Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

October 9, 2012

3 Min Read
Linux Kernel Gains Better ARM Support

ARM hardware has been around in various forms for a while. But in many respects the battle to see which software will predominate on the chips is just beginning. Fortunately for open source developers, Linux is set to become considerably more ARM-friendly thanks to recent efforts to simplify kernel support for ARM devices. Here are the details, and why they matter for the open source channel as a whole.

Linux, of course, already runs on plenty of ARM chips. There’s a pretty decent chance it’s powering your smartphone, for instance. It also enjoys a formidable foothold in the emerging niche of ARM-based servers and PCs.

But for programmers building Linux-based operating systems for ARM devices, the traditional arrangement has been less than ideal due to a lack of generic hardware support for ARM in the Linux kernel. In most cases, powering ARM hardware with Linux has required spinning special builds of the kernel tailored to the specific specifications of the chip in question. There has been no overarching, unified support for the ARM family in Linux.

Multiplatform ARM Support

Until now, that is. Last week, the first multiplatform ARM code landed in the mainline Linux kernel. What that means in nongeek terms is that Linux has taken a first major step toward being able to run on all ARM chips out of the box, without the need for special tweaking.

This is a goal Linux developers have been working toward for some time. Linux founder Linus Torvalds himself called attention to the issue most famously in March 2011 when he declared, “Gaah. Guys, this whole ARM thing is a f*cking pain in the ass..

For ordinary users, of course, the recent addition of multiplatform ARM support to the kernel may not be the most exciting news item of the month. For now, ARM programmers are the only ones likely to benefit in a direct way from this change.

Nonetheless, this update — and further enhancements for unified ARM support in Linux for which it sets a precedent — could have major implications for both users and developers throughout the open source channel. Above all, it promises to help Linux remain competitive against other platforms that also are vying for a piece of the ARM pie. That’s especially good news for the Android community, which can look forward to simplified compatibility for the Linux-based Android operating system on smartphones as it competes with Apple‘s (NASDAQ: AAPL) iOS and Microsoft‘s (NASDAQ: MSFT) Windows Phone.

Beyond phones, unified ARM support in Linux could also help open source platforms gain a stronger foothold on other mobile devices, such as tablets. So far, Linux’s presence within this hardware niche has been quite minimal. But as it becomes easier to power ARM-based hardware with Linux, open source software solutions are likely to become more attractive to hardware vendors.

And where Linux goes, of course, open source applications tend to follow. You need not be directly involved in operating system development to benefit from enhanced ARM support for Linux. All channel partners stand to gain new opportunities, and that’s great news for the channel as a whole.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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