Part 1: Cross Compiling C/C++ Code for NI Linux Real-Time


NI Linux Real-Time opens a wealth of possibilities for interfacing between the National Instruments and Linux ecosystems. With access to many common Linux utilities and libraries, it’s possible to create custom applications and libraries to interface with NI Hardware and Software or to port existing Linux libraries to NI systems. This document introduces the concepts of cross compiling and the NI Linux Real-Time Cross Compile Toolchain for compiling C/C++ projects on NI Linux Real-Time.

Understanding Compilation Options

To build C/C++ code for the NI Linux Real-Time operating system, there are two options:

  1. Install the C/C++ toolchain to a Linux Real-Time system directly through the OS package manager (opkg) and compile on target.

  2. Install the C/C++ toolchain to a system with a different operating system (e.g., Windows or other Linux distributions) and compile on that system.

The first option tends to be the easiest when dealing with complex projects with large numbers of dependencies but requires access to a system running NI Linux Real-Time. In cases where such a system is not available, this option is not possible.

The second option solves this problem by allowing anyone with the NI Linux Real-Time GNU C/C++ Compilers to create and compile code to run on NI Linux Real-Time devices. Compiling code on an operating system other than the one to be deployed to – known as cross compiling – will be the focus of this document and the tutorials which follow.

Cross Compiling Concepts

NI Linux Real-Time C/C++ Compiler Tools consist of 3 main groups of tools or resources: The actual GNU C/C++ Compiler, the sysroot, and the debugger. NI ships two versions of these compiler tools: one for Intel x64 Linux Real-Time devices and one for ARM 32-bit Linux Real-Time devices. Understanding the basics of these components is important to make development and the steps involved clearer.

GNU C/C++ Compiler

The core of the NI Linux cross compiler toolchains is the GNU C/C++ Compiler and its related tools such as the linker. In a cross compiler the compiler is an executable built for one system that builds code targeted to a different system. That is, if using the compiler on Windows it’s a Windows executable (.exe) that generates binaries for NI Linux Real-Time (.o, *.so, *.a, etc.). The compiler accepts the same flags, preprocessor definitions, and configurations as if it were on a system natively running NI Linux Real-Time but allows users to compile on Windows or Linux Desktop distributions.

The Sysroot

In order to develop accurately and compile code that will run when deployed, developers need access to files that would normally be on the deployment system such as includes, headers, or third-party libraries. Without these the compiler will not be able to properly link dependencies or use system libraries. To solve this problem when compiling on a different operating system (or just a different system) than the deployment target, the GNU C/C++ Compiler allows the use of a “sysroot” through the –sysroot=<directory> flag.

The sysroot tells the compiler to use a specified directory as the logical root directory for libraries and headers. For example, if a file were found at /usr/lib on a Linux Real-Time system, specifying a sysroot on a Windows cross compiler will tell the compiler to instead look at <directory>/usr/lib where <directory> is the sysroot. Without this extra step, linker errors or other problems are very common when cross compiling or deploying a cross compiled application.

The NI Linux Real-Time C/C++ Compiler Tools ship with a copy of a sysroot for a given version of the NI Linux Real-Time operating system. This sysroot includes a set of the typical includes and libraries installed on NI Linux Real-Time systems and can be used to ensure proper linking and includes. When using additional third-party libraries or custom-built utilities it’s important to ensure these are included in the local sysroot as well. Otherwise the issues mentioned previously may be encountered.


In addition to the tooling required to create a binary, the cross compile tools include a version of the GNU Debugger (gdb) compiled to run on Windows for usage with the NI Linux Real-Time tools and sysroot. This debugger connects to the remotely running GNU Debugger Server (gdbserver) which is included by default on every NI Linux Real-Time distribution.


Even with the cross compile tools, debugging requires a system which can actually run the compiled code. That is, a system running NI Linux Real-Time is still necessary for debugging.

Getting Started

What Tools and Why?

For these tutorials, Visual Studio Code and several open source third-party tools are used. Visual Studio Code, or VS Code, is a streamlined code editor created by Microsoft with support for development operations like debugging, task running, and version control. The environment allows easy installation and configuration with custom extensions and is used in these tutorials as a starting point to introduce users to possible development tooling.

This is not to say that Visual Studio Code and the tools used in these tutorials are the only ones which support NI Linux Real-Time compilations. These tools are suggested as a starting place to learn about using the C/C++ compiler toolchain. There are two main reasons for using these tools rather than an official shipping NI product:

  1. By using open source and third-party tools, it is shown that the compile toolchain is just a normal C/C++ cross compiler and does not require specialized development tools to use.

  2. Setting up third-party tools allows users to better understand the overall process by demonstrating one potential set of options that can then be extended to other tools.

While NI is recommending these tools as a starting point the intention is that advanced users will pick the right options for their specific needs. There is nothing restricting usage of the compile tools to the specific IDE, build tool, or deployment methods covered in these documents.