FreeBSD and Solid State Devices

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This article covers the use of solid state disk devices in FreeBSD to create embedded systems.

Embedded systems have the advantage of increased stability due to the lack of integral moving parts (hard drives). Account must be taken, however, for the generally low disk space available in the system and the durability of the storage medium.

Specific topics to be covered include the types and attributes of solid state media suitable for disk use in FreeBSD, kernel options that are of interest in such an environment, the rc.diskless mechanisms that automate the initialization of such systems and the need for read-only filesystems, and building filesystems from scratch. The article will conclude with some general strategies for small and read-only FreeBSD environments.

Table of Contents
1 Solid State Disk Devices
2 Kernel Options
3 rc.diskless and Read-Only Filesystems
4 Building a File System From Scratch
5 Building a kern.flp Installation Floppy with the fla Driver
6 System Strategies for Small and Read Only Environments

1 Solid State Disk Devices

The scope of this article will be limited to solid state disk devices made from flash memory. Flash memory is a solid state memory (no moving parts) that is non-volatile (the memory maintains data even after all power sources have been disconnected). Flash memory can withstand tremendous physical shock and is reasonably fast (the flash memory solutions covered in this article are slightly slower than a EIDE hard disk for write operations, and much faster for read operations). One very important aspect of flash memory, the ramifications of which will be discussed later in this article, is that each sector has a limited rewrite capacity. You can only write, erase, and write again to a sector of flash memory a certain number of times before the sector becomes permanently unusable. Although many flash memory products automatically map bad blocks, and although some even distribute write operations evenly throughout the unit, the fact remains that there exists a limit to the amount of writing that can be done to the device. Competitive units have between 1,000,000 and 10,000,000 writes per sector in their specification. This figure varies due to the temperature of the environment.

Specifically, we will be discussing ATA compatible compact-flash units and the M-Systems DiskOnChip® flash memory unit. ATA compatible compact-flash cards are quite popular as storage media for digital cameras. Of particular interest is the fact that they pin out directly to the IDE bus and are compatible with the ATA command set. Therefore, with a very simple and low-cost adaptor, these devices can be attached directly to an IDE bus in a computer. Once implemented in this manner, operating systems such as FreeBSD see the device as a normal hard disk (albeit small). The M-Systems DiskOnChip product is based on the same underlying flash memory technology as ATA compatible compact-flash cards, but resides in a DIP form factor and is not ATA compatible. To use such a device, not only must you install it on a motherboard that has a DiskOnChip socket, you must also build the `fla` driver into any FreeBSD kernel you wish to use it with. Further, there is critical, manufacturer-specific data residing in the boot sector of this device, so you must take care not to install the FreeBSD (or any other) boot loader when using this.

Other solid state disk solutions do exist, but their expense, obscurity, and relative unease of use places them beyond the scope of this article.

2 Kernel Options

A few kernel options are of specific interest to those creating an embedded FreeBSD system.

First, all embedded FreeBSD systems that use flash memory as system disk will be interested in memory disks and memory filesystems. Because of the limited number of writes that can be done to flash memory, the disk and the filesystems on the disk will most likely be mounted read-only. In this environment, filesystems such as /tmp and /var are mounted as memory filesystems to allow the system to create logs and update counters and temporary files. Memory filesystems are a critical component to a successful solid state FreeBSD implementation.

You should make sure the following lines exist in your kernel configuration file:

options         MFS             # Memory Filesystem
options         MD_ROOT         # md device usable as a potential root device
pseudo-device   md              # memory disk

Second, if you will be using the M-Systems DiskOnChip product, you must also include this line:

device          fla0    at isa?

3 rc.diskless and Read-Only Filesystems

The post-boot initialization of an embedded FreeBSD system is controlled by /etc/rc.diskless2 (/etc/rc.diskless1 is for BOOTP diskless boot). This initialization script is invoked by placing a line in /etc/rc.conf as follows:


rc.diskless2 mounts /var as a memory filesystem, makes a configurable list of directories in /var with the mkdir(1) command, changes modes on some of those directories, and extracts a list of device entries to copy to a writable (again, a memory filesystem) /dev partition. In the execution of /etc/rc.diskless2, one other rc.conf variable comes into play - varsize. The /etc/rc.diskless2 file creates a /var partition based on the value of this variable in rc.conf:


Remember that this value is in sectors. The creation of the /dev partition by /etc/rc.diskless2, however, is governed by a hard-coded value of 4096 sectors. It is trivial to change this entry in the /etc/rc.diskless2 file itself, although you should not need more space than that for /dev.

It is important to remember that the /etc/rc.diskless2 script assumes that you have already removed your conventional /tmp partition and replaced it with a symbolic link to /var/tmp. Because tmp is one of the directories created in /var by the /etc/rc.diskless2 script, and because /var is a memory filesystem (which is mounted read-write), /tmp will now be a directory that is read-write as well.

The fact that /var and /dev are read-write filesystems is an important distinction, as the / partition (and any other partitions you may have on your flash media) should be mounted read-only. Remember that in Section 1 we detailed the limitations of flash memory - specifically the limited write capability. The importance of not mounting filesystems on flash media read-write, and the importance of not using a swap file, cannot be overstated. A swap file on a busy system can burn through a piece of flash media in less than one year. Heavy logging or temporary file creation and destruction can do the same. Therefore, in addition to removing the swap and /proc entries from your /etc/fstab file, you should also change the Options field for each filesystem to ro as follows:

# Device                Mountpoint      FStype  Options         Dump    Pass#
/dev/ad0s1a             /               ufs     ro              1       1

A few applications in the average system will immediately begin to fail as a result of this change. For instance, ports will not install from the ports tree because the /var/db/port.mkversion file does not exist. cron will not run properly as a result of missing cron tabs in the /var created by /etc/rc.diskless2, and syslog and dhcp will encounter problems as well as a result of the read-only filesystem and missing items in the /var that /etc/rc.diskless2 has created. These are only temporary problems though, and are addressed, along with solutions to the execution of other common software packages in Section 6.

An important thing to remember is that a filesystem that was mounted read-only with /etc/fstab can be made read-write at any time by issuing the command:

# /sbin/mount -uw partition

and can be toggled back to read-only with the command:

# /sbin/mount -ur partition

4 Building a File System From Scratch

Because ATA compatible compact-flash cards are seen by FreeBSD as normal IDE hard drives, as is a M-Systems DiskOnChip product (when you are running a kernel with the fla driver built in) you could theoretically install FreeBSD from the network using the kern and mfsroot floppies or from a CD. Other than the fact that you should not write a boot-loader of any kind to the M-Systems device, no special instructions are needed.

However, even a small installation of FreeBSD using normal installation procedures can produce a system in size of greater than 200 megabytes. Because most people will be using smaller flash memory devices (128 megabytes is considered fairly large - 32 or even 16 megabytes is common) an installation using normal mechanisms is not possible--there is simply not enough disk space for even the smallest of conventional installations.

The easiest way to overcome this space limitation is to install FreeBSD using conventional means to a normal hard disk. After the installation is complete, pare down the operating system to a size that will fit onto your flash media, then tar the entire filesystem. The following steps will guide you through the process of preparing a piece of flash memory for your tarred filesystem. Remember, because a normal installation is not being performed, operations such as partitioning, labeling, file-system creation, etc. need to be performed by hand. In addition to the kern and mfsroot floppy disks, you will also need to use the fixit floppy. If you are using a M-Systems DiskOnChip, the kernel on your kern floppy must have the fla option detailed in Section 2 compiled into it. Please see Section 5 for instructions on creating a new kernel for kern.flp.

  1. Partitioning your flash media device

    After booting with the kern and mfsroot floppies, choose custom from the installation menu. In the custom installation menu, choose partition. In the partition menu, you should delete all existing partitions using the d key. After deleting all existing partitions, create a partition using the c key and accept the default value for the size of the partition. When asked for the type of the partition, make sure the value is set to 165. Now write this partition table to the disk by pressing the w key (this is a hidden option on this screen). When presented with a menu to choose a boot manager, take care to select None if you are using an M-Systems DiskOnChip. If you are using an ATA compatible compact flash card, you should choose the FreeBSD Boot Manager. Now press the q key to quit the partition menu. You will be shown the boot manager menu once more - repeat the choice you made earlier.

  2. Creating filesystems on your flash memory device

    Exit the custom installation menu, and from the main installation menu choose the fixit option. After entering the fixit environment, enter the following commands:

    ATA compatible DiskOnChip
    # mknod /dev/ad0a c 116 0
    # mknod /dev/ad0c c 116 2             
    # disklabel -e /dev/ad0c

    # mknod /dev/fla0a c 102 0
    # mknod /dev/fla0c c 102 2
    # disklabel -e /dev/fla0c

    At this point you will have entered the vi editor under the auspices of the disklabel command. If you are using DiskOnChip, the first step will be to change the type value near the beginning of the file from ESDI to DOC2K. Next, regardless of whether you are using DiskOnChip or ATA compatible compact flash media, you need to add an a: line at the end of the file. This a: line should look like:

    a:      123456  0       4.2BSD  0       0

    Where 123456 is a number that is exactly the same as the number in the existing c: entry for size. Basically you are duplicating the existing c: line as an a: line, making sure that fstype is 4.2BSD. Save the file and exit.

    ATA compatible DiskOnChip
    # disklabel -B -r /dev/ad0c
    # newfs /dev/ad0a

    # disklabel -B -r /dev/fla0c
    # newfs /dev/fla0a

  3. Placing your filesystem on the flash media

    Mount the newly prepared flash media:

    ATA compatible DiskOnChip
    # mount /dev/ad0a /flash

    # mount /dev/fla0a /flash

    Bring this machine up on the network so we may transfer our tar file and explode it onto our flash media filesystem. One example of how to do this is:

    # ifconfig xl0 netmask
    # route add default

    Now that the machine is on the network, transfer your tar file. You may be faced with a bit of a dilemma at this point - if your flash memory part is 128 megabytes, for instance, and your tar file is larger than 64 megabytes, you cannot have your tar file on the flash media at the same time as you explode it - you will run out of space. One solution to this problem, if you are using FTP, is to untar the file while it is transferred over FTP. If you perform your transfer in this manner, you will never have the tar file and the tar contents on your disk at the same time:

    ftp> get tarfile.tar "| tar xvf -"

    If your tarfile is gzipped, you can accomplish this as well:

    ftp> get tarfile.tar "| zcat | tar xvf -"

    After the contents of your tarred filesystem are on your flash memory filesystem, you can unmount the flash memory and reboot:

    # cd /
    # umount /flash
    # exit

    Assuming that you configured your filesystem correctly when it was built on the normal hard disk (with your filesystems mounted read-only, and with the necessary options compiled into the kernel) you should now be successfully booting your FreeBSD embedded system.

5 Building a kern.flp Installation Floppy with the fla Driver

Note: This section of the article is relevant only to those using M-Systems DiskOnChip flash media.

It is possible that your kern.flp boot floppy does not have a kernel with the fla driver compiled into it necessary for the system to recognize the DiskOnChip. If you have booted off of the installation floppies and are told that no disks are present, then you are probably lacking the fla driver in your kernel.

After you have built a kernel with fla support that is smaller than 1.4 megabytes, you can create a custom kern.flp floppy image with it by following these instructions:

  1. Obtain an existing kern.flp image file

  2. # vnconfig vn0c kern.flp

  3. # mount /dev/vn0c /mnt

  4. Place your kernel file into /mnt, replacing the existing one

  5. # vnconfig -d vn0c

Your kern.flp file now has your new kernel on it.

6 System Strategies for Small and Read Only Environments

In Section 3, it was pointed out that the /var filesystem constructed by /etc/rc.diskless2 and the presence of a read-only root filesystem causes problems with many common software packages used with FreeBSD. In this article, suggestions for successfully running cron, syslog, ports installations, and the Apache web server will be provided.

6.1 cron

In /etc/rc.diskless2 there is a variable named var_dirs. This variable consists of a space-delimited list of directories that will be created inside of /var after it is mounted as a memory filesystem. cron and cron/tabs are not in that list, and without those directories, cron will complain. By inserting cron, cron/tabs, and perhaps even at, and at/jobs as elements of that variable, you will facilitate the running of the cron(8) and at(1) daemons.

However, this still does not solve the problem of maintaining cron tabs across reboots. When the system reboots, the /var filesystem that is in memory will disappear and any cron tabs you may have had in it will also disappear. Therefore, one solution would be to create cron tabs for the users that need them, mount your / filesystem as read-write and copy those cron tabs to somewhere safe, like /etc/tabs, then add a line to the end of /etc/rc.diskless2 that copies those crontabs into /var/cron/tabs after that directory has been created during system initialization. You may also need to add a line that changes modes and permissions on the directories you create and the files you copy with /etc/rc.diskless2.

6.2 syslog

syslog.conf specifies the locations of certain log files that exist in /var/log. These files are not created by /etc/rc.diskless2 upon system initialization. Therefore, somewhere in /etc/rc.diskless2, after the section that creates the directories in /var, you will need to add something like this:

# touch /var/log/security /var/log/maillog /var/log/cron /var/log/messages
# chmod 0644 /var/log/*

You will also need to add the log directory to the list of directories that /etc/rc.diskless2 creates.

6.3 ports installation

Before discussing the changes necessary to successfully use the ports tree, a reminder is necessary regarding the read-only nature of your filesystems on the flash media. Since they are read-only, you will need to temporarily mount them read-write using the mount syntax shown in Section 3. You should always remount those filesystems read-only when you are done with any maintenance - unnecessary writes to the flash media could considerably shorten its lifespan.

To make it possible to enter a ports directory and successfully run make install, it is necessary for the file /var/db/port.mkversion to exist, and that it has a correct date in it. Further, we must create a packages directory on a non-memory filesystem that will keep track of our packages across reboots. Because it is necessary to mount your filesystems as read-write for the installation of a package anyway, it is sensible to assume that an area on the flash media can also be used for package information to be written to.

First, create a package database directory. This is normally in /var/db/pkg, but we cannot place it there as it will disappear every time the system is booted.

# mkdir /etc/pkg

Now, add a line to /etc/rc.diskless2 that links the /etc/pkg directory to /var/db/pkg. An example:

# ln -s /etc/pkg /var/db/pkg

Add another line in /etc/rc.diskless2 that creates and populates /var/db/port.mkversion

# touch /var/db/port.mkversion
# chmod 0644 /var/db/port.mkversion
# echo 20010412 >> /var/db/port.mkversion

where 20010412 is a date that is appropriate for your particular release of FreeBSD

Now, any time that you mount your filesystems as read-write and install a package, the make install will work because it finds a suitable /var/db/port.mkversion, and package information will be written successfully to /etc/pkg (because the filesystem will, at that time, be mounted read-write) which will always be available to the operating system as /var/db/pkg.

6.4 Apache Web Server

Apache keeps pid files and logs in apache_install/logs. Since this directory doubtless exists on a read-only filesystem, this will not work. It is necessary to add a new directory to the /etc/rc.diskless2 list of directories to create in /var, to link apache_install/logs to /var/log/apache. It is also necessary to set permissions and ownership on this new directory.

First, add the directory log/apache to the list of directories to be created in /etc/rc.diskless2.

Second, add these commands to /etc/rc.diskless2 after the directory creation section:

# chmod 0774 /var/log/apache
# chown nobody:nobody /var/log/apache

Finally, remove the existing apache_install/logs directory, and replace it with a link:

# rm -rf (apache_install)/logs
# ln -s /var/log/apache (apache_install)/logs

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