A survey of ARM operating systems

A piece of hardware without the software to run on it does not do much good. I can have the best piece of computing equipment if there’s no operating system to boot it.

With all their advantages, each ARM CPU still requires some effort on the side of operating system maintainers before the hardware and software can work well together. Fortunately there’s a very active community,  lots of accumulated developer knowledge, and many choices.

I collected a non-exhaustive list of operating systems for ARM processors, with a preference towards those that are interesting for VIA Springboard.


Linux supports an amazing variety of computing hardware, and now often that is the first system available for new development boards. With ARM each new processor needs a new driver too, thus usually there’s only one or two operating system is available at first. Fortunately support for one distribution often find its way into others.

The Springboard development pack is based on Debian, which is a distribution with a long track record of stability. I’m writing this article running that Debian development system. It aims to provide a sense of safety using well tested packages. Other distributions sometimes base their core on Debian too.

On my personal computer I’m running Arch Linux, a distribution that is in some sense the direct opposite of Debian. It is on the bleeding edge: many software package is available on the day of their release, and the system’s development is moving quickly. It has a great community, and the Arch Linux Wiki is one of the best sources for all thing Linux. The Arch Linux ARM version supports many ARM boards, from Raspberry Pi to Beaglebone. I would love to see Springboard among those too – it would be one of the most powerful boards in the list.

Raspbian is the Raspberry Pi + Debian system. The original APC board was running it too. This system has a narrower focus than the previous ones (supporting Raspberry Pi), but turned out to be a good base system for other boards too.

FirefoxOS is an up-and coming candidate. The new APC boards are running it too, and I’m looking forward learning more about it.

Ubuntu is probably the most widely known Linux system. It’s not surprising that there’s an ongoing Ubuntu ARM development as well. Their focus seems to be more on the server side than on the desktop/user side.

Android has to be on this list. It has done an amazing job standardizing operating systems for the embedded world, and I feel that there’s a lot more to come. Besides Debian, the other development system for the Springboard is Android 4.0.3, that I’m having a lot of fun exploring as well.

Among the more purpose-built distributions  there is Open Embedded Linux Entertainment Center (OpenELEC), which does what it says: turns a computer into a media center. With the ubiquity of boards like Springboard and our rampant media consumption, there’s definitely a lot of opportunity in this.

This is absolutely not the complete list of Linux distributions supporting ARM. Hopefully it is still adequate to start exploring the ecosystem.


Besides Linux, the different BSD flavours are among the most widely used open source operating systems. My first *nix system was FreeBSD back in high school, so I’m really happy to see the FreeBSD ARM project. OpenBSD is focusing on openness and security, qualities that are always welcome in the computing world. NetBSD/evbarm is targeting ARM based evaluation boards.


For certain use cases it is worth looking beyond the above open source and mostly general-use systems.

Windows RT has the disadvantage compared to the previous systems that it’s only available preloaded and only on specific devices. It can however tap into a whole different ecosystem both in software, and apparently in supported peripherals.

QNX Neutrino and FreeRTOS are real-time operating systems with ARM support (and also specifically with Cortex-A9 support for the likes of Springboard). For industrial computers, medical computer,  scientific/laboratory work, possibly for certain media applications these can be interesting choices.

Plan 9 from Bell Labs has probably the quirkiest name and intriguing circumstances. It is primarily a research system, and gave us a lot of interesting technology. It has a Raspberry Pi port, so I guess it should be possible to cover other boards too.


There are really a large number of possible systems, while there are still a plenty of hurdles. A lot more work needs to be put into supporting existing and future systems to unlock all that potential. I feel that the deciding factor between different boards will be the amount of support they get, not necessarily the raw available power or awesomeness of their hardware.

Springboard is still very young, and while as of now it runs Debian and Android, I can see a lot of exciting opportunities for different use cases and different systems.

And with this, we are back at the community. What OS would you like to run on your Springboard or other ARM device? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Ps: a very happy Easter to you all!

This entry was posted in Springboard Blog and tagged operating systemLinuxAndroid on April 21, 2014 by Gergely Imreh.← Previous PostNext Post →