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2. What is MILO?

On Intel based PC systems, the BIOS firmware sets up the system and then loads the image to be run from the boot block of a DOS file system. This is more or less what MILO does on an Alpha based system, however there are several interesting differences between BIOS firmware and MILO, not least of which is that MILO includes and uses standard Linux device drivers unmodified. MILO is firmware, unlike LILO, which relies on the BIOS firmware to get itself loaded. The main functional parts of MILO are:

  1. PALcode,

  2. Memory set up code (builds page tables and turns on virtual addressing),

  3. Video code (BIOS emulation code and TGA (21030)),

  4. Linux kernel code. This includes real Linux kernel code (for example, the interrupt handling) and ersatz or mock Linux kernel,

  5. Linux block device drivers (for example, the floppy driver),

  6. File system support (ext2, MS-DOS and ISO9660),

  7. User inteface code (MILO),

  8. Kernel interface code (sets up the HWRPB and memory map for linux),

  9. NVRAM code for managing environment variables.

The following paragraphs describe these functional parts in more detail.

PALcode can be thought of as a tiny software layer that tailors the chip to a particular operating system. It runs in a special mode (PALmode) which has certain restrictions but it uses the standard Alpha instruction set with just five extra instructions. In this way, the Alpha chip can run such diverse operating systems as Windows NT, OpenVMS, Digital Unix and, of course, Linux. The PALcode that MILO uses (and therefore Linux itself) is, like the rest of MILO, freeware. It is derived from Digital's Evaluation Board software example Digital Unix PALcode.. The differences between the different PALcodes are because of differences in address mapping and interrupt handling that exist between the Alpha chips (21066 based systems have a different I/O map to 21064+2107x systems) and different Alpha based systems.

For MILO to operate properly it needs to know what memory is available, where Linux will eventually be running from and it must be able to allocate temporary memory for the Linux device drivers. The code maintains a memory map that has entries for permanent and temporary allocated pages. As it boots, MILO uncompresses itself into the correct place in physical memory. When it passes control to the Linux kernel, it reserves memory for the compressed version of itself, the PALcode (which the kernel needs) and some data structures. This leaves most of the memory in the system for Linux itself.

The final act of the memory code is to set up and turn on virtual addressing so that the data structures that Linux expects to see are at the correct place in virtual memory.

MILO contains video code that initialises and uses the video device for the system. It will detect and use a VGA device if there is one, otherwise it will try to use a TGA (21030) video device. Failing that, it will assume that there is no graphics device. The BIOS emulation that the standard, pre-built, images include is Digital's own BIOS emulation which supports most, if not all, of the standard graphics devices available.

Linux device drivers live within the kernel and expect certain services from the kernel. Some of these services are provided directly by Linux kernel code, for example the interrupt handling and some is provided by kernel look-alike routines.

MILO's most powerful feature is that you can embed unaltered Linux device drivers into it. This gives it the potential to support every device that Linux does. MILO includes all of the block devices that are configured into the Linux kernel that it is built against as well as a lot of the block device code (for example, ll_rw_blk()).

MILO loads the Linux kernel from real file systems rather than from boot blocks and other strange places. It understands MSDOS, EXT2 and ISO9660 filesystems. Gzip'd files are supported and these are recommended, particularly if you are loading from floppy which is rather slow. MILO recognises these by their .gz suffix.

Built into MILO is a simple keyboard driver which, together with an equally simple video driver allows it to have a simple user interface. That interface allows you to list file systems on configured devices, boot Linux or run flash update utilities and set environment variables that control the system's booting. Like LILO, you can pass arguments to the Kernel.

MILO must tell the Linux kernel what sort of system this is, how much memory there is and which of that memory is free. It does this using the HWRPB (Hardware Restart Parameter Block) data structure and associated memory cluster descriptions. These are placed at the appropriate place in virtual memory just before control is passed to the Linux kernel.