System configuration

There are a number of different aspects to configuring U-Boot to build and then run on a given platform or set of platforms. Broadly speaking, some aspects of the world can be configured at run time and others must be done at build time. In general run time configuration is preferred over build time configuration. But when making these decisions, we also need to consider if we’re talking about a feature that could be useful to virtually every platform or something specific to a single hardware platform. The resulting image size is also another important consideration. Finally, run time configuration has additional overhead both in terms of resource requirements and wall clock time. All of this means that care must be taken when writing new code to select the most appropriate configuration mechanism.

When adding new features to U-Boot, be they a new subsystem or SoC support or new platform for an existing supported SoC, the preferred configuration order is:

  1. Hardware based run time configuration. Examples of this include reading processor specific registers, or a set of board specific GPIOs or an EEPROM with a known format to it. These are the cases where we either cannot or should not be relying on device tree checks. We use this for cases such as optimized boot time or starting with a generic device tree and then enabling or disabling features as we boot.

  2. Making use of our Kconfig infrastructure and C preprocessor macros that have the prefix CONFIG. This is the primary method of build time configuration. This is generally the best fit for when we want to enable or disable some sort of feature, such as the SoC or network support. The CONFIG prefix for C preprocessor macros is strictly reserved for Kconfig usage only.

  3. Making use of the device tree to determine at run time how to configure a feature that we have enabled via Kconfig. For example, we would use Kconfig to enable an I2C chip driver, but use the device tree to know where the I2C chip resides in memory and other details we need in order to configure the bus.

  4. Making use of C header files directly and defining C preprocessor macros that have the CFG prefix. While the CFG prefix is reserved for this build time configuration mechanism, the usage is ad hoc. This is to be used when the previously mentioned mechanisms are not possible, or for legacy code that has not been converted.

Dynamic run time configuration methods.

Details of hardware specific run time configuration methods are found within the documentation for a given processor family or board.

Details of how to use run time configuration based on driver model are covered in that documentation section.

Static build time configuration methods

There are two mechanisms used to control the build time configuration of U-Boot. One is utilizing Kconfig and CONFIG prefixed macros and the other is ad hoc usage of CFG prefixed macros. Both of these are used when it is either not possible or not practical to make a run time determination about some functionality of the hardware or a required software feature or similar. Each of these has their own places where they are better suited than the other for use.

The Kconfig language is well documented and used in a number of projects, including the Linux kernel. We implement this with the Kconfig files found throughout our sources. This mechanism is the preferred way of exposing new configuration options as there are a number of ways for both users and system integrators to manage and change these options. Some common examples here are to enable a specific command within U-Boot or even a whole subsystem such as NAND flash or network connectivity.

The CFG mechanism is implemented directly as C preprocessor values or macros, depending on what they are in turn describing. While we have some functionality that is very reasonable to expose to the end user to enable or disable we have other places where we need to describe things such as register locations or values, memory map ranges and so on. When practical, we should be getting these values from the device tree. However, there are cases where this is either not practical due to when we need the information and may not have a device tree yet or due to legacy reasons code has not been rewritten.

When to use each mechanism

While there are some cases where it should be fairly obvious where to use each mechanism, as for example a command would be done via Kconfig, a new I2C driver should use Kconfig and be configured via driver model and a header of values generated by an external tool should be CFG, there will be cases where it’s less clear and one needs to take care when implementing it. In general, configuration options should be done in Kconfig and configuration settings should be done in driver model or CFG. Let us discuss things to keep in mind when picking the appropriate mechanism.

A thing to keep in mind is that we have a strong preference for using Kconfig as the primary build time configuration mechanism. Options expressed this way let us easily express dependencies and abstractions. In addition, given that many projects use this mechanism means it has a broad set of tooling and existing knowledge base.

Consider the example of a SHA256 hardware acceleration engine. This would be a feature of the SoC and so something to not ask the user if it exists, but we would want to have our generic framework for such engines be optionally available and depend on knowing we have this engine on a given hardware platform. Expressing this should be done as a hidden Kconfig symbol that is select’ed by the SoC symbol which would in turn be select’ed by the board option, which is user visible. Hardware features that are either present or not present should be expressed in Kconfig and in a similar manner, features which will always have a constant value such as “this SoC always has 4 cores and 4 threads per core” should be as well.

This brings us to differentiating between a configuration setting versus a hardware feature. To build on the previous example, while we may know the number of cores and threads, it’s possible that within a given family of SoCs the base addresses of peripherals has changed, but the register offsets within have not. The preference in this case is to get our information from the device tree and perform run time configuration. However, this is not always practical and in those cases we instead rely on the CFG mechanism. While it would be possible to use Kconfig in this case, it would result in using calculated rather than constructed values, resulting in less clear code. Consider the example of a set of register values for a memory controller. Defining this as a series of logical ORs and shifts based on other defines is more clear than the Kconfig entry that sets the calculated value alone.

When it has been determined that the practical solution is to utilize the CFG mechanism, the next decision is where to place these settings. It is strongly encouraged to place these in the architecture header files, if they are generic to a given SoC, or under the board directory if board specific. Placing them under the board.h file in the include/configs/ directory should be seen as a last resort.