Why we have to wait for Android on the Neo 1973

Wed, 21 Nov 2007 17:46:25 +0000
tech android article arm

update: It finally works!

So after a day of much fun and hacking, I sadly blog here in the face of defeat. Thwarted by binary only distribution and non-forwards compatible architectures. This tale of woe documents my attempt to get the Android stack running on the FIC Neo 1973 phone.

This post describes what I did to try and get this working, and ultimately why it isn't going to work until you get the source for the stack. And if you find the story excruciatingly just skip to the conclusion.

The day started out promisingly. I took the diff of the kernel I had earlier produced, and started to hack it down into something a little more manageable. First I got rid of the patches that enabled Qemu, since I only care about running this on the real hardware. Then I got rid of the patches that enabled the goldfish platform. The goldfish platform is the hardware platform that the Android SDK simulates. I don't need that for running on the Neo, so gone! Next there was a whole big patchset for enabling yaffs2. The Openmoko kernel already has yaffs2 patched in there, so this just causes confusion. Once all that is done, the final patch is much more manageable; 8000 lines rather than 30000 lines.

So with that in place, I pulled down the kernel.org kernel, and then applied the Openmoko patchset with quilt. With that in place I applied my stripped down diff. Now this was against 2.6.23, rather than 2.6.22 so there was a bit of fuzz and a couple of failed hunks. (That sounds more, like gangster slang than hacking!). Anyway, after fixing up the patch, I now have patch that applies cleanly against the Openmoko kernel. (Not that it will do you much good as you are about to see.)

So I took the recommended default config for openmoko, and ran trusty make oldconfig. This prompted for a couple of new options:


I ended up removing the low memory killer option because it had compile errors. I was going to go back and fix, but in the end didn't really matter.

This was a lot of progress in my first hour or two of hacking. I then proceeded to waste a whole bunch of time on stupid stuff. I'll save you all the gory details, but highlights follow.

Firstly just trying to get stuff running on Neo 1973 proved a bit of a challenge. I eventually found some known binaries, and workd ut how to get them onto the phone:

$ sudo dfu-util -a 5 -R -D om.rootfs.jffs2
$ sudo dfu-util -a 3 -R -D om.uImage.bin 

(Special thanks to David who pointed me at the right places.)

The next challenge was actually just getting the kernel I had built from to work with the rootfs rather than just the binary kernel. This was particularly difficult to actually debug because there were no error messages or panics, just the kernel sitting at Freeing init memory, and no more. As far as I could tell it was the same kernel source, and I had used the default config. So after lots of messing around (different compilers, with/without modules, etc), I stumbled upon the fact that the user mode binary applications on the rootfs image are all using the new EABI, as opposed to the old ABI. It turns out that special kernel support needs to be enabled for EABI, and this isn't in the default openmoko kernel config. (I don't have a good reference for EABI vs. OABI. Linux devices has a story, but the floating point stuff is really only one small part of the differences.). Anyway, after enabling the CONFIG_AEBI things started going a lot smoother. I really wish that more people enabled the /proc/config.gz option, it would have made life a lot easier.

So at this point I had a kernel with the Android patches loading and running the standard OpenMoko distribution. Next step was to run a different rootfs. Taking the filesytems I had extracted earlier as well as the rootfs I had extracted (see this post for details), I combined these and used mkfs.jffs2 to build an android jffs filesystem. (For reference the full command is: $ sudo mkfs.jffs2 -x lzo -r android-root-image -o android.jffs2 --eraseblock=0x4000 --pad -n -squash). At this point I thought I was home free. How very wrong I was.

On booting this I was back at the dreaded Freeing init memory, with no other output. Confused with this, I compiled a very simple hello world program to see if this would work as a replacement init (just for testing). This didn't work either.

With this failure I tried another tack. I would revert to my known good, of the working openmoko rootfs, and install my hello program on this rootfs just to test it. I didn't think I would have a problem here. It turns out it failed to run. Luckily the openmoko rootfs has gdb, which is great for fixing problems like this. Firing up gdb soon let me to the real problem.

ARMv4 vs. ARMv5

So, it turns out that my hello binary (and all the android binaries) are compiled for an ARM926Ej-S chip. This is a problem because the neo1973 has an ARM920T core. Now you would think that ARM926 and ARM920 would be pretty close. But if you thought that you would, unfortunately, be wrong, wrong, wrong! The ARM926EJ-S implement the ARMv5TEJ instruction set, but the ARM920T implements the ARMv4T instruction set. So what happens in my hello program is that we hit an ARMv5 instruction, which is undefined in the earlier ARMv5 ISA, which generates an undefined instruction trap to the kernel, and the kernel responds by sending SIGILL to the running process. Assuming that the program hasn't installed any special signal handlers this will kill the process. And this is what was happening to my hello program, and what I assumed was happening to init as well. (Of course, assumptions make an ass out of u and me, or in this case, mostly me.)

Now I really wasn't going to be daunted by a pesky little thing such as the CPU not implementing the instructions stand in my way! (Note: I could of course have compiled hello for ARMv4 architecture, but that isn't an option for the rest of the stack, and I was only interested in getting hello running so I could get the rest of the stack running). So, in an act of stupid defiance, I decided, if the CPU can't implement the instruction, I'll do it myself.

Luckily the kernel provides a neat infrastructure for managing undefined instructions, and even emulating them. So the first instruction to emulate was the ARM clz instruction. This is the instruction that counts the number of leading zero bits. The code below implements this. The only other thing to do is ensure that this hook is registered at startup using: register_undef_hook(&clz_hook);

static int clz_trap(struct pt_regs *regs, unsigned int instr)
  /* Extract the source register index */
  int src = instr & 0xf;
  /* Extract the destination (result) register index */
  int dst = (instr >> 12) & 0xf;
  /* Extract the conditional code */
  int cc = (instr >> 28) & 0xf;
  /* Test if the conditional code passes */
  if (handle_cc(regs, cc)) {
      /* Implement the instruction */
      regs->uregs[dst] = 32 - fls(regs->uregs[src]);
  /* Print some stuff for debugging */
  printk("emulating clz: %x src=%d (%lx) dst=%d (%lx) @ %p\n", instr, 
	 src, regs->uregs[src], dst, regs->uregs[dst], (void*) regs->ARM_pc);
  /* Increment the PC register */
  regs->ARM_pc += 4;
  return 0;

static struct undef_hook clz_hook = {
	.instr_mask	= 0x0fff0ff0,
	.instr_val	= 0x016f0f10,
	.cpsr_mask	= PSR_T_BIT,
	.cpsr_val	= 0,
	.fn		= clz_trap,

One thing that may not be clear from the comments is that ARM supports conditionally executed instructions. The top 4 bits of the instruction are its condition field. Depending on the condition field, and the value of the N, Z, C and V flags (which are stored in the CPSR register), the instruction may or may not be executed. This is used to avoid having to branch for all if statements and the associated problems... but you didn't come here for an introduction to computer architecture. To correctly implement this, some code is needed, and I clag it here for posterity.

/* Return true if conditional code should be executed */
static int handle_cc(struct pt_regs *regs, int cc)
  int doit = 0;
  int cpsr = regs->ARM_cpsr;

  int n = (cpsr >> 31) & 1;
  int z = (cpsr >> 30) & 1;
  int c = (cpsr >> 29) & 1;
  int v = (cpsr >> 28) & 1;

  switch (cc) {
  case 0:
    doit = z;
  case 1:
    doit = !z;
  case 2:
    doit = c;
  case 3:
    doit = !c;
  case 4:
    doit = n;
  case 5:
    doit = !n;
  case 6:
    doit = v;
  case 7:
    doit = !v;
  case 8:
    doit = c && !z;
  case 9:
    doit = !c || z;
  case 10:
    doit = (n == v);
  case 11:
    doit = (n != v);
  case 12:
    doit = ((z == 0) && (n == v));
  case 13:
    doit = ((z == 1) || (n != v));
  case 14:
    doit = 1;
  case 15:
    doit = 0;
    printk("Error, should get here!\n");
  return doit;

OK, one down. That wasn't so hard. The next one gets a little bit tricker. The compiler will use the BLX instruction if it is available. This is the Branch, Link and Exchange instruction. There are two versions of the instruction, and at this stage we only really care about version 2. In this version the address to branch to is stored in a register, and a flag indicates whether or not an exchange is required. (You can ignore exchange for now, more about that later.). This instruction is a little bit more effort to implement, but it is not too hard:

static int blxv2_trap(struct pt_regs *regs, unsigned int instr)
  int rm = instr & 0xf;
  int cc = (instr >> 28) & 0xf;
  printk("emulate blxv2: %x rm=%d (%lx) @ %p CC: %d cc(%lx) cpsr(%lx)\n", instr, rm,
	 regs->uregs[rm], (void*) regs->ARM_pc, handle_cc(regs, cc), cc, regs->ARM_cpsr);

  if (handle_cc(regs, cc)) {
    /* Update the link register with the return address 8/
    regs->ARM_lr = regs->ARM_pc + 4;
    /* Update the CPSR is this is an 'exchange' */
    regs->ARM_cpsr = (regs->ARM_cpsr & (~32))  | ((regs->uregs[rm] & 1) << 5);
    /* Jump to the register value */
    regs->ARM_pc = regs->uregs[rm] & 0xfffffffe;
  } else {
    /* If the condition code fail, just go to the next instruction. */
    regs->ARM_pc += 4;
  return 0;

static struct undef_hook blxv2_hook = {
	.instr_mask	= 0x0ffffff0,
	.instr_val	= 0x012fff30,
	.cpsr_mask	= PSR_T_BIT,
	.cpsr_val	= 0,
	.fn		= blxv2_trap,

After this, success! Hello world ran correctly. Of course this emulation isn't going to be particularly fast, but it is still infinitely faster than not running at all. (Well, OK, not really, divide by zero is undefined, not infinite.) At this point we were feeling pretty good with ourselves. At this point I must acknowledge Carl and Matt for there assistance with this.

Thumb interworking

So now I really thought I was home free, but wrong once again. (A pattern emerging maybe?) So first a bit of a primer on ARM's Thumb mode (so punny!). ARM has two different instruction sets, the ARM instruction set, and the Thumb instruction set. The Thumb instruction set is a 16-bit instruction set, which has a higher code density than the ARM instruction set. Now the neat thing about this is that you can actually combine both ARM and Thumb instruction in the same program. So if your compiler is smart, it should be able to use both instruction sets for optimisation. The CPU knows whether code is executing in ARM or Thumb mode by a bit in the CPSR register. When the bit is set the instruction stream is assumed to be 16-bit Thumb instruction. Now if you are running in ARM mode, and want to enter Thumb mode, you need to do an exchange operation, which is part of the bx and blx instructions. Now it turns out that Android is compiled with Thumb mode, so this means it uses blx to switch from ARM to Thumb mode. So at this stage I ended up needing to implement blx (version 1) function. This is shown below:

static int blxv1_trap(struct pt_regs *regs, unsigned int instr)
  int h = (instr >> 24) & 1;
  long imm = ((instr & 0xffffff) << 8);
  /* should be signed extended */
  imm = imm >> 8;
  imm = imm << 2;
  imm = imm | (h << 1);
  printk("emulate blxv1: %x imm=%lx @ %p\n", instr, imm, (void*) regs->ARM_pc);

  regs->ARM_lr = regs->ARM_pc + 4;
  regs->ARM_cpsr = regs->ARM_cpsr | (1 << 5);
  regs->ARM_pc += imm;
  return 0;

static struct undef_hook blxv1_hook = {
	.instr_mask	= 0xfe000000,
	.instr_val	= 0xfa000000,
	.cpsr_mask	= PSR_T_BIT,
	.cpsr_val	= 0,
	.fn		= blxv1_trap,

Now, we get a bit further. But still no go. It turns out that Thumb also has a new BLX instruction in V5. So, we have to go through and emulate this instruction for Thumb as well. Below is the code for that.

static int blxv1_t_trap(struct pt_regs *regs, unsigned int instr)
  u16 offset_11 = instr & 0x7ff;
  u16 h = (instr >> 11) & 3;
  printk("blx thumb %lx ofs: %lx h: %d @ %p\n", 
	 instr, offset_11, h, (void*) regs->ARM_pc);
  if (h == 2) {
    long imm = (offset_11 << 12) << 9;
    imm = imm >> 9;
    regs->ARM_lr = regs->ARM_pc + (imm << 12);
    regs->ARM_pc = regs->ARM_pc + 2;
  } else {
    long new_pc = regs->ARM_lr + (offset_11 << 1);
    /* We set the top bit for mega hack! */
    regs->ARM_lr = (regs->ARM_pc + 2) | 1;
    regs->ARM_pc = new_pc;
    if (h == 1) {
      regs->ARM_lr = (1 << 31) | (((regs->ARM_lr & 2) >> 1) << 30) | regs->ARM_lr;
      regs->ARM_pc = regs->ARM_pc & 0xfffffffc;
      regs->ARM_cpsr = regs->ARM_cpsr & (~32);

  printk(" blx thumb after: pc: %lx lr: %lx cpsr: %lx\n", regs->ARM_pc, regs->ARM_lr, regs->ARM_cpsr);
  return 0;

static struct undef_hook blxv1_t_hook = {
	.instr_mask	= 0xe000,
	.instr_val	= 0xe000,
	.cpsr_mask	= PSR_T_BIT,
	.cpsr_val	= PSR_T_BIT,
	.fn		= blxv1_t_trap,

Now if you are still with me, and actually read the code, you might recognise some pretty interesting code. Spot it? No? OK, so the problem is the way in which ARM code returns to Thumb mode. The blx instruction updates the link register with the return address. In Thumb mode it also sets the lowest bit. This ensures that when bx is called from ARM mode it will jump back into Thumb mode. It turns out that having to use bx to return from functions is a bit of a pain, so in ARMv5, the architecture was updated so that if you popped values from the stack into the pc register, the CPU would also check the low bit and switch to Thumb mode if required. Unfortunately ARMv4 doesn't do this. Rather than checking the lower bit, it simply ignores it and masks it off, which means you jump back to the return address but remain in ARM mode, so you end up executing 16-bit instructions as though they were 32-bit instructions. It may not surprise you to learn that this generally doesn't work so well.

Which gets us to the truly evil code found above. As well as setting the low bit, we also go and set the top bit of the LR. When the ARM code returns from the function, rather than going to the correct location, it ends up at an unmapped location, which causes a pre-fetch abort. The prefetch abort handler was then updated to handle this error case.

asmlinkage void __exception
do_PrefetchAbort(unsigned long addr, struct pt_regs *regs)
  if (addr >> 31) {
    printk("Magic prefetch abort happened on: %x\n", addr);
    regs->ARM_pc = addr & 0x3ffffffe | ((addr >> 29) & 2);
    printk("  jumping to : %x\n", regs->ARM_pc);
    /* Enable thumb mode */
    regs->ARM_cpsr = (regs->ARM_cpsr | 32);
  do_translation_fault(addr, 0, regs);

Now, at this stage, we have something pretty hacked up, but all these hacks are pretty solid. Unfortunately it still doesn't work. We have successfully ensured that ARM code returns correctly when called from Thumb mode, what we have failed to do is ensure that Thumb code returns correct to ARM code. In ARMv4, this is only possible through the bx instruction, which correctly sets the Thumb bit, in the CPSR. Unfortunately on ARMv5, the pop instruction was extended to also correctly update the thumb bit. But we aren't on an ARMv5, so it is simply ignored. Which means we get stuck in Thumb mode and can't correctly return to ARM code.

The prefetch abort trick works to an extent the other way as well, e.g: for getting from Thumb, back into ARM, but it relies on the ARM code using the blx instruction. Unfortunately this isn't always the case, and it is perfectly reasonably for code to use a bl followed by a bx. As none of these trap it is not possible to put our magic fake value into the LR register.

The only other option left at this stage is some kind of code scanning technique. In this we scan the object code looking for the unsafe pop instructions, and replace them with undefined instruction so that we safely emulate them with the ARMv5 behaviour. Unfortunately ARM makes this approach basically impossible. It is not possible to tell if any block of code is Thumb or ARM instructions. More importantly, it is impossible to determine if a random word in the text segment is actually an instruction, or is in fact a literal value. Simply scanning for pop could actually modify some constants, which would lead to potentially subtle bugs. If ARM had separate execute and read permissions we could use the MMU to distinguish between code and data, but unfortunately the ARM MMU can't really do this. Which means that this approach is basically a no-go, at least not without some pretty nasty heuristics, or some really awesome static analysis. Of course we could just emulate every instruction, but this isn't exactly appealing to me. (And the performance would really suck!)


In summary, Android is compiled for ARMv5, Neo 1937 is ARMv4. These instruction sets are not compatible. Therefore Android will not run on the Neo 1937. Solutions to this problem would be either:

My guess is none of those three things is going to happen any time soon (although I'll be really happy to be disproved!), so it is better to focus on trying to get this running on an actual ARMv5 based chipset. (E.g: PXA270, i.MX21).

Finally, thanks to Jaq, Carl, David and Matt for providing inspiration and advice.

Update: Thanks to andrzej for spotting the bug in my clz() emulation. It should of course be 32 - fls(), not fls(). This is now updated.

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