Sunday, January 15, 2012

Minimal Debian install on a Vortex86

For our SolarNode installations (part of the SolarNetwork) we use a minicomputer with a Vortex86.  This is a system on chip (SoC) x86 compatible CPU which has all the bells and whistles on one piece of silicon.

JrMX with Vortex86 inside
We had until recently been installing a standard Ubuntu distribution which was working very nicely.  Problem was this distribution was full of many unneeded software modules.

Over the break I finally got around to sorting out a bare bones installation that only contains what we need (no GUI required!).  Not only does this increase performance and reduce disk space requirements, but it enhances security by keeping deployed software to a minimum (less software equals less security updates).

Here is the process we have used to build a bare bones SD boot image with the latest native WiFi support (no ndiswrapper here) on a Norhtec JrMX.  Read on... 

First up: Find yourself an Ubuntu or Debian based PC to prepare your bootable SD card.  Make sure you have unetbootin or similar installed (usefull for creating a bootable SD or USB stick from an iso).

# sudo apt-get install unetbootin

Use unetbootin to create a bootable SD card (I used a 4GB) using this Debian squeeze mini iso.

Now boot the JrMX (with network cable connected) from the freshly made bootable SD card and complete the installation process (could take a while with lots of downloading).

Once finished, there will likely be some additional packages you will want to install e.g. ssh-server, ntp, wicd, wicd-curses etc.

# apt-get install ssh-server
# apt-get install ntp
# apt-get install wicd
# apt-get install wicd-curses

FYI: We use wicd-curses to configure WiFi from command line (instead of the NetworkManager GUI or similar).

Now, get Ready for the Kernel upgrade and WiFi driver install...

Squirt the stuff (Kernel and WiFi Driver) across to the JrMX from your desktop (connected using network cable at this point in time).

$ scp  philipc@
$ scp philipc@

Now, on the JrMX box (ssh in or login using physical keyboard and monitor), install the new kernel and the kernel headers:

# unzip
# dpkg -i linux-image-
# dpkg -i linux-headers-

Now Install RTL8188SU Linux driver (for WiFi), but first we need to sort out the missing build link to the header source files:

# rmdir -–ignore-fail-on-non-empty /lib/modules/
# ln -sf /usr/src/linux-headers- /lib/modules/

Download and unzip the latest RTL8188SU driver (which is actually the same as RTL8192SU driver).  The one I specifically used is here, or you can get it from the realtek site. 


Note: This works great, but readme instructions from the older (this one is from the robosavvy site) are much more informative.  Follow the readme instructions which are summarised below ('make' and 'make install' basically)...

Note: You will also need the following to build the drivers (if you want, remove with apt-get remove at the end):

# apt-get install build-essential

Extract, build and install WiFi drvier from unzipped source dir

# cd rtl8712_8188_8191_8192SU_usb_linux_v2.
# tar -xzf rtl8712_8188_8191_8192SU_usb_linux_v2.
# cd rtl8712_8188_8191_8192SU_usb_linux_v2.
# make

  Building modules, stage 2.

  MODPOST 1 modules
  CC      /home/solar/rtl8712_8188_8191_8192SU_usb_linux_v2.
  LD [M]  /home/solar/rtl8712_8188_8191_8192SU_usb_linux_v2.
make[1]: Leaving directory `/usr/src/linux-headers-'

# make install
install -p -m 644 8712u.ko  /lib/modules/
/sbin/depmod -a

# shutdown -r now


Check a few things:

# ifconfig wlan0 up
# iwlist wlan0 scan
# iwconfig

Configure the WiFi connection (use wicd-curses, it's like NetworkManager, but a command line tool! Just follow your nose...)


Yea Ha!!!! It all works :)

You may want to turn off a few other things as well, but this is a great starting point for a minimal install.


Note: Please make sure you see Matt's update on this post as well.


Demolishun said...

Which boot loader did you use? I am having issues with a Vortex86DX board using squeeze and Grub. Grub will not boot past the initial prompt and halts at Grub Rescue with Out of Disk error. I can take the same USB flash drive and boot it off of another computer and it boots fine. It is just this Vortex86DX system. Do you know if Grub is compatible with this chip?

Philip Court said...

We use GRUB. If you are using the new image that Matt created, you will also need to ensure the BIOS has IDE compatibility turned on.

bogavante said...


Works with native drivers, only alsa needs to be recompiled with modified hda_intel.c from alsa_source.

Remastersys do not work with custom kernel linux-image-
I suffered a lot trying it with ubuntu server.


galenwollenberg said...

installation failed basically because it could not find the network adapter. it works in other distros, any ideas?



galenwollenberg said...

figured out why it wasn't detecting wired NIC, I had a USB wifi adapter also plugged in to a usb hub at installation. once i removed the wifi usb adapter it seemed to work. also the custom iso for vortex found here i cannot get working, it fails on boot at the hard drive (SD or pata ide hd)

galenwollenberg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
galenwollenberg said...

Solved my problem. Install would fail until i used UUnetbootin to create my USB boot disk/.iso. I was using YUMI boot loader and it kept failing. Shoulda paid attention to the directions more