Android Systems Engineering: A Quick Look Under the Hood

Overview

Most of us we have become comfortable with the understanding that Android is a very specialized and customized version of Linux. The resulting level of customization does however render the OS sufficiently different that most general purpose Linux Systems Engineering expertise is of limited value. We also need to acknowledge that this simply means we need to get back to the foundations and explore / relearn from the bottom up (or top down – depending on your perspective).

If we take a quick survey of the multitudes of Android devices available, it is clear that there are both similarities and significant differences. Some of these are cosmetic and some are not, and one way to understand which is which,  is by dissecting the construction of the OS – and identifying where these modifications were interjected. From the bottom up we have:

  • The Android Kernel: The Android kernel is the engine at the bottom of the Android software stack that is responsible for everything that happens after the bootloader hands off control.
  • Core Android Services: When you hear about functions named Binder or AshMem, these are two of the core services that are responsible for managing memory, communication and process launching. Like the kernel these services generally are a key part of everything that happens in Android.
  • System Services/APIs: These are functions that provide more specialized functions and programmatic interfaces to the Android platform. This is the layer that applications start to touch.
  • Proprietary Device Drivers: A set of binary loaded drivers that enable the very general interfaces in the OS to talk to specialized hardware devices. These are not open source.
  • Dalvik Virtual Machine (VM): A specialized Java like virtual machine that isolates (or virtualizes) the APIs so that applications can be device independent.
  • AOSP User Interface/Apps: The standard user interface and core applications provided as part of the Android Open Source Project. This is a very small set of applications.
  • Google Applications: A larger set of Google specific applications, which include Gmail, Google Maps, Google Play Market, Google Talk, Google Voice, and Chrome.
  • Device Vendor Theming / Applications: A look and feel overlay on the user interface (also known as ‘skinning’) combined with a set of vendor specific applications. Nexus devices are not “skinned”.
  • Telecom Vendor Applications: A set of applications specific to a telecom vendor that provide some level of function that often duplicate functionality. Nexus devices do have telecom vendor apps.

From an Android Systems Engineering viewpoint, a few of these merit further discussion. Specifically we will expand on the Android Kernel, AOSP, and the proprietary drivers.

Android Kernel

The Android kernel is based on the Linux kernel, but has a number of Android specific patches that provide improved performance and function on a mobile platform. These patches are generally very specific to how Android manages memory, tasks, interrupts and timers to provide better performance and battery life than a more traditional Linux kernel. There has also been an evolving effort to reduce the amount of OS code running as a privileged user (i.e. root), which has been relatively successful, and has driven some kernel architectural changes. This is why Android privilege escalation attacks are so very uncommon.

AOSP: Android Open Source Project

The Android Open Source Project, or AOSP is the open source part of the Android system. The homepage for AOSP is at http://source.android.com/. AOSP includes the Android Kernel, a number of key OS services, the Android API functions and the Dalvik Virtual Machine.

Another way to look at this is that AOSP is the open source foundation from kernel to User Interface – excepting the proprietary apps, drivers, and ‘skinning’. To clarify – skinning is a process that layers a user interface theme on top of the standard Android look and feel. This is generally done by product vendors to create a brand style or appearance. Examples include Motorola MotoBlur, HTC Sense and Samsung TouchWiz.

The most important thing to know about AOSP is that it is open source (distribution, but not development) and it is capable of generating a fully functional Android Operating System without any special or purchased tools.

Android Proprietary Drivers

Although the Android OS is fairly generic for platforms, it is still necessary to have device drivers and a hardware abstraction layer (HAL) that maps a generic API interface to the device. Unlike the PC Linux movement, there is not a significant effort to develop open source drivers for Android hardware devices and for the most part, these are proprietary pieces of code that get installed on the OS image.

If your device is a Nexus device, drivers can be found at https://developers.google.com/android/nexus/drivers. For other Android devices the process is more complicated, and drivers are generally extracted from the factory device firmware.

Beyond Skinning

As the Android marketplace evolves (I hesitate to call it maturing), device vendors are increasingly working to develop product differentiation that would enable them to carve off their own walled gardens in the Android world. Initially this was achieved by changing the look and feel of the User Interface (UI) through skinning – which is a fairly cosmetic process. The upside to skinning is that it is also a relatively safe process with minimal risk of introducing vulnerabilities.

Over the last few years this process has progressed, and Samsung in particular has introduced and applied broad sets of  patches to the AOSP source code that add significant capabilities – such as Multi-Window on the Galaxy devices. These changes are fairly significant and end up touching a many parts from the kernel to the UI, with increasing risk of bugs and vulnerabilities. Of course the real question is whether this has actually happened.

Implications on Stability

My favorite device differentiator is stability, and the following statements make some relatively safe, but somewhat anecdotal assertions about stability / vendor support on smart phones.

  • Apple iPhones are fairly stable but introducing a major new OS version each year that is compatible with 3 generations of hardware may be having some impacts. Just for fun Google “iphone camera crashes” and see what you discover.
  • Google Nexus / Developer devices are more stable because of their minimalism. I have had a Nexus tablet for over a year and a Nexus phone for about 6 months. I have never had to power cycle either of them except for firmware patching / updates. The only app crash I have ever had is Facebook – and it happened once.  Based on discussions with other Nexus owners, this is fairly typical.
  • Google Nexus / Developer devices generally receive OS updates within days of announcement. This is because Google does this directly – and does not go through the device / telecom vendor channels (who have no business interest in maintaining a device already sold and obsoleted out of the sales chain).
  • Non-Nexus Android devices range from slightly flakey to very crashy (and barely functional), require regular reboots, and if they are updated – they can be up to a year behind the current version. Vendors typically lock the bootloader and discourage any third party OS development (AOKP and/or CyanogenMod for example).

I also understand that the plural of anecdote is not fact – but several of these assertions are supported by a recent academic paper that has some interesting findings on code provenance and vulnerabilities. More simply – the paper confirms that some Android phones are significantly more vulnerable / buggy than others, and who is to blame.

The vendors surveyed included Google Nexus, LG, HTC, Samsung and Sony. I will let you read the paper, but there are few tidbits worth sharing.

  • Google Nexus phones were used as the baseline since they have no third party software – and did provide the lowest number of vulnerabilities.
  • Sony customization produced significantly few vulnerabilities than the other three vendors.
  • Of LG, HTC and Samsung devices – between 65% and 85% of identified vulnerabilities came from their 3rd party code and customizations.
  • Samsung Galaxy S2 and S3 take the dubious honor of having the greatest number of vulnerabilities (see table 5 – S3 had 40 vulnerabilities versus the Nexus 4 with 3).

Conclusions I personally drew from this paper include: a) Whatever Sony is doing in their code development QA process – they should keep doing it, b) Whatever Samsung is doing in their code development QA process – they should stop doing it and fix it, and c) This data supports some of my anecdotal assertions above and actually adds detail.

Anecdotes are interesting, and as story tellers we can more easily relate to them versus raw data. However – occasionally data can support the anecdotes and then the combination can become useful.

Bottom Line

For the aspiring Android Systems Engineer, this quick look under the hood is intended to provide you with a few reference points you can related back to your Linux Systems Engineering understanding.

For the truly ambitious, the next step is to download the AOSP source and dig in…

Reference

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