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ARM Linux Distributions

By Peter Naulls. Published: 27th Jan 2004, 10:39:50 | Permalink | Printable

Slackware and Zynot come to ARM

People often ask me "Why have you chosen Debian to bundle with ARM Linux?". Apart from the advocacy reasons, which has made Debian an increasingly popular choice on Desktop Linux platforms (and cut down versions on PDAs), Debian is by far the most appropriate choice for an ARM desktop distribution, for reasons I'll discuss shortly.

When talking about Linux distributions, what's being referred to is really the way the system is installed, maintained as well as the way programs are packaged up, and the associated rules to ensure consistency. There are many distributions available for x86 platforms - RedHat, Slackware, Debian, Mandrake and Gentoo, to name just a few of the more well-known ones. Many of these have also been ported to other platforms such as PowerPC. It's this porting process which is the difficult part; nearly every program has to be recompiled - which can run to many thousands of packages, and problems in programs which have made assumptions about the system they're running on have to be fixed.

For ARM, the choice is more limited. Originally, there was just RedHat, used for early ARM Linux systems, and still maintained today for NetWinder systems. Later, Debian was ported to ARM, and considerable effort has been put into this such that almost all of its over 10000 packages are avilable for ARM. This is all the more exceptional, because this work was done by only a handful of ARM Linux enthusiasts, and why Debian is the best choice for Desktop systems.

The remainder of the choices are either customised free and commerical embedded systems, often based on BusyBox, or cut down versions of Debian, such as Familiar aimed at PDAs.

However, the status quo, at least for some situations, is in jeopardy, with two more distributions being developed. Early last year, the Gentoo distribution was forked, for reasons which are far too long to discuss here, to a new distribution called Zynot, but not before Zachary Welch had a basic port of Gentoo working on ARM. Unlike many other distributions, where focus is often entirely given to, or driven by x86, Zynot gives equal footing to all its supported architectures, including ARM. Zynot is slated for its first release later this year.

Not too long afterwards, although punctuated by a months long trip to Australia, Stuart Winter started work on a port of the popular Slackware distribution to ARM, with a preliminary name of ARMedslack. In recent weeks, Stuart has made considerable progress, with the aid of his trusty RiscPCs and ScratchBox, a cross compiling system. Slackware for ARM is also likely to have a first release later this year.

Because of the considerable work done on Debian, both Zachary and Stuart have taken liberties with the considerable Debian patches, especially to fix ARM issues that haven't yet made it upstream; such as all important items like the C library. Many of these patches are used in RISC OS ports, for the same reason.

In the meantime, if you'd like to help out on any of these projects, then get in touch with the maintainers; they'd appreciate it.


Zynot for ARM
Slackware (no ARM specific page, see Stuart's Homepage for contact details)
ARM Linux
Debian ARM
ARM Linux and Debian Resources

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