Cross Compiling – Reblog

Original Blog :

Introduction to Cross Compilation, Part 1

This post is the first in a series on cross compilation. In this series I’ll introduce the concept of cross compilation, and how to used it. Although there are many different uses for cross compilation, I’ll focus in this series in its use for embedded Linux systems development.

What is Cross Compilation?

When you develop a desktop or server application, almost always the development platform (the machine that runs your compiler) and the target platform (the machine that runs your application) are the same. By “platform” I mean the combination of CPU architecture, and Operating System. The process of building executable binaries on one machine, and run them on another machine when the CPU architecture or the Operating System are different is called “cross compilation”. A special compiler is needed for doing cross compilation that is called “cross compiler“, and sometimes just “toolchain”.

For example, desktop PC application developers for Windows or Linux can build and run their binaries on the very same machine. Even developers of server applications generally have the same basic architecture and Operating System on both their development machine and server machine. The compiler used in these cases is called “native compiler”.

On the other hand, developers of an embedded Linux application that runs on a non PC architecture (like ARM, PowerPC, MIPS, etc.) tend to use a cross compiler to generate executable binaries from source code. The cross compiler must be specifically tailored for doing cross compilation from the development machine’s architecture (sometimes called “host”), to the embedded machine’s architecture (called “target”).

Note: cross compilation is only needed when generating binary executables from source code written in a compiled language, like C or C++. Programs written in interpreted language, like Perl, Python, PHP, or JavaScript, do not need a cross compiler. In most cases interpreted programs should be able run unchanged on any target. You do need, however, a suitable interpreter running on the target machine.

What is Cross Compilation Good for?

I have covered above one reason for doing cross compilation, that is, the target machine has a different CPU architecture that the development host. In this case cross compilation is necessary because the binaries that the native compiler generates won’t run on the target embedded machine.

Sometimes cross compilation is not strictly necessary, but native compilation in not practical, or inconvenient. Consider, for example, a slow ARM9 based target machine running Linux. Having the compiler run on this target will make the build process painfully slow. In many cases target machine is just under-powered, in terms of storage and RAM, for the task of running a modern compiler.

Practically speaking, almost all embedded Linux development is being done with cross compilers. Strong PC workstation machines are used as development hosts to run the development environment (text editor, IDE), and the cross compiler.
Obtaining a Cross Compiler

The easiest way to obtain a cross compiler is to download a ready made pre-built one. Besides being easy to obtain a pre-built binary toolchain is the most useful for the general case of building a kernel and a userspace filesystem. Some special cases require a specially tailored toolchain built from source. I’ll show how to build a toolchain from source in the next post.

A short terminology note: in the following text I use the terms “cross compiler” and “toolchain” interchangeably. The have the same meaning in this context. The term “toolchain” seems to be more popular, however.


The most well known source of pre-built cross compilers is the embedded software division of Mentor Graphics, formerly known as CodeSourcery, an independent company that Mentor has acquired in 2010. They release the “Sourcery CodeBench Lite Edition” free of charge. Sourcery CodeBench is a collection of cross compilers for several CPU architectures, including ARM, PowerPC, MIPS, and Intel x86 among the others. For each architecture there are a number of target options. The one you need for embedded Linux work is the “GNU/Linux release”. Always select the latest version, unless you have a very good reason to avoid it. Then, there are a few packaging formats to choose from. I prefer the “IA32 GNU/Linux TAR” format. Installing it is just a matter of extracting the tar file in the /opt directory. For example, to install the latest MIPS toolchain do as root

tar xjf mips-2011.09-75-mips-linux-gnu-i686-pc-linux-gnu.tar.bz2 -C /opt
One big advantage of Sourcery’s toolchains is that those making them, former CodeSourcery employees, are deeply involved in upstream development of the GCC compiler.


The Linaro organization also releases pre-built cross compilers for their target platform, newer ARM processor based on Cortex-A. Download the latest version from here. You need the “Linux binary” one.

Using the Cross Compiler

This is just a quick peek at cross compiling for the impatient new embedded Linux coder. I’ll come back to this issue later in some greater depth.

First, put your newly installed toolchain in your path. For example, the Sourcery MIPS toolchain mentioned above needs the following command:

export PATH=$PATH:/opt/mips-2011.09/bin

Create a simple “Hello World” program, and save it in hello.c:

int main (void) {
    printf ("Hello World!\n");
    return 0;

Compile your program using the MIPS toolchain as follows:

mips-linux-gnu-gcc -Wall -o hello hello.c

Copy the resulting hello binary file to you target machine and run it there. If all goes well you should see the expected output.

There are many details to get wrong here, ranging from ABI issues, to C library and kernel version compatibility. I’ll cover some of these issues in future posts.


Author: Shingu

Search in pursuit. Help me if you can.

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