The short answer is yes, ARM Cortex processors are capable of running Linux-based operating systems. ARM processors power billions of mobile devices and embedded systems worldwide, and Linux is commonly used on ARM chips in routers, smartphones, media players, and other gadgets. With the right build and configuration, Linux can run efficiently on Cortex-A and Cortex-R application processors.
Overview of ARM Cortex Processors
ARM Cortex is a series of 32-bit and 64-bit RISC processors designed by ARM Holdings for embedded systems and mobile devices. The Cortex series includes application processors optimized for running operating systems like Linux, as well as real-time microcontrollers for time-critical tasks.
Key ARM Cortex processor families include:
- Cortex-A Series – Application processors capable of running operating systems like Linux, Android, and Windows.
- Cortex-R Series – Real-time processors for time-sensitive control tasks.
- Cortex-M Series – Microcontrollers for embedded and IoT applications.
The Cortex-A series scales from low-power single-core variants like Cortex-A5 up to high-end octa-core processors like Cortex-A76. Leading examples include the Snapdragon processors in many Android phones and the Apple A-series chips powering iPhones and iPads.
Running Linux on ARM Cortex
Linux supports the ARM architecture beginning with Linux kernel version 2.4.0 released in 2001. Since then, there has been significant development to optimize Linux for ARM’s RISC architecture and advanced features like NEON SIMD processing.
Major Linux distributions like Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, and Arch Linux provide ARM builds suitable for running on Cortex-A application processors and development boards like the Raspberry Pi. Android also uses the Linux kernel on ARM chipsets.
Key factors for running Linux on ARM Cortex include:
- Processor support – Linux kernel needs to include ARM architecture support and any special drivers for the Cortex processor features.
- Board support – Many ARM boards like Raspberry Pi have Linux ports and distributions supporting their hardware.
- Bootloader – Typically U-Boot is used as the bootloader to load Linux kernel into memory.
- Kernel configuration – Linux kernel needs the right architecture, compiler, and configuration settings.
- Root filesystem – A Linux root filesystem like Debian or BusyBox provides the userspace tools and libraries.
- Performance optimization – Processor-specific tuning can optimize Linux for best performance on Cortex-A cores.
Desktop vs Embedded Linux
There are some differences running Linux on a low-power Cortex-A chip compared to an x86 desktop or server:
- Embedded builds are optimized for size, not full feature set.
- May use BusyBox instead of full GNU toolchain.
- Graphics and GPU support is limited.
- Lower memory and storage capacity.
- Enhanced power management and thermal control.
But Linux boots and functions much the same way across architectures. One can build a surprisingly capable Linux system even on more modest Cortex-A cores with the right configuration and optimizations.
Example ARM Boards Running Linux
Many development boards feature Cortex-A application processors and are capable of running Linux. Some examples include:
- Raspberry Pi – Affordable single-board computers using Broadcom BCM2835 (Cortex-A7) and BCM2836 (Cortex-A53) SoCs.
- BeagleBoard/BeagleBone – Low-power community boards using TI Sitara chips (Cortex-A8).
- Banana Pi – Raspberry Pi alternatives based on Allwinner A20 SoC (Cortex-A7).
- NVIDIA Jetson – Advanced boards for AI using NVIDIA SoCs with ARM cores up to Cortex-A57.
- Pine64 – Single board computers with Allwinner A64 SoC (Cortex-A53).
Most can boot Linux distributions like Ubuntu, Debian, Arch Linux ARM, or Android. The Raspberry Pi is one of the most popular boards for Linux and Python programming.
Linux can certainly be built and run on ARM Cortex application processors. But the performance characteristics will depend on factors like:
- Processor architecture – Newer cores like Cortex-A72 have better performance than older A8/A9.
- Clock speed – Faster MHz generally means better performance at a given architecture.
- Number of cores – Multi-core SoCs can execute Linux processes in parallel.
- Memory bandwidth – Faster DRAM and bus speed reduces memory bottleneck.
- Storage I/O – eMMC or SATA SSD provides faster disk I/O than SD cards.
- Kernel configuration – Optimization for ARM NEON and your specific SoC.
While even lower-end Cortex-A chips can run Linux, performance will not be equivalent to a modern multi-core x86 desktop or server CPU. The Cortex-A72 and A73 represent ARM’s highest performance application cores to date.
Advantages of Running Linux on ARM
There are some good reasons to consider running Linux on an ARM-based system:
- Low Power – ARM processors are extremely power efficient, important for embedded and mobile use.
- Cool Running – ARM SoCs generate less heat and don’t need fans for cooling.
- Solid Architecture – Proven RISC pipeline and advanced features like NEON and TrustZone.
- Customization – Can optimize Linux for your specific ARM chipset.
- Embedded Domain – Ideal architecture for Linux in embedded systems.
- Cost – Less expensive than many x86 options, allowing low-cost boards like Raspberry Pi.
For embedded, mobile, and networked applications, ARM + Linux is hard to beat. Performance-per-watt is excellent while maintaining Linux compatibility and a vibrant development ecosystem.
The ARM Cortex architecture is well-proven to run Linux operating systems efficiently while maintaining low cost and power budget. Leading ARM application processors like Cortex-A72 provide good processing horsepower for Linux workloads. matched with lightweight embedded Linux distributions, Cortex-A cores power a wide range of devices from humble Raspberry Pis to advanced mobile SoCs and network gear.
With continuous advancement of the ARM architecture and optimization of Linux for ARM, these processors will remain a staple in embedded electronics and mobile computing for years to come.