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When doing a binary diff between compiled Linux kernels for x86_64, the difference from version to version is relatively large (much more than 25%). The differences in size between the source archives, from version to version, is smaller (around 8% or smaller).

Would the difference in size between binary kernel images for ARM be smaller than for x86_64? I read somewhere that the binary difference between ARM executables are smaller than for x86_64 executables, since the compiled code is placed in more predictable locations, but I can't remember where I found it.

Is the difference between versions of binary ARM Linux kernel images smaller than for x86_64?

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As for the kernel code, besides the architecture specific code, which is a very small portion (1% to 5%?), all the kernel source code is common to all architectures.

About the binaries:

Actually in most Linux distributions, vmlinuz is a symbolic link that points to the actual gzipped kernel code; like vmlinuz-3.16.0-4-amd64. I am sure the OP is talking about the latter, however mentioning the former for the benefit of the reader.

https://www.ibm.com/developerworks/community/blogs/mhhaque/entry/anatomy_of_the_initrd_and_vmlinuz

While it is indeed true that ARM code is indeed smaller, even if the kernels were not compressed, the kernel codes in ARM are often custom made, and have far less code activated, than in the Intel counterpart versions (e.g. Intel has a lot of video cards, even if just the modules stubs, while usually the custom ARM kernel only has to deal with the one that is present in the SoC).

In addition comparing already compressed random binary blobs maybe not yield always the true results as per some strange coincidence a bigger binary might become smaller due to some compression optimisation.

So in reality, to compare effectively the binary kernels, you have to compile them with identical options, and keep them uncompressed (or uncompress the resulting vmlinuzxxxfile).

A fair match would be comparing other, non-compressed binaries for instance /bin/ls, or /usr/sbin/tcpdump, and furthermore an architecture similar to the one we are trying to match (ARM machines is still largely 32-bits, however there are already a few 64 bits ones)

Needless to say, the same code compiled in ARM will always be (far) smaller because the ARM machine code is a RISC platform code. It has a smaller subset of machine code instructions too, that result in a smaller code. In the other hand, the Intel has a bigger set of instructions, also due to the retro-compatibility inheritance with multiple generations of microprocessors.

From http://www.decryptedtech.com/editorials/intel-vs-arm-risc-against-cisc-all-over-again

The concept of the RISC CPU is an old one, and it is also a very efficient one. In RISC CPUs you have smaller workloads being run by each instruction, these instructions are also very often split into I/O and Memory to further eliminate overhead. This makes for very efficient use of CPU and memory time, but can also require some bulky code on the software side to make everything work. When RISC first was developed, it was the way to go simply because memory and HDD access was slow. The bulky and complex instructions found in an x86 CPU were cumbersome on older CPUs and could not keep up with RISC systems.

Nevertheless, the conversation is not that straight enough, as Intel chips are a complex beast nowadays, and deep down the pseudo-CISC layer they have RISC strategies and designs that decode and emulate the Intel opcodes as we know them.

The ARM opcodes are also bulky, compared say to a MIPS, since the ARM is a cheap processor with specialised instructions dedicated to video decoding (around 30% of the processor die is dedicated to them).

As a short exercise, take the tcpdump binary and the four Linux architectures I have access to:

MIPS 32 bits -> 502.4K
ARM 32 bits -> 718K
Intel 32 bits (i386) -> 983K
Intel 64 bits (x86_64) -> 1.1M

So coming back to your original question:

  • ARM kernels "grow" less in size because the architecture has less diversity in the base hardware for a specific distribution.
  • However, and much more significant, they grow less in size because the code produced is more efficient and compact.
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The "binary" kernels (vmlinuz or so) are a short stretch of code that uncompresses the rest of the compressed kernel proper. They have so much in common as a large part of the start of the file is the same (thus it compresses to the same).

Differences in size of the source archives is rather irrelevant, most of the changes from one version to the next are lines changed, and new drivers added (and drivers don't show up in the binary kernel, they are used in some machines only and thus typically external modules).

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