlingOS already uses Syslinux as its bootloader so it made sense to use the Pxelinux variant of Syslinux. Unfortunately, Pxelinux requires something that most PXE Server programs don’t support – something called the tsize command.

PXE relies on a combination of DHCP, Binl and TFTP to allow a PC to detect the availability of a PXE server and to retrieve the boot image(s). Pxelinux requires that the TFTP server supports the unusual tsize command. “tsize” allows Pxelinux to request the size of a file ahead of time i.e. before it starts to retrieve it.

After various attempts using Serva and other software, I came across TinyPXE. Finally something that would work. TinyPXE was written by a guy who needed a simple, effective, no-install solution to running a PXE server. Perfect. It even comes with support for Pxelinux, Grub and others. What’s even better, is that it can auto-load everything from a human-readable config file. So once you’ve worked out what setup you need, you can just put it in the config file and never have to worry after that.

Here’s a copy of the contents of my config file (config.ini):

;will over rule the bootp filename or opt67 if the client arch matches one of the below
;needed to tell TFTPd where is the root folder
root=G:\Fling OS\Fling OS\Kernel\Kernel\bin\Debug\DriversCompiler\ISO
;bootp filename as in
;alternative bootp filename if request comes from ipxe or gpxe
; altfilename=menu.ipxe
;start HTTPd
;tftpd=1 by default
;will share (netbios) the root folder as PXE
;will log to log.txt
;alternative bootp filename if request comes thru proxydhcp (udp:4011)
;any extra dhcp options
;my gpxe / ipxe dhcp options
;the below will be executed when clicking on the online button
;if log=1, will log to log.txt

MIPS / CI20 Custom OS

Want to write your own OS for Imagination Technologies® CI20? Or just want to investigate making a custom OS for MIPS? I’ve found a blog that has some great, practical content:’s CI20 Bare-metal articles

The articles are written for people using Mac OSX but there’s sufficient information, when combined with the CI20 Wiki, for Linux and Windows users to get the project working. It also helpfully includes links to eBay for USB to Serial boards connecting wires.

Will we ever see FlingOS running on the CI20? Maybe but not for a little while yet. If anyone fancies having a go at porting FlingOS, by all means head over to the Join page!