How To Use Docker To Cross Compile For Raspberry Pi (and More)

It used to be tedious to set up a cross compile environment. Sure you can compile on the Raspberry Pi itself, but sometimes you want to use your big computer — and you can use it when your Pi is not on hand like when on an airplane with a laptop. It can be tricky to set up a cross compiler for any build tools, but if you go through one simple step, it becomes super easy regardless of what your real computer looks like. That one step is to install Docker.

Docker is available for Linux, Windows, and Mac OS. It allows developers to build images that are essentially preconfigured Linux environments that run some service. Like a virtual machine, these images can run together without interfering with each other. Unlike a virtual machine, Docker containers (the running software) are lightweight because they share the same underlying kernel and hardware of the computer.

The reality is, setting up the Raspberry Pi build environment isn’t any easier. It is just that with Docker, someone else has already done the work for you and you can automatically grab their setup and keep it up to date. If you are already running Linux, your package manager probably makes the process pretty easy too (see [Rud Merriam’s] post on that process). However, the nice thing about the images is it is a complete isolated environment that can move from machine to machine and from platform to platform (the Windows and Mac platforms use a variety of techniques to run the Linux software, but it is done transparently).

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Code Craft: Cross Compiling For The Raspberry Pi

Sometimes there’s just no place like your desktop. You’ve already got your favorite development tools and references setup or installed and it’s a pain when you’re trying to work on an unfamiliar, or simply uncustomized, system. On your desktop everything is at your fingertips. If you want to search the web, the browser is just an alt-tab away. If you need a calculator, it’s right there to run. Your editor highlights syntax in your favorite colors already.

When developing on a Raspberry Pi, you leave all these creature comforts behind unless you spend the time to configure the Pi to your liking. Then it all gets wiped when you install a new distribution, like the recent change from Wheezy to Jessie. Even then it’s frustrating to switch back and forth between the desktop and the Pi because there is always something on the other system that you need. My usual comment is, “dirty word”, literally.

Cross-developing on your desktop is a very workable solution. We’re going to walk through setting up your desktop and a Pi to do this. This means loading a Pi ARM toolchain on your desktop and a debugging server on the Pi. This’ll let you develop and debug from in the comfort of your desktop. An added advantage is when you put that Pi in a robot you can debug over a wireless link.

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