Linux graphics, why sharing code with Windows isn't always a win.

A recent article on phoronix has some commentary about sharing code between Windows and Linux, and how this seems to be a metric that Intel likes.

I'd like to explore this idea a bit and explain why I believe it's bad for Linux based distros and our open source development models in the graphics area.

tl;dr there is a big difference between open source released and open source developed projects in terms of sustainability and community.

The Linux graphics stack from a distro vendor point of view is made up of two main projects, the Linux kernel and Mesa userspace. These two projects are developed in the open with completely open source vendor agnostic practices. There is no vendor controlling either project and both projects have a goal of try to maximise shared code and shared processes/coding standards across drivers from all vendors.

This cross-vendor synergy is very important to the functioning ecosystem that is the Linux graphics stack. The stack also relies in some places on the LLVM project, but again LLVM upstream is vendor agnostic and open source developed.

The value to distros is they have central places to pick up driver stacks with good release cycles and a minimal number of places they have to deal with to interact with those communities. Now usually hardware vendors don't see the value in the external communities as much as Linux distros do. From a hardware vendor internal point of view they see more benefit in creating a single stack shared between their Windows and Linux to maximise their return on investment, or make their orgchart prettier or produce less powerpoints about why their orgchart isn't optimal.

A shared Windows/Linux stack as such is a thing the vendors want more for their own reasons than for the benefit of the Linux community.

Why is it a bad idea?

I'll start by saying it's not always a bad idea. In theory it might be possible to produce such a stack with the benefits of open source development model, however most vendors seem to fail at this. They see open source as a release model, they develop internally and shovel the results over the fence into a github repo every X weeks after a bunch of cycles. They build products containing these open source pieces, but they never expend the time building projects or communities around them.

As an example take AMDVLK vs radv. I started radv because AMD had been promising the world an open source Vulkan driver for Linux that was shared with their Windows stack. Even when it was delivered it was open source released but internally developed. There was no avenue for community participation in the driver development. External contributors were never on the same footing as an AMD employee. Even AMD employees on different teams weren't on the same footing. Compare this to the radv project in Mesa where it allowed Valve to contribute the ACO backend compiler and provide better results than AMD vendor shared code could ever have done, with far less investement and manpower.

Intel have a non-mesa compiler called Intel Graphics Compiler mentioned in the article. This is fully developed by intel internally, there is little info on project direction or how to get involved or where the community is. There doesn't seem to be much public review, patches seem to get merged to the public repo by igcbot which may mean they are being mirrored from some internal repo. There are not using github merge requests etc. Compare this to development of a Mesa NIR backend where lots of changes are reviewed and maximal common code sharing is attempted so that all vendors benefit from the code.

One area where it has mostly sort of worked out what with the AMD display code in the kernel. I believe this code to be shared with their Windows driver (but I'm not 100% sure). They do try to engage with community changes to the code, but the code is still pretty horrible and not really optimal on Linux. Integrating it with atomic modesetting and refactoring was a pain. So even in the best case it's not an optimal outcome even for the vendor. They have to work hard to make the shared code be capable of supporting different OS interactions.

How would I do it?

If I had to share Windows/Linux driver stack I'd (biased opinion) start from the most open project and bring that into the closed projects. I definitely wouldn't start with a new internal project that tries to disrupt both. For example if I needed to create a Windows GL driver, I could:

a) write a complete GL implementation and throw it over the wall every few weeks. and make Windows/Linux use it, Linux users lose out on the shared stack, distros lose out on one dependency instead having to build a stack of multiple per vendor deps, Windows gains nothing really, but I'm so in control of my own destiny (communities don't matter).

b) use Mesa and upstream my driver to share with the Linux stack, add the Windows code to the Mesa stack. I get to share the benefits of external development by other vendors and Windows gains that benefit, and Linux retains the benefits to it's ecosystem.

A warning then to anyone wishing for more vendor code sharing between OSes it generally doesn't end with Linux being better off, it ends up with Linux being more fragmented, harder to support and in the long run unsustainable.


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