Need to keep your SBC fresh? Armbian v22.02 is out
The latest update to Armbian brings a mainline-kernel based Ubuntu- and Debian-compatible environment to dozens of small single-board computers.
This includes both Arm and x86-based hardware UEFI booting – and 64-bit builds for Raspberry Pi hardware.
Armbian supports over 60 different single-board computers, including various models of Banana Pi, nVidia Jetson, Pine64 and dozens more.
The problem it addresses is similar to what postmarketOS is trying to do with smartphones. Your snazzy little SBC is shipped bundled with a Linux of some kind, customised for the hardware – but like a budget smartphone, all too often you will only get one update ever (if you’re lucky), and then that’s it. Soon the vendor has a new device to sell, and that device gets newer software versions, not last year’s model.
Armbian isn’t exactly a Linux distro, but you could confuse it for one if you squint a bit. Armbian is a framework that lets you build enough of a Linux system – a kernel, plus tools to get that kernel into memory, and if necessary the core of a root filesystem – to put the rest of Debian or Ubuntu on top.
Building the Internet of Things with Raspberry Pi et al, DIY-style
As well as this tooling, the project also publishes complete installable OS images – depending on the device, based on Ubuntu 20.04, or the forthcoming Ubuntu 22.04, or Debian
sid, or some combination thereof. Armbian 22.02 includes kernel 5.15, with ZFS support, plus an “EDGE” version based on 5.16 for some boards.
It supports both Grub and u-boot, and for the first time, this release offers UEFI boot images for both Aarch64 and x86. Preliminary work-in-progress support for the Raspberry Pi means that it boots and runs, including Wifi, Bluetooth and 3D acceleration, but without sound for now.
On PCs, this stuff is easy, because there’s lots of infrastructure that OS developers can assume will be present: firmware that will let you boot a disk partition, a VGA-compatible display, standard input devices and so on. By comparison, SBCs are a bit more Wild West, without even defined standards for firmware – a situation the Linaro project was established to simplify.
It’s frequently not the vendor’s fault. These devices are almost always based on some form of SoC: small, cheap, highly integrated devices which sell in huge numbers and so often have very short lifecycles. If the SoC vendor doesn’t update its drivers or OS package, then it’s very hard for anyone selling devices built around them to do so.
If you are running a small Arm box as some kind of headless server somewhere, though, you probably don’t care about a GUI, or web browsers or other end-user apps and chrome like that. What you want is a recent kernel that boots and supports storage, networking and so on. This is where Armbian comes in.
The project puts together custom kernels for each supported device, along with drivers, bootloaders, and so on, so you can run a mainline Debian or Ubuntu-based Linux distro. Putting these things together means that your tiny machine remains useful, and can get security updates and so forth.
If you have well-supported, mainstream device such as a Raspberry Pi, you probably don’t need it. If you have something more niche, though, Armbian could significantly prolong your device’s lifetime. ®