Just a pile of Old Computer Junk "Its life Jim, but not as we know it"

Running FreeBSD on the carambola2

The carambola2 is a small module built around the Atheros AR9330 SOC. Manufactured by 8devices, it has 64MB RAM, 16MB flash, two Ethernet ports and a host of GPIO pins, some of which can be configured as i2c, SPI or i2s. The carambola2 is shipped with OpenWRT a Linux distribution targeted at small devices and as a replacement firmware for consumer routers.

I have previously presented on using the carambola2 at the Sysadmin Miniconference at LCA2014 (slides here, video here)

To try something different, I thought I’d take FreeBSD for a run on this board. This became an extensive learning exercise as I knew absolutely nothing about any of the *BSD distributions other than their unix heritage and that they use BSD type licenses instead of GPL for the kernel and most of the userland.


As with any of these things, there are a bunch of perceived or actual pros/cons between OpenWRT and FreeBSD. Some of these I only discovered during this process.

My requirements included:

  • Being able to do a complete firmware build from source, which is possible for both OpenWRT and FreeBSD

  • Easy access to LED and GPIOs

  • Run the image from a RAM filesystem

Some pros/cons of either include:

  • The build system used is actually the standard build system for FreeBSD. You could probably build OpenWRT under OpenWRT but you usually dont.

  • The build system when used for cross compiling is functional but not as elegant as OpenWRT

  • OpenWRT builds actually take significantly longer from scratch for some reason

  • FreeBSD may be regarded as more secure under some circumstances, for some definition of security. But see below…

  • FreeBSD ships with two firewalls: pf, and ipfw. This adds quite a learning curve when doing a bottom up build like this.

  • Many common packages (the BSD “ports” system) do not cross-build correctly for mips under FreeBSD

  • FreeBSD 10.x ships with llvm as the default compiler but falls back to gcc for cross-building mips. But the gcc supplied with FreeBSD is only 4.2      O_o      Apparently this is for licensing reasons. This can be worked around  but I haven’t had time to try it yet. Ramifications of this likely include weaker security.

The carambola2 and the mips platform in general is actually reasonably well supported by FreeBSD, although it is treated as a ‘beta’. As to be expected, to build a firmware for FreeBSD requires a host FreeBSD system (at least this would be the path of least resistance!)

I built a virtual machine using kvm and was able to install FreeBSD 10.0 with minimum of hassle. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to get up and running to OpenBox. FreeBSD has ‘pkg’ as a binary package manager and it worked similarly enough to ‘apt-get’, or ‘yum’ that I had a build machine up in about half an hour. I did need to install bash and vim and gedit, some things are just too hard to give up!

Build Process

There appeared to be more than one way to cross-build, including the use of qemu as a build host inside FreeBSD, but rather than chasing turtles on this occasion I went with a tool called ‘freebsd-wifi-build’. This was actually quite straightforward and produced me a working firmware out of the box, with some caveats. The firmware includes only binaries from the FreeBSD base userland, and only a limited subset at that. Initially it also wanted to build as the root user, which was both an annoyance and a shock to discover, although I soon resolved that problem; I hope to soon have patches accepted into the project to change the default to build as user!

In general, constructing a firmware using FreeBSD is more manual than OpenWRT, as it lacks the all-encompassing configuration of packages and the packaging infrastructure provided by OpenWRT opkg. It is more  similar to the Linux buildroot or even Gentoo.

The end result is a build script that automates the process I used to customise things, this is published at https://github.com/pastcompute/carambola2-freebsd-userbuild , for use as you see fit.

To flash the firmware, I used scp to copy the image to my host machine then using minicom to connect to the board, flash via tftp. freebsd-wifi-build produces separate kernel and filesystem images, I was able to combine them into one file to simplify flashing.

Easy Wins

  • Network worked, with caveats

  • I was able to toggle the LED using ‘/dev/led’, although overall Linux has much better access to GPIO / LED hardware

Tweaking required along the way

  • FreeBSD swaps the ethernet ports relative to OpenWRT, and also by default configured them in switched mode instead of independently routed. I resolved this by rebuilding the firmware with the latest FreeBSD kernel from -CURRENT, which made the ethernet PHY configuration configurable.

  • As part of resolving that, I by chance discovered I could built the FreeBSD-release-10.1.0 userland and the bleeding edge FreeBSD-CURRENT kernel and have them cooperate together!

  • Only some of the FreeBSD ports easily build with the default cross compiler configuration. This limits the software that can be installed (at least, if built using the ports infrastructure)

  • Defaulting to gcc-4.2 means various important security measures, such as -fstack-protector, are disabled

  • I also had to tweak the default FreeBSD kernel configuration provided for the carambola2, to turn on the FAT filesystem (for USB transfer) and to enable additional GPIO

  • FreeBSD ignores uboot environment and arguments on the ar71xx platform, I managed to patch the kernel to support that


I’ll keep using OpenWRT on most of my devices for the forseeable future. But I will have a couple of FreeBSD gadgets thrown into the mix, just so I can keep learning new things, and also because ironically FreeBSD supports another router I have, the dir-632 ( I blogged about this device previously) which is not officially supported in the mainline OpenWRT and probably wont be anytime soon, but does work in a FreeBSD fork, zrouter. It will also be interesting to compare the performance of pf against iptables.

Potential future exploration ideas: running Debian kFreeBSD on the carambola2.

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