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How is the free firmware for the Raspberry progressing?

Raspberry Pi computers require a piece of non-free software to boot — the infamous raspi-firmware package. But for almost as long as there has been a Raspberry Pi to talk of (this year it turns 10 years old!), there have been efforts to get it to boot using only free software. How is it progressing?

Michael Bishop (IRC user clever) explained today in the #debian-raspberrypi channel in OFTC that it advances far better than what I expected: It is even possible to boot a usable system under the RPi2 family! Just… There is somewhat incomplete hardware support: For his testing, he has managed to use a xfce environment — but over the composite (NTSC) video output, as HDMI initialization support is not there.

However, he shared with me several interesting links and videos, and I told him I’d share them — there are still many issues; I do not believe it is currently worth it to make Debian images with this firmware.

Before anything else: Go visit the librerpi/lk-overlay repository. Its README outlines hardware support for each of the RPi families; there is a binary build available with nixos if you want to try it out, and instructions to build it.

But what clever showed me that made me write this post… Is the amount of stuff you can do with the RPi’s VPU (why Vision Vector Processing Unit and not the more familiar GPU, Graphical Processing Unit? I don’t really know… But I trust clever’s definitions beyond how I trust my own 😉) before it loads an opearting system:

There’s not too much I can add to this. I was just… Truly amazed. And I hope to see the remaining hurdles for “regular” Linux booting on this range of machines with purely free software quickly go away!

Packaging this for Debian? Well, not yet… not so fast ☹ I first told clever we could push this firmware to experimental instead of unstable, as it is not yet ready for most production systems. However, pabs made some spot-on further questions. And… yes, it requires installing three(!) different cross-compilers, one of which vc4-toolchain, for the VPU is free software, but not yet upstreamed, and hence is not available for Debian.

Anyway, the talk continued long after I had to go. I have gone a bit over the backlog, but I have to leave now – so that will be it as for this blog post 😉