Anatomy of an Embedded Linux System - Cross-Compiler

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So far, I’ve discussed the software components that are on the board. A cross-compiler is part of the development environment and, in the most basic terms, produces code that runs on a different processor or operating system than where the compiler ran. For example, a compiler that runs on a Linux x86 host that produces code to execute on an ARM9 target is a cross-compiler. Another example is a compiler running on Windows that produces code that runs on a x86 Linux host. In both cases, the compiler doesn’t produce binaries that can be executed on the machine where the compiler ran.

In Linux, the cross-compiler is frequently referred to as a tool chain because it’s a confederation of tools that work together to produce an executable: the compiler, assembler, and linker. The debugger is a separate software component. The book later describes how to obtain or create a tool chain for your target processor based on the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) project.

Linux is GNU licensed software, and subsequently users who receive a Linux kernel must have the ability to get the source code for the binaries they receive. Having the source code is just one part of what’s necessary to rebuild the software for the board. Without the cross-compiler, you can’t transform that source into something that can run on the remote target.

The de facto compiler for Linux is GCC, but this need not always be the case. Several chip vendors market compilers that produce highly optimized code for their processors. The Linux operating system, although written in C and assembler, requires GCC for compilation. However, you can compile programs to be run on the system with a different compiler.

For a certain segment of embedded boards, a cross-compiler isn’t necessary. Many PowerPC boards are as powerful as your desktop system; and some embedded systems are, for all intents and purposes, PCs in a different case. In these cases, development can happen right on the board. The compiler runs on the board, which produces code that runs in the same environment; the development cycle is much like that of a regular software project.

Source of Information : Pro Linux Embedded Systems (December 2009)

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