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Easily installing Debian on a Cubieboard

I recently bought a Cubieboard to replace my old Sheevaplug which has finally blown a power supply capacitor (this appears to be a common defect of Sheevaplugs), so I am publishing these instructions which show how to install Debian on sunxi systems (i.e. based on the Allwinner A10 SoC or one of its newer versions) with no need for cross compilers, emulators or ugly FAT partitions.

This should work on any sunxi system as long as U-Boot is at least version 2012.10.

The first step is to erase the beginning of SD card to remove anything in the unpartitioned space which may confuse U-Boot, partition and format it as desired. The first partition must begin at 1MB (1024*1024/512=2048 sectors) because the leading unpartitioned space is used by the boot loaders.

dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/mmcblk0 bs=1M count=1
parted /dev/mmcblk0

  mklabel msdos
  mkpart primary ext4 2048s 15G
  unit s
  mkpart primary linux-swap ... -1

mkfs.ext4 -L root /dev/mmcblk0p1
mkswap --label swap /dev/mmcblk0p2

Download the boot loaders and an initial kernel and install them:

tar xf cubieboard_hwpack.tar.xz
dd if=bootloader/sunxi-spl.bin of=/dev/mmcblk0 bs=1024 seek=8
dd if=bootloader/u-boot.bin of=/dev/mmcblk0 bs=1024 seek=32

mount /dev/mmcblk0p1 /mnt
mkdir /mnt/boot/

cp kernel/script.bin kernel/uImage /mnt/boot/

script.bin is Allwinner's proprietary equivalent of the device tree: it will be needed until sunxi support will be fully merged in mainline kernels.

U-Boot needs to be configured to load the kernel from the ext4 file system (join the lines at \\, this is not a supported syntax!):

cat << END > /mnt/boot/uEnv.txt
# kernel=uImage
root=/dev/mmcblk0p1 rootwait
boot_mmc=ext4load mmc 0:1 0x43000000 boot/script.bin && ext4load mmc 0:1 0x48000000 boot/${kernel} \\
  && watchdog 0 && bootm 0x48000000

Now the system is bootable: add your own root file system or build one with debootstrap. My old Sheevaplug tutorial shows how to do this without a working ARM system or emulator (beware: the other parts are quite obsolete and should not be trusted blindly).

If you have an old armel install around it will work as well, and you can easily cross-grade it to armhf as long as it is up to date to at least wheezy (the newer, the better).

You can also just use busybox for a quick test:

mkdir /mnt/bin/
dpkg-deb -x .../busybox-static_1.21.0-1_armhf.deb .
cp bin/busybox /mnt/bin/
ln -s busybox /mnt/bin/sh

After booting the busybox root file system you can run busybox --install /bin/ to install links for all the supported commands.

Until Debian kernels will support sunxi (do not hold your breath: there are still many parts which are not yet in mainline) I recommend to install one of Roman's kernels:

dpkg -i linux-image-3.4.67-r0-s-rm2+_3.4.67-r0-s-rm2+-10.00.Custom_armhf.deb
mkimage -A arm -O linux -T kernel -C none -a 40008000 -e 40008000 \
  -n uImage -d /boot/vmlinuz-3.4.67-r0-s-rm2+ /boot/uImage-3.4.67-r0-s-rm2+

It is not needed with these kernels for most setups, but an initramfs can be created with:

update-initramfs -c -k 3.4.67-r0-s-rm2+
mkimage -A arm -T ramdisk -C none -n uInitrd \
  -d /boot/initrd.img-3.4.67-r0-s-rm2+ /boot/uInitrd-3.4.67-r0-s-rm2+

/boot/uEnv.txt will have to be updated to load the initramfs.

Since the Cubieboard lacks a factory-burned MAC address you should either configure one in script.bin or (much easier) add it to /etc/network/interfaces:

iface eth0 inet dhcp
        hwaddress ether xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx

To learn more about the Allwinner SoCs boot process you can consult 1 and 2.


This is the blog of Marco d'Itri.

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