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64-bit ARM OS/Kernel/Systems Development on a Nexus 9
The Nexus 9 is based on a 64-bit nVidia K1 chip. At
the moment it was the most affordable (price wise)
and accessible (unit-wise) platform for exploring
OS work on an AArch64 platform.
Also see,
which is similar but targets the nVidia Shield TV
(which has the Tegra X1, EL2 accessible, more RAM,
HDMI, but no UART)
The Nexus 9 allows performing an unlock via
"fastboot oem unlock", allowing custom Android
images to be booted.
What this is
This is a small demo, demonstrating how to build
and boot arbitrary code at EL1 on your Nexus 9
and do some basic I/O.
The demo demonstrates serial I/O and draws two
black diagonal lines on the framebuffer
(see demo_pic.jpg).
What you need - required
* A Nexus 9, unlocked. Search Youtube for walkthroughs.
* GNU Make.
* An AArch64 GNU toolchain.
* ADB/Fastboot tools.
* Bootimg tools (,
built and somewhere in your path.
What you need - optional
* A headset<->RS232 adapter. I've used a cable I've had
from the Motorola Xoom project (the first...errr,
Nexus, before the devices got called a "Nexus").
You can try
How it works
HBOOT, the Nexus bootloader, expects images to be in a
certain format. The booted kernel/code must:
* Be 64-bit
* Be binary (not ELF)
* Be linked at 0x80080000
* Be compressed using "gzip"
* Be followed by the binary FDT
* Be contained in an "ANDROID!" boot image.
- The load address appears to be hardcoded in HBOOT.
The Android boot image bases and the AArch64 kernel
header fields appear to be ignored.
- The boot image can contain an additional ramdisk/initrd/payload.
- The FDT is patched by HBOOT to contain correct
linux,initrd-start and linux,initrd-end addresses.
How to build
$ CROSS_COMPILE=aarch64-linux-gnu- make
... should yield 'nexus9_demo'.
How to boot
* Connect your Android tablet via a USB cable.
* (optional) Connect the UART headphone jack
adapter to your computer.
...start Minicom with 115200 baud 8-n-1.
* $ adb reboot-bootloader should now see the HBOOT splash screen and menu.
* $ fastboot boot nexus9_demo
...the code will upload. You will see some output in
Minicom from the booted code and will see drawn
black lines on the framebuffer.
Actual output of the demo
CurrentEL = 0000000000000001
SCTLR_EL1 = 0000000010C5083A
Where to go from here
"nexus9_dts" is the decompiled "nexus9_dtb". "nexus9_dtb" was
extracted from the Android boot.img.
Also see
Final thoughts
From studying the Tegra K1 TRM, the K1 should have
virtualization support (i.e. EL2). However, the HTC
firmware does not allow booting an EL2-enabled OS.
All kernels are booted in EL1. This is rather
unfortunate and prevents playing around with
KVM and Xen on this platform. Perhaps there
are some problems with EL2 support. Or perhaps
HTC/nVidia/Google were too myopic to allow EL2 access.
It's unclear if the "oem unlock" allows reflashing
custom unsigned firmware. "nvtboot" seems to enforce
signed "Trusted OS" payloads, at least from dumping
the strings.
The boot flow looks something like this:
* "nvtboot" (32-bit) runs on the AVP/COP.
* "nvtboot" loads "tos" (64-bit) (Trusty aka Secure OS) on the AArch64 chip.
* "tos" loads HBOOT (32-bit).
* HBOOT loads Android and implements the fastboot protocol.
It's unclear how to enter NVFlash/APX mode, or how helpful that would be.