Setting up a development environment

Frankly, one of the hardest parts of starting an operating system is getting a development environment going. Normally, you’re doing work on the same operating system you’re developing for, and we don’t have that luxury. Yet!

There is a convention called a ‘target triple’ to describe a particular platform. It’s a ‘triple’ because it has three parts:


So, a target triple for a computer which has an x86-64 bit processor running a Linux kernel and the GNU userland would look like this:


However, it can also be useful to know the operating system as well, and so the ‘triple’ part can be extended to include it:


This is for some unknown Linux. If we were targeting Debian specifically, it would be:


Since it’s four parts, it’s called a ‘target’ rather than a ‘target triple’, but you’ll still hear some people call it a triple anyway.

Kernels themselves don’t need to be for a specific userland, and so you’ll see ‘none’ get used:


Hosts & Targets

The reason that they’re called a ‘target’ is that it’s the architecture you’re compiling to. The architecture you’re compiling from is called the ‘host architecture’.

If the target and the host are the same, we call it ‘compiling’. If they are different, we call it ‘cross-compiling’. So you’ll see people say things like

I cross-compiled from x86_64-linux-gnu to x86-unknown-none.

This means that the computer that the developer was using was a 64-bit GNU/Linux machine, but the final binary was for a 32-bit x86 machine with no OS.

So we need a slightly special environment to build our OS: we need to cross-compile from whatever kind of computer we are using to our new target.

Cheat codes

... but we can also cheat. It’s okay to cheat. Well, in this case, it’s really only okay at the start. We’ll eventually have to cross-compile, or things will go wrong.

Here’s the cheat: if you are developing on an x86_64 Linux machine, and you’re not using any special Linux kernel features, then the difference between x86_64-linux-gnu and x86_64-unknown-none is really just theoretical. It will still technically work. For now.

This is a common pitfall with new operating system developers. They’ll start off with the cheat, and it will come back to haunt them later. Don’t worry; I will actually show you how to fix things before they go wrong. Knowing the difference here is still useful.