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Speed bumps on the road to moxie userland

Sooo..... it turns out there's lots to take care of before userland apps like BusyBox can run.

  • The root filesystem. This one is easy. I just built a short Hello World application in C with moxie-uclinux-gcc. This produces an executable in BFLT format which I call 'init'. The kernel build machinery takes this and produces a compressed root filesystem image linked to the vmlinux binary. The good news is that the kernel is able to boot, detect this initramfs, decompress it and load the init executable (which involves fixing up all of init's relocations). My Hello World doesn't actually use the C library or any system calls. It just writes Hello through direct communication with the simulator via our software interrupt (swi) instruction. I thought this would let me avoid dealing with system calls for now. I was wrong...
  • System calls. This one is harder. Obviously (in retrospect!) the kernel creates the init process via the execve system call. Implementing system call support involves lots of platform dependent stuff. For instance, how do we invoke system calls? How are parameters passed? How do we switch back and forth between userland and the kernel? The first question is easy: I'll use our trusty software interrupt (swi) instruction to invoke system calls. This means creating an exception handler and installing it as described in this old post.
    As an aside, the swi instruction takes a 32-bit immediate operand. We currently use this to identify calls to the simulator via libgloss. This works well for escaping to the simulator, but isn't the best way to identify system calls to the kernel. The Linux kernel is going to ignore this operand, and we'll pass the system call ID in a register instead. This avoids us having to do complex instruction decoding in the exception handler processing the interrupt (also trashing any future data cache). Libgloss and the sim only need a small number of IDs, so I'm going to chop the swi instruction down from 48-bits to 16-bits in a future build of the tools.
    Passing arguments to the system calls was also interesting to sort out...
  • System call argument passing. The moxie ABI currently only has two registers being used to hold function arguments. The remaining arguments must live on the stack. This decision goes back to when we only had 8 registers to play with. It turns out that Linux kernel system calls can have a maximum of 5 arguments. In order to avoid tricky argument marshaling, I've decided to try changing the general ABI accordingly, so that up to 5 registers may be used to hold function arguments. This involves changes to the compiler, debugger and a smattering of assembly language in libgloss.
    The great thing about having integrated benchmarks into the moxiedev environment is that you can easily compare before and after performance for ABI changes like this. Running "ant benchmark" runs through the MiBench benchmark suite and saves a nice report for easy comparison. It turns out that switching from 2 to 5 register arguments is almost universally a win in terms of both code size and instruction trace length (an approximation of run time). The consumer jpeg benchmarks were slightly larger and slower, but only by less than 1%. Every other benchmark result was slightly better. The one outlier was the "network_dijkstra" benchmark which ended up 44% "faster" (44% fewer instructions being executed).
  • The first real moxie compiler bug. Sometimes things just don't work! This is especially true when you're tracking the bleeding edge from upstream. I won't go into the details, but I discovered a rare bug in the compiler where it would assume that compare results could live across function calls. Fortunately I was able to track down the guilty compilation pass and disable it with -fno-rerun-cse-after-loop. I know that some people have brought up kernels without the benefit of a nice debugger, but I just don't see how that is possible. The simulator, and a solid gdb port with reverse debugging capabilities have proven to be invaluable!

There's still lots to figure out and implement in the system call space, but it's clear that we're getting very close to running our first Linux program!

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