Open the Box

Andy presented me with an interesting challenge:

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to get Linux on this accursed box.

The accursed box was a Sumvision Cyclone Mini PC: an Intel Atom SoC based PC, in a nice little box about the size of a domestic router. It has been quite popular for a Windows Media playerbox, with wireless built in, and a HDMI-out, but this one was hopefully destined for more geeky things: an easily deployable network monitor, so first thing is Linux.

Apparently others had given up in frustration, and powering it up gave me a particularly unfriendly UEFI shell that didn’t have a scroll-lock, so you couldn’t see the available commands. Nice. I found a way into the BIOS-style setup, and checked all the obvious things; secure boot disabled, clear the secure boot keys, etc. What was notably odd was a OS/BOM seletion screen (that is their typo, not mine) that was set to Windows 8, and all greyed out, and no CSM (or Legacy) boot modes.

A few websites suggested enabling BIOS firmware passwords would let you select these options- no good (and I still haven’t managed to: congrats to AMI for quite possibly the unfriendliest UI I’ve seen in a PC BIOS firmware.

So. Clearly we have a system that is UEFI boot only. This is the way things are to go, of course. The BIOS has been with us since I was a teenager, which is too long ago for my liking.

As an aside at this point, I should point out this great article on UEFI, Secureboot, and why I keep using a “strike” tag on the acronym BIOS, which demystifying something I inherently distrusted as new-fangled rubbish, even if Fruitco have been doing it for years. BIOS was rubbish, but it was familiar rubbish.

Downloading a restore image from the manufacturer’s (pretty poor) website restored it to Windows, so the boot setup was workable. It didn’t reveal any links to a UEFI update, like I’d hoped, though.

So then, I need UEFI boot media. The Sumvision box is 64-bit, and I like Ubuntu, so I downloaded a 64-bit Ubuntu ISO, made a UEFI-compatible USB stick with Rufus, and tried it.

And got either Windows or the UEFI shell again.

A bit of googling found me that while the machine itself is 64-bit, the UEFI firmware is 32-bit (slow handclap, AMI/Sumvision, you fucking geniuses), and that seems common for these low-power SoC machines. Sure enough, re-writing the stick with Debian Jessie 32-bit install media (because Ubuntu i386 doesn’t do UEFI) got an installer booted, and being careful to leave the EFI system partition in place, a working system :-). No wifi, but that isn’t a problem for this use: if you need wifi, you can compile a module.

But this is a 64-bit machine, so running a 64-bit OS would be good. Happily, Debian Multiarch exists, and there’s a set of install media with non-free but redistributable firmware too, so on it went, and it literally installed first time, and booted without drama, so Andy has his network monitor, and I learned a few things.

4 Responses to “Open the Box”

  1. Willenhall Lad Says:

    Well done not least for your patience. This box survived a few bad attempts from other but this is a great singular lesson at computing at this level. You are indeed a master of computers. We salute you!

  2. species5618 Says:

    i have a small collection of ARM SoC boards, Pi0,1,2,3 , Pine64, cubieboards 1 and 2 etc
    all with slightly different CPU vendors, and bootloader etc

    and the first choice comes down to how easy it is to install any OS

    and yes while it is supposed to be a simple dd img job,
    finding a reliable bulid for the lesser known boards is a challange

    Armbian is usually a good choice, but has a list of “known problems” on different boards
    not venured to brweing my own, but i do have an old laptop, i plan to put debian (i386) on and look at trying to compile a few things

    in a strange way computing seem to have taken a step back
    the public have out of the box stuff , true
    but those who want to tinker are facing a lanscape which changes every day

  3. species5618 Says:

    i hope this is not the intel SOC chip that suffers a hardware clock failure after 18 months

  4. stymaster Says:

    I don’t think so….