Luc Verhaegen (libv) wrote,
Luc Verhaegen

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Intel & Mir: The point-of-view of a graphics driver developing bystander.

Only a few days ago did I write about how open source software is not about "code or design or doing The Right Thing". "Open source software is about power, politics, corporate affiliation, and loads and loads of noise." I would like to thank Intel for so succinctly underlining that now with their current action.

Before I go any further, this seems to not be Chris Wilsons decision or his preferred solution. Chris wrote the patch which he was told, by unnamed party or parties in Intel, to back out. Also, I personally do not condone the actions taken by Canonical, but, as a graphics driver developer, I find Intels actions far worse. I rather doubt that Intel thought this one through properly.

What's the problem?

As a graphics driver developer, I fail to see the big problem with Mir.

So what if Canonical has decided to reinvent Wayland? Apart from the weird contribution agreement (which will only limit contributions), Mir is fully free software isn't it? Who are they hurting apart from their own resources and their own users? It's not that I am applauding Canonical for their decision, but I really don't see the massive problem here.

Why is Canonical not allowed to do this?

Reinvention galore

I personally really hate things being reinvented all the time. It is the disease that plagues open source software, and that what makes sure that we don't have a growing linux market.

How often have we heard that something is outdated and broken and doesn't fit modern demands anymore? We are then invariably being told that something new is being built afresh, from the lessons learned of what was done "wrong" before, and that in a few months time, everything is going to be fantastic. Sadly, such timeframes never pan out, and while the known "errors" are fixed, everything else gets broken, which then has to be reinvented or ported as well (or which simply remains broken). And then several years down the line, things are still not perfect, and then someone else (or sometimes even the same person) goes off and implements the next great thing from scratch, again.

We never have something that just works, we just go from broken state to broken state. And nobody learns from this, nobody apparently ever states "Hang on, isn't that pretty much the same story we heard 3 years ago?"

To me, as a stupid shortsighted driver developer, Wayland seems like X reinvented. A server/client display architecture with the new lessons learned implemented, but with everything else broken. We've been waiting for getting all those little niggles worked out ever since 2009, and at one point, networking was added to Wayland making it even more of an X replacement.

So then Mir was announced... And suddenly the world was ablaze. Huge flamewars broke out everywhere and effigies of Mark Shuttleworth were getting burned in the forums. I found the Mir move quite ironic, at first, and thought that the outrage was quite out of proportion, but then I read this article. It is a who's who of reinventers, complaining about Canonical reinventing Wayland. I was appalled.

What exactly gives these people the sole monopoly on reinvention?

What is Intel afraid of?

How could Mir possibly threaten Wayland?

Intel is a pretty big company, and it probably has the largest contingent of open source developers devoted to graphics. It employs some of the brightest and most influential people in the business. On top of that, Wayland was there first, has had more time to mature, has had more applications and toolkits ported, and has a much larger mindshare. Most people would think that Waylands future is pretty secure.

So what could possibly be so much better about Mir that makes Mir such a big threat to Wayland that Intels graphics driver developers have to be told not to support XMir at all? Honestly, in the above constellation, how vastly more superior technically does Mir have to be to justify such an action? If Intel really feels that it has to react like this, well, then it might as well just throw in the towel and go Mir immediately, as Wayland clearly must be completely useless.

What a way to oust your own insecurity.

Software Fascism

Intel finds it necessary to play games with their graphics driver, instead of having Wayland battle it out directly with Mir.

This kind of powerplay is quite insidious, and far more damaging than most people would expect. It completely skews the ability of software to compete on a fair and equal grounds, and hurts us all as it is mostly applied by those who are not able to compete properly, or those who feel as if they shouldn't need to bother to compete properly. It tends to favour the least technically advanced and the least morally acceptable.

The best example which I have come across so far is the RadeonHD versus Radeon battle. RadeonHD beat ATI by actually providing a solid open source driver in September 2007, and we at SuSE had a stated goal of being able to ship a solid open source driver on enterprise desktop rollouts. 3 months later, Radeon came around with support for the same hardware. It was technically inferior, and "borrowed" much of the hard work of radeonHD plus some noise added on top. What was worse was how the so-called community used software fascism to artificially boost the Radeon driver. This started out with the refusal of a mailing list at the usual place, hit a low point with RadeonHD being dropped from the build script for the xserver, and sank to whole new levels when, 2 years after the obvious death of the RadeonHD driver, the RadeonHD repository got vandalized (and the whistleblower got tarred and feathered while the perpetrators were commended for their "quick" confession).

So who won?

Well, it definitely was not RadeonHD, as that died early 2009 with Novell laying off a large portion of SuSE developers in Nuremberg. As luck had it, at the same time, AMD experienced serious financial difficulties and did not continue the RadeonHD project with SuSE. But although Radeon did survive, it did not win either. ATI won, AMD (which wanted a proper open source driver, whereas ATI seriously didn't) lost, and we all lost with it. Fglrx still rules supreme today, but now it does not get as much flack as it did before, as the figleaf driver provides some sort of an alternative for those who are unhappy with fglrx. But it goes beyond that, the radeon driver consistently applies or applied the solutions ATI fglrx developers recommended, instead of the empirical solutions we at RadeonHD usually chose, and the radeon driver is not as good as it could be.

Software fascism goes further than just badly skewing competition, and it always is a negative influence on software. Who knows what other bad decisions will make their way into the Intel driver now?

The responsibility of a graphics driver

The main responsibility of a graphics driver is to support the users of your graphics hardware. If you are actually employed by the vendor, your users are those who bought your hardware and who will buy your hardware again if they are satisfied. This is the business case for providing optimal support for your hardware for a given operating system or infrastructure. On top of that, in open source software, the users are more than just the customers, they are also the testers.

Canonicals plan and marketing seem to have worked out quite well over the years, to the extent that half the planet thinks that linux equals ubuntu, and ubuntu probably has the larger part of the linux desktop market. This means that ubuntu users are a sizable portion of Intels userbase, and as a hardware vendor (and only secondarily a maker of display servers), Intel simply cannot afford to refuse to support or even alienate these users. Canonical has decided that Mir will be the primary display server on future Ubuntu releases, and this in turn means that Intel has an obligation to support Mir.

The Xmir patch to the Intel graphics driver seems rather minimal and not very invasive. There also seems or seemed, as the case may be now, direct communication between Intels graphics driver developers and Ubuntus developers. As Mir will ship on the next Ubuntu versions, there will be a large amount of users which will test the Xmir code in the Intel graphics driver. There is no chance that the Xmir code will bitrot for the foreseeable future, and Intels own investment in this code will be minimal.

The real art of writing good drivers is to provide for quick and painless debugging. Graphics hardware is complex, the drivers for this hardware are also complex, and neither is ever perfect, so one has to work hard to maximize the chance for bug resolution. This means easy communication with users, and giving the user an easy route to test changes so that proper feedback can be provided quickly. If you fail to make it easy enough for users, you will simply not get your bugs fixed, and the higher the resolution threshold becomes, the worse your driver will become.

By not carrying this patch, Intel forces Ubuntu users to only report bugs to Ubuntu, which then means that only few bug reports will filter through to the actual driver developers. At the same time, Ubuntu users cannot simply test upstream code which contains extra debugging or potential fixes. Even worse, if this madness continues, you can imagine Intel stating to its customers that they refuse to fix bugs which only appear under Mir, even though there is a very very high chance of these bugs being real driver bugs which are just exposed by Mir.

The reality of the matter is, Intel is hurting its own graphics driver more than it could potentially hurt Mir or Canonical.

The andriodization of linux

The biggest installed base of Linux is android, and it is bigger by many orders of magnitude. Sadly the linux which we call android is little more than the linux kernel and some new-ish (mostly) open source infrastructure on top. While this, to some extent, is quite the boon for open source software, it also holds a major threat. If we are not careful, we get fully locked hardware. We are only sporadically able to enforce the GPL on the kernel, and we have no chance at all to get open source userspace drivers. This limits the usefulness of the now ubiquitous linux hardware out there, and with the way the desktop and mobile are evolving, this will soon limit the availability of hardware for which more-or-less complete open source is available. On top of that, all those electronics companies that are churning out hardware at an amazing rate, they are either unable to see the advantages of actively contributing to open source, or they are having a very hard time in learning how to do so.

This is exactly why I created the lima driver, and why some other brave souls created their respective GPU reverse engineering projects. We recognized this danger, and are sacrificing a large portion of our lives trying to prevent catastrophe. And even though things are not going as fast or as smooth as we expected, we have come a very long way.

Things took a wrong turn a while back though. In an effort to create a stopgap solution, Jolla developer Munk created libhybris, a wrapper library which allows the usage of android drivers on top of glibc, and thus on a normal linux installation. I find this hack pretty dangerous, as it makes all vendors complacent, and it cements the android way of working and the it makes binary drivers the default. Our biggest open source hopes for mobile; Sailfish, Firefox-OS and Ubuntu-Phone Mir readily embraced this way of working.

I have, so far, not seen anything from either Jolla, The Mozilla Foundation or Canonical, along the lines of active support of the route we have chosen with open ARM GPU drivers, and we've been at it for quite some time now. Those companies are more dependent on open source software than your average android vendor, and know how to do things the open source way, but they have fully embraced the binary drivers built for android only, with no signs of them wanting to change this.

The only reason why I favour Wayland over Mir is that Canonical immediately chose the libhybris route with Mir. Wayland currently has patches for libhybris, so soon Wayland sadly will have sunk to Mirs level as well, from a graphics driver point of view.

Intel employs a small army for their open source software, and specifically for their open source graphics driver. But Intel also has other teams working on graphics drivers, and while I am not certain, I do think that Intel ships binary only drivers on their android devices.

Canonical is happy with using libhybris, but currently would prefer to use a proper graphics driver for their future products. This preference now got significantly reduced. Intel now potentially has driven one of the last big users of open source graphics drivers to exclusively using android binaries as well, seriously reducing the relevance of its own OSTC driver developer team in the process.

The low road

Up until now, intel had the moral high ground in the Wayland versus Mir situation. With the simple decision to revert the Xmir patch, this situation now got reversed.

Well done.
Tags: android, arm, graphics driver, linux, mir, open source, opengl, opengles, wayland

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