Randomcoderdude's blog

SPI over GPIO in OpenWrt


The previous posts Controlling leds status in OpenWrt and Controlling GPIOs in OpenWrt were actually an introduction for this.


What if you want to connect some kind of SPI device to your OpenWrt device? Perhaps a microcontroller (AVR/Arduino, PIC, etc).
I recently worked on a project where i needed to have a web user interface and control an IR led emitter to emulate a remote. I considered that using an Arduino + Ethernet shield + some kind of flash storage + power supply + container box would cost me more than a TP-LINK MR3020 plus a bunch of components.

It turns out that the Linux kernel already has some modules to bitbang an SPI over the GPIO pins (spi-gpio + spi-bitbang) and also a module to expose the SPI to userland so that it can be accessed by our programs or scripts (spi-dev).
BUT there’s a problem. This stuff is not “directly” usable: it is used by other kernel drivers. We don’t have a way to dynamically say “hey, i want an SPI on those pins”. Instead we would need to rebuild the kernel adding some custom code to declare this SPI bus and also devices connected to it.
I don’t like the idea to recompile the kernel for something like this. I probably want to use this small linux box for tests, POCs, different projects, and i don’t want to rebuild the kernel and flash a new image each time.
So, i made a kernel module that allows to configure on-the-fly an SPI bus and its nodes. You can use it on a stock Attitude Adjustment image, without reflashing or recompiling anything.

By the way, if you wonder how fast this SPI can be, my tests show that it can go something above 1 MHz. Not bad at all.


I have submitted a patch to the OpenWrt developers. They may add it to the next release (not sure honestly) and be installable with opkg. But in the meantime i have built the module for the various platforms on Attitude Adjustment and you can install it manually.

  1. Click here to download the kernel module.
  2. Copy the file spi-gpio-custom.ko for your platform in /lib/modules/<kernel version>/  (TP-Link is ar71xx – for other boards it’s the same of the image you have downloaded)
  3. Run opkg install kmod-spi-gpio
  4. Run opkg install kmod-spi-dev

the patch has been included in OpenWrt trunk, so it is now available in nightly builds and will be in future releases starting from Barrier Breaker.
The installation is straightforward:
#opkg install kmod-spi-gpio-custom


You can use the module to configure up to 4 buses with up to 8 devices each, according to the parameters that you use when loading the module.

The command you’ll use is:
#insmod spi-gpio-custom <parameters>

Here is the official doc from the source:

 *  The following parameters are adjustable:
 *    bus0    These four arguments can be arrays of
 *    bus1    unsigned integers as follows:
 *    bus2
 *    bus3    <id>,<sck>,<mosi>,<miso>,<mode1>,<maxfreq1>,<cs1>,...   
 *  where:
 *  <id>       ID to used as device_id for the corresponding bus (required)
 *  <sck>      GPIO pin ID to be used for bus SCK (required)
 *  <mosi>     GPIO pin ID to be used for bus MOSI (required*)
 *  <miso>     GPIO pin ID to be used for bus MISO (required*)
 *  <modeX>    Mode configuration for slave X in the bus (required)
 *             (see /include/linux/spi/spi.h) 
 *  <maxfreqX> Maximum clock frequency in Hz for slave X in the bus (required)
 *  <csX>      GPIO pin ID to be used for slave X CS (required**)
 *    Notes:
 *    *        If a signal is not used (for example there is no MISO) you need
 *             to set the GPIO pin ID for that signal to an invalid value.
 *    **       If you only have 1 slave in the bus with no CS, you can omit the
 *             <cs1> param or set it to an invalid GPIO id to disable it. When
 *             you have 2 or more slaves, they must all have a valid CS.

Your platform will have GPIOs numbered in a certain range, for example 0-50 or 400-900 (see the OpenWrt Wiki for your router). Anything outside that range is an “invalid value” per the notes above.

For each device a file on /dev will created, named spidev<bus id>.<dev id>. For example, /dev/spidev1.0

Admittedly, it’s not easy to remember. But reading that reference when you want to change something is still less annoying than rebuilding and reflashing everything, right?


We all know, examples make everything so much easier to understand. (examples are for a TP-Link MR3020)

Single bus with id 1, using gpio 7 as CLK, 29 as MOSI, no MISO and single device in spi mode 0, max 1Khz, with no CS:
#insmod spi-gpio-custom bus0=1,7,29,100,0,1000
This will result in:

Single bus with id 1, using gpio 7 as CLK, 29 as MOSI, 26 as MISO, first device in spi mode 0, max 1Khz, with gpio 0 as CS, second device in spi mode 2, max 125Khz, with gpio 17 as CS:
#insmod spi-gpio-custom bus0=1,7,29,26,0,1000,0,2,125000,17
This will result in:
/dev/spidev1.0 and /dev/spidev1.1

Bus with id 1, using gpio 7 as CLK, 29 as MOSI, no MISO, with single device in spi mode 0, max 1Khz, with no CS and Bus with id 2 using gpio 26 as CLK, 17 as MOSI, no MISO with single device in spi mode 2, max 125Khz, with no CS:
#insmod spi-gpio-custom bus0=1,7,29,100,0,1000 bus1=2,26,17,100,2,125000
This will result in:
/dev/spidev1.0 and /dev/spidev2.0

Transferring data

Ok, now how do we transfer data?

Simplex communication is done by just writing and reading that /dev file.
For example,
#echo hello > /dev/spidev1.0
will send “hello\n”, where \n (LF) is added by echo.

For full duplex data transfer you need to use ioctl calls. See the spi-dev documentation. You can also see an example here.


If something fails, insmod will give you a description of the fault code, which is very generic and will usually tell you nothing about what happened.
To understand what’s wrong, see the kernel log running dmesg.

If you want to change your configuration, you need to unload the module and reload it with different parameters:
#rmmod spi-gpio-custom
#insmod spi-gpio-custom <new parameters>

Last, but not least, remember to unload other modules that may keep the gpio busy, for example leds_gpio:
#rmmod leds_gpio


<linux source>/Documentation/gpio.txt
<linux source>/Documentation/spi/spi-summary
<linux source>/Documentation/spi/spidev