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Binary Blobs

In the context of an operating system that supports multiple architectures and many different IC families, some functionality may be unavailable without the help of executable code distributed in binary form. Binary blobs (or blobs for short) are files containing proprietary machine code or data in a binary format, e.g. without corresponding source code released under an OSI approved license.

Zephyr supports downloading and using third-party binary blobs via its built-in mechanisms, with some important caveats, described in the following sections. It is important to note that all the information in this section applies only to upstream (vanilla) Zephyr.

There are no limitations whatsoever (except perhaps license compatibility) in the support for binary blobs in forks or third-party distributions of Zephyr. In fact, Zephyr’s build system supports arbitrary use cases related to blobs. This includes linking against libraries, flashing images to targets, etc. Users are therefore free to create Zephyr-based downstream software which uses binary blobs if they cannot meet the requirements described in this page.

Software license

Most binary blobs are distributed under proprietary licenses which vary significantly in nature and conditions. It is up to the vendor to specify the license as part of the blob submission process. Blob vendors may impose a click-through or other EULA-like workflow when users fetch and install blobs.

Hosting

Blobs must be hosted on the Internet and managed by third-party infrastructure. Two potential examples are Git repositories and web servers managed by individual hardware vendors.

The Zephyr Project does not host binary blobs in its Git repositories or anywhere else.

Fetching blobs

Blobs are fetched from official third-party sources by the west blobs command command.

The blobs themselves must be specified in the module.yml files included in separate Zephyr module repositories maintained by their respective vendors. This means that in order to include a reference to a binary blob to the upstream Zephyr distribution, a module repository must exist first or be created as part of the submission process.

Each blob which may be fetched must be individually identified in the corresponding module.yml file. A specification for a blob must contain:

  • An abstract description of the blob itself

  • Version information

  • A reference to vendor-provided documentation

  • The blob’s type, which must be one of the allowed types

  • A checksum for the blob, which west blobs checks after downloading. This is required for reproducibility and to allow bisecting issues as blobs change using Git and west

  • License text applicable to the blob or a reference to such text, in SPDX format

See the corresponding section for a more formal definition of the fields.

The west blobs command can be used to list metadata of available blobs and to fetch blobs from user-selected modules.

The west blobs command only fetches and stores the binary blobs themselves. Any accompanying code, including interface header files for the blobs, must be present in the corresponding module repository.

Tainting

Inclusion of binary blobs will taint the Zephyr build. The definition of tainting originates in the Linux kernel and, in the context of Zephyr, a tainted image will be one that includes binary blobs in it.

Tainting will be communicated to the user in the following manners:

  • One or more Kconfig options TAINT_BLOBS_* will be set to y

  • The Zephyr build system, during its configuration phase, will issue a warning. It will be possible to disable the warning using Kconfig

  • The west spdx command will include the tainted status in its output

  • The kernel’s default fatal error handler will also explicitly print out the kernel’s tainted status

Allowed types

The following binary blob types are acceptable in Zephyr:

  • Precompiled libraries: Hardware enablement libraries, distributed in precompiled binary form, typically for SoC peripherals. An example could be an enablement library for a wireless peripheral

  • Firmware images: An image containing the executable code for a secondary processor or CPU. This can be full or partial (typically delta or patch data) and is generally copied into RAM or flash memory by the main CPU. An example could be the firmware for the core running a Bluetooth LE Controller

  • Miscellaneous binary data files. An example could be pre-trained neural network model data

Hardware agnostic features provided via a proprietary library are not acceptable. For example, a proprietary and hardware agnostic TCP/IP stack distributed as a static archive would be rejected.

Note that just because a blob has an acceptable type does not imply that it will be unconditionally accepted by the project; any blob may be rejected for other reasons on a case by case basis (see library-specific requirements below). In case of disagreement, the TSC is the arbiter of whether a particular blob fits in one of the above types.

Precompiled library-specific requirements

This section contains additional requirements specific to precompiled library blobs.

Any person who wishes to submit a precompiled library must represent that it meets these requirements. The project may remove a blob from the upstream distribution if it is discovered that the blob fails to meet these requirements later on.

Interface header files

The precompiled library must be accompanied by one or more header files, distributed under a non-copyleft OSI approved license, that define the interface to the library.

Allowed dependencies

This section defines requirements related to external symbols that a library blob requires the build system to provide.

  • The blob must not depend on Zephyr APIs directly. In other words, it must have been possible to build the binary without any Zephyr source code present at all. This is required for loose coupling and maintainability, since Zephyr APIs may change and such blobs cannot be modified by all project maintainers

  • Instead, if the code in the precompiled library requires functionality provided by Zephyr (or an RTOS in general), an implementation of an OS abstraction layer (aka porting layer) can be provided alongside the library. The implementation of this OS abstraction layer must be in source code form, released under an OSI approved license and documented using Doxygen

Toolchain requirements

Precompiled library blobs must be in a data format which is compatible with and can be linked by a toolchain supported by the Zephyr Project. This is required for maintainability and usability. Use of such libraries may require special compiler and/or linker flags, however. For example, a porting layer may require special flags, or a static archive may require use of specific linker flags.

Limited scope

Allowing arbitrary library blobs carries a risk of degrading the degree to which the upstream Zephyr software distribution is open source. As an extreme example, a target with a zephyr kernel clock driver that is just a porting layer around a library blob would not be bootable with open source software.

To mitigate this risk, the scope of upstream library blobs is limited. The project maintainers define an open source test suite that an upstream target must be able to pass using only open source software included in the mainline distribution and its modules. The open source test suite currently consists of:

  • samples/philosophers

  • tests/kernel

The scope of this test suite may grow over time. The goal is to specify tests for a minimal feature set which must be supported via open source software for any target with upstream Zephyr support.

At the discretion of the release team, the project may remove support for a hardware target if it cannot pass this test suite.

Support and maintenance

The Zephyr Project is not expected to be responsible for the maintenance and support of contributed binary blobs. As a consequence, at the discretion of the Zephyr Project release team, and on a case-by-case basis:

  • GitHub issues reported on the zephyr repository tracker that require use of blobs to reproduce may not be treated as bugs

  • Such issues may be closed as out of scope of the Zephyr project

This does not imply that issues which require blobs to reproduce will be closed without investigation. For example, the issue may be exposing a bug in a Zephyr code path that is difficult or impossible to trigger without a blob. Project maintainers may accept and attempt to resolve such issues.

However, some flexibility is required because project maintainers may not be able to determine if a given issue is due to a bug in Zephyr or the blob itself, may be unable to reproduce the bug due to lack of hardware, etc.

Blobs must have designated maintainers that must be responsive to issue reports from users and provide updates to the blobs to address issues. At the discretion of the Zephyr Project release team, module revisions referencing blobs may be removed from zephyr/west.yml at any time due to lack of responsiveness or support from their maintainers. This is required to maintain project control over bit-rot, security issues, etc.

The submitter of the proposal to integrate a binary blob must commit to maintain the integration of such blob for the foreseeable future.

Submission and review process

For references to binary blobs to be included in the project, they must be reviewed and accepted by the Technical Steering Committee (TSC). This process is only required for new binary blobs, updates to binary blobs follow the module update procedure.

A request for integration with binary blobs must be made by creating a new issue in the Zephyr project issue tracking system on GitHub with details about the blobs and the functionality they provide to the project.

Follow the steps below to begin the submission process:

  1. Make sure to read through the Binary Blobs section in detail, so that you are informed of the criteria used by the TSC in order to approve or reject a request

  2. Use the New Binary Blobs Issue to open an issue

  3. Fill out all required sections, making sure you provide enough detail for the TSC to assess the merit of the request. Additionally you must also create a Pull Request that demonstrates the integration of the binary blobs and then link to it from the issue

  4. Wait for feedback from the TSC, respond to any additional questions added as GitHub issue comments

If, after consideration by the TSC, the submission of the binary blob(s) is approved, the submission process is complete and the binary blob(s) can be integrated.