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Shedbuilt GNU/Linux: An Educational Distro Exclusively for ARM Boards

Since the introduction of the Raspberry PI, ARM boards have become very popular. Shedbuilt Linux is an infant distribution focused on ARm devices.

What is Shedbuilt GNU/Linux?

Shedbuilt GNU/Linux popped up on my radar while I was on a BBS of all things. (For those of you who didn’t live through the 80s and 90s, BBSes were the first form of social media and mainly available in the terminal.)

Shedbuilt is a simple Linux distro that you can install on one of 8 supported ARM boards. It comes with a simple set of tools “that facilitates learning, experimentation and sharing, developing users’ computer literacy through system design, creation and administration”.

The idea is that Shedbuilt is a return to the early days of the personal computer industry when the vast majority of PCs were owned by hobbyists who taught themselves everything about their systems. Unlike most Linux distros, Shedbuilt encourages new users to create their own packages to facilitate learning.

Shedbuilt isn’t just designed for work. It also supports ScummVM games, Doom, OpenXCom, and RetroArch. You can also package your own games.

Unlike most Linux distros with ARM support, Shedbuilt it built only on ARM. There is no cross-compiling involved.

The one major way that Shedbuilt differs from the early days of the PC is cost. Back in the day, a hobbyist would spend thousands of dollars on a primitive computer. The cheapest ARM board supported by Shedbuilt will cost you $10 (without shipping). Even if you purchase the most expensive board with all of the necessary accessories, it will probably cost a little over $100.

Meet the man behind Shedbuilt Linux

I contacted Auston Stewart, the creator of Shedbuilt, to find out more out his project, the inspiration behind it and the goal it wants to achieve.

It’s FOSS: Before we discuss Shedbuilt, let’s first see how did you get into Linux?

Auston Stewart: I was formerly an engineer at Twitch Interactive aka Twitch.tv and Apple and am now conducting technology and entrepreneurship workshops for local high school students.

I got into Linux back in 2000 after upgrading my Pentium II desktop to Windows Millennium Edition. Like clockwork, every week Windows would throw up the Blue Screen of Death, corrupt itself and require a complete reinstall. The third time this happened I decided I had had enough and set about exploring alternative OSes.

I first tried BeOS, which I loved from an architectural standpoint, but found community support lacking and moved on. I was intrigued by what I’d heard of Linux and the growing open-source software movement and decided I’d go that way next, starting with a boxed copy of Red Hat. My initial reaction was mixed. Philosophically, it was clear that Linux was for me, but the UNIX-style command line was unfamiliar and early GNOME was clunky, even by Windows standards.

So, like many others, I distro hopped, first to Mandrake, then to Corel Linux and finally to Gentoo, which enabled me to piece together the exact environment I wanted while learning useful system administration skills. I now run Solus Linux on all my Intel-based machines, but Shedbuilt is very much inspired by my earlier experience with Gentoo.

It’s FOSS: What is the goal of Shedbuilt GNU/Linux? What inspired you to create it?

Auston Stewart: Shedbuilt is a response to the difficulties today’s parents and mentors face encouraging young people to develop thoughtful, healthy and productive relationships with computing technology.

That means supporting fully-featured devices that are cheap to buy and cheap to replace to facilitate independent experimentation and tinkering.

That means tearing down the roadblocks interposed between their curiosity and a deep understanding of how the system works by avoiding binary blobs.

That means enabling each of them to make and share improvements to the apps they rely on, rather than be consumers – and ultimately victims – of proprietary and nominally ‘free’ software.

For me, Shedbuilt is a tool to push back against the tendency we’ve observed for the highly-capable computing devices we give to children to become conduits for the passive consumption of advertisement, cynical games and social networking services that are engineered for addiction rather than fulfillment.

It’s FOSS: Most distros just refer to themselves as Linux. Do you think GNU is still relevant to modern Linux?

Auston Stewart: I think you have to consider the nomenclature issue on a case-by-case basis. We ship GCC, glibc, binutils, the autoconf tools, bash, the whole lot. Shedbuilt is very much beholden to the GNU project and we chose to recognize that fact with the ‘GNU/Linux’ suffix. Were we to drop GCC in favor of Clang, glibc in favor of musl and so on, the GNU project tools would be diluted within a much more heterogeneous system and including ‘GNU’ in the branding for the operating system would simply be misleading.

It’s FOSS: Currently, Shedbuilt supports 8 different single board computers. Do you plan to add support for any more, such as the Pine64?

Auston Stewart: Support for many more SBCs is currently underway and Pine64 and its siblings are among the next up. We started with SBCs built around Allwinner Technologies’ SOCs because they have excellent, community-driven mainline support and with their H3 and H5 chips specifically because I had them on-hand. Thanks to the generosity of donors and manufacturers we now have a much broader array of test devices, including ones based on SOCs from Rockchip and Amlogic.

We’d love to support the popular Raspberry Pi line but Broadcom’s chips are rather perverse, booting from their integrated video processor using binary-only firmware. Progress there will depend on the various reverse engineering projects underway, or a decision to relax our stance on the presence of binary blobs.

Due to the unique component and design choices made by manufacturers, each board requires individual attention to ensure functionality and stability. Shedbuilt is currently maintained by myself and George Donev, both working part-time, so new hardware support can take time, especially when we’re busy with package and tooling updates.

It’s FOSS: Do you have any idea how many people use Shedbuilt?

Auston Stewart: We intentionally don’t build tracking into the operating system itself so I can’t provide hard numbers there. Using visits to the download page for System 1 ‘Amano’ as a proxy, I’d estimate about 350. That’s not a huge adoption figure by any means, but it’s a meaningful start given the limited hardware and software support in our debut release.

System 2 ‘Blank’, named for Zork co-creator Marc Blank, will have broader support and we’re hopeful that, by getting the word out through publications such as yours and our own campaign, we’ll grow those numbers and build an active community.

It’s FOSS: Shedbuilt is obviously inspired by the early days of the personal computer. What computers did you own from that generation and which would you have liked to own?

Auston Stewart: As a child, I spent a lot of time on my school’s Apple ][ machines and loved how approachable they were and the centrality of programming to their operation. I never personally owned an Apple ][ or any of the other, delightful 8-bit microcomputers such as the Commodore 64, but I later designed and built my own Apple I homage called PINKY-8, which is documented here. The first computer I could rightly call my own was a 386SX-20 IBM Compatible with a capacious 40MB harddisk, single-speed CD-ROM drive and a SoundBlaster Pro that played dulcet FM tones through a pair of Altec-Lansing speakers. It was my pride and joy, even if it could only play Doom at postage stamp screen resolution.

I have a lot of fondness and respect for the design of the classic Macintosh and its software and have on my desk, beneath my Core i3-based laptop, a Macintosh Centris 610 that I’ve fully restored and boot up regularly to play the games of my youth and write without distraction.

It’s FOSS: How can people contribute to Shedbuilt, both financially and technically?

Auston Stewart: Like any traditional Linux distribution, we’re always in need of individuals to maintain existing packages, package new software and test new hardware. Unlike some, we welcome informal technical contributions from the community. Every last bit of code and automation is up on GitHub and we review every Issue and Pull Request.

At this stage, as I said, it’s just myself and George Donev and we struggle to keep on top of software updates while adding new hardware support and improving the underpinnings for future releases.

If you’d like to advance Shedbuilt’s mission to get more young people involved in community-supported software, I urge you to reach out to us at [email protected] We’re also in the process of establishing an entity around Shedbuilt that can accept donations so please look forward to a future announcement on our website.

Final Thoughts

After reading about Shedbuilt, I’ve decided to buy one of the supported ARM boards and give it a try. I look forward to learning more about what makes Linux tick.

Have you tried Shedbuilt GNU/Linux? Who would you like It’s FOSS to interview in the future? Let us know in the comments below.

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