, , ,

Zero-install embedded training with Zephyr using Kasm and Docker

TL;DR: we’ve enabled people to compile Zephyr programs from a computer with no toolchain installed, almost instantly.

Part of our charter at Golioth is to help people prototype and scale IoT devices faster. That’s why we offer an open source SDK built on top of Zephyr. We think this represents a “fast forward” or “cheat code” for quickly standing up an IoT device prototype. On the cloud side, our servers represent hundreds of hours of customization and testing; you can instantly connect and get access to resources that allow hardware and firmware developers to scale to thousands or millions of devices. But sometimes it can be scary to get started in a new ecosystem or Real Time Operating System (RTOS) like Zephyr, even if it will speed things up later. As such, we do public and private training for companies and individuals.

As part of the resources we offer, we maintain a Training site that walks people through how to get started using Zephyr, normally targeting remote training. You can follow along right now; you’ll need to purchase an Adafruit MagTag board and sign up for a free Dev Tier account, but everything else is covered on the training site. At the end of the training, you should understand how to interact with hardware in Zephyr and send data to and from the Golioth cloud over WiFi. It’s a short jump from there to re-target other hardware, including your custom designs.

The tripping points for the training often revolve around the installation process. This is multi-pronged:

  • The size of a Zephyr install is relatively large, even when you are only targeting a specific platform. Having multiple people in a room, even with good WiFi or network connectivity, means that the shared bandwidth will be a limiting factor. More trainees means slower downloads.
  • Everyone comes to training with a computer in a different state. They might have tried to install Zephyr tools in the past, or they might have a particularly rare Linux distro, or many other possible variations. It would be best if everyone showed up with a fresh OS install…but that is very unrealistic.
  • There are different expectations around how installations should go. Many embedded engineers are “Windows first” and expect a complete IDE for any new platform. Some silicon vendors help to support this in Zephyr, such as Nordic Semiconductor. But Zephyr was originally targeting Linux-based machines, and we have found the smoothest flow for installing tools for all of the platforms that Zephyr can target means you are Linux-first.

In this article, we’re going to talk about our attempt to normalize setups and have pre-installed tools using Kasm and Docker. These are not the only tools in this space; we have previously written about GitPod and are investigating GitHub Codespaces, but this is a look at one of the latest experiments we’re running at Golioth.

Kasm thin client

The concept of a browser based client or a “thin client” is nothing new. They were all the rage back in the day of time share servers (really those were “dumb terminals”) and then again in the 90s as computing was more ubiquitous throughout the office (with a centralized set of servers). The difference is that now things are much more graphical and running completely inside the browser.

Kasm was started in 2017 and includes an open source project run by Kasm Technologies. The company behind Kasm has a per seat licensing model or they will run the servers directly for you (once you’re past 5 trial seats). They specialize in visualizations around containers. Once you log into a Kasm server, you are able to launch a range of containers, normally a desktop view or a single app that will load up in your browser. You can try this for yourself on the Kasm demo page.

The server that we’re running on is a pre-configured image that I pulled from the Digital Ocean marketplace. I was able to install all of the required software on a provisioned server running in some unknown datacenter. All I did was log in the first time to get my credentials for a user and an admin, and the rest of my interaction was on the web interface that the Kasm server presents to me as an admin.

Docker

As a hardware engineer, Docker is one of those things I heard about for a long time and never really “got it”. I’m still not sure I do. But following the tutorial for customizing a Kasm container, I started to understand a bit more. In that set of tutorials I started from a base Operating System image (Ubuntu Focal) that allowed visualization through the browser. Then I was able to start customizing, adding things like custom files on the desktop, custom icons to launch programs I installed, or adding background images pulled in from the web. It was in this customization section that I could add all of the commands from the Golioth Docs for installing Zephyr tools.

My layman explanation of Docker would be “Creating a virtual computer where I can automatically install a bunch of software using shell scripts. Once I have built that virtual computer, I am able to use it over and over again, including different instances of that virtual computer (for this Kasm scenario)”. The analogy would be if I bought a bunch of laptops, had an install CD (remember those?) with all of the required software on them, and then I mailed the freshly installed laptop to everyone who is taking our training. Sound crazy? That’s one of the best solutions we have seen, where a trainer will bring a pelican case with 24 laptops freshly imaged to on-site training. Their training works flawlessly every time!

I don’t have much else to mention about Docker aside from the idea that it’s possible to script a bunch of install commands that match the install instructions we have on our Zephyr getting started guide. In fact, I used those very directions to build the container shown in the video above. So all I’m doing in this case is automating the install process, doing it once, and then deploying the container (with all of the software and dependencies installed) over and over again for different users.

Challenges

We don’t think this is the ultimate solution for our training, so much as an experiment that showcases what we can do with containerized solutions. There are some remaining challenges, and we would love to have some help from our community.

Loading firmware onto the device

Currently our plan (as shown in the video) is to have our users/trainees pull the final built binary to their local computer to run it on the device like the MagTag. This echoes the way the mbed online compiler worked.

If there is a bootloader and a USB to serial connection, it’s possible to directly load onto the embedded device. In the case of some Espressif boards, this would be something like having ESPtool.py installed locally on your machine. There are an increasing amount of tools that make this process easier, such as an ESP tool that allows you to load firmware using WebUSB. Certain specialized bootloaders like the one that comes default on the MagTag loads UF2 files. When the MagTag is plugged in over USB and a sequence of buttons are hit, the device shows up as a mass storage drive. You drop a UF2 formatted binary–which is just an alternative form of compiled format–onto the drive and the device reboots and starts running the code.

If it’s a board without a bootloader, the user would need to have a debugger and local tools to communicate with that debugger, such as a JLink device and JFlash software. This means they would still need some OS specific loader tools to get the binary into the embedded device. The user would not be able to take advantage of the built-in tools in west that allow direct loading onto the device.

You steppin’?

If you would like to do debugging instead of “printf/printk” debugging, you simply need to download a different file from the container. If you download the zephyr.elf file instead of the zephyr.bin file, you can load it into a 3rd party debugger like Segger Ozone (made by the same company as the JLink). We have done some experiments with this in the past, including also analyzing where the device is spending its time using SystemView. This would once again require installing local programs that could talk over the USB port to something like a JLink.

Experimental port forwarding and WebUSB

Some GDB debuggers/servers will host the control of the debugger over a port on the machine’s localhost. We have some experiments we’re trying where we forward this port to the container so we could directly run a debugger from a software debugger inside the container.

We have also heard some whispers of a WebUSB implementation that can tunnel to the container. So we could plug in a board on our host machine (ie. my laptop) and connect to it over WebUSB, and then forward all information along to the container machine (ie. the browser based desktop running on the Kasm server).

We would love to hear about other projects that are trying this.

Shared resources

The final challenge we are dealing with is the fact that we’re basically “renting” a computer to do exactly what we could be doing with the host machine sitting right in front of us. Most developers have access to very powerful machines and we are instead using the resources on a remote machine (the Kasm server). The cost of standardization is the cost of renting server time for each person in the workshop. It might be worth it, but it is a constraint and a challenge.

Containers are another tool

Anyone reading this with a web background is likely thinking, “Yeah, containers, cool, 2010 called and wants their headline back”. But we are excited about it because these tools are finally making their way into the historically sluggish embedded industry. While our use case of containers is mostly around zero-install-time training, others are using containers to automate their testing and implementing best software engineering practices for the range of devices they have on their desk or in the field.

We’d love to hear how you think we can improve our training and make it easier for you to learn more about Golioth, Zephyr, and building code instantly. Check out our forums, our Discord, ping us on Twitter, or send us an email at [email protected]