AArch64 boards and perception

Recently I had a discussion with A13 and realized that people may have different perception of how AArch64 boards work:

Sahaj told me that you can just install generic images on honeycomb

it kinda blows my mind

How did we got to that point?

Servers are boring, right?

I started working on AArch64 in 2012. First in fast models written by Arm developers, then also in QEMU. Both used direct kernel boot method without any firmware or bootloaders.

In 2013 I moved from Canonical/Linaro to Red Hat. And there we got server from Applied Micro. I do not remember how it booted as I used it for building software. Some time later we had Mustangs and all of them were booting UEFI.

Then I got Mustang at home. Fedora, RHEL were booting fine. Then CentOS and Debian joined. All of them used grub-efi like my x86-64 desktop or laptop.

Time passed, I got other servers to work with. HPe M400, ThunderX, ThunderX2, Falkor, D05 etc. Each of them was running UEFI. Either Tianocore based or commercial one.

And to install operating system all I needed was to boot generic install media.

SBC hell

At same time SBC world was fighting with users. Each vendor/SoC/board had to be treated specially as there was no way to store firmware on board (as SPI flash is very expensive).

So depending on SBC your firmware could be written either:

Some offsets forced the use of “obsolete” MBR partitioning as there was no space for GPT information. While UEFI systems require GPT not MBR.

It also generated lot of wrong information like “this file needs to be named in UPPERCASE (on case insensitive filesystem)” or “needs to be first file written to a partition”. Some kind of “SBC boot voodoo”.

So each SBC required its own boot media — you could not take it to a board with some other SoC and expect it to start. Or you spend some time to create some kind of hybrid image which had a few bootloaders written. Easier way was to prepare a separate boot media images per SBC.

From time to time there was SBC with onboard flash available for storing firmware. Some people made use of it, others continued doing offset crap as they were used to it.


Last years brought us several specifications from Arm. First was SBBR which stands for Server Base Boot Requirements. It said which features should be present in firmware (you can read more in my previous post about Arm standards).

As SBCs are not servers, a new specification was created for them: EBBR (E means Embedded). It basically says “try to follow what server does” and has some requirements either dropped or relaxed.

Both were designed to make distribution’s life easier. Never mind is it BSD, Linux or Microsoft Windows — they have to put EFI bootloader (like Grub-efi) in EFI System Partition and system will boot on any supported SBBR/EBBR hardware.

For example I have a USB pendrive with Debian “bullseye” installed. It boots fine on RockPro64 and Espressobin SBCs (both have EBBR compliant U-Boot stored in on-board flash) and on Mustang and HoneyComb (both with SBBR compliant UEFI in on-board flash).

Habits. Good, bad, forced.

So it looks like the way how AArch64 system should boot depends on what your habits are.

When you started from servers then SBBR/EBBR way is your way and you look weird at most of SBC systems with their offsets and “other mumbo jumbo”.

If all you used were SBC then going into SBBR/EBBR world can be “zOMG, it just magically works!”.

Note to SBC vendors

Most SBCs already follow the EBBR standard or can easily be made compliant. Never mind you are using mainline U-Boot or some own fork (and then consider upstreaming as board’s life may be longer than you expect).

Enable the CONFIG_DISTRO_DEFAULTS option in the config. Build U-Boot, store it to the board and boot. Then erase whatever environment you used before with “env default -a” command.

On next reboot your SBC will iterate over “boot_targets” variable and check for few standard boot files:

When it gets something then it handles that and boots. If not then goes to another boot target.

This allows to handle basically every operating system used on Arm systems. And allows to boot generic install ISO (as long as OS on it supports the device).

Bonus points if your SBC has some on board flash or eMMC it can boot from. Then firmware can be stored there so user does not even have to worry about it.

aarch64 arm firmware sbc