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22 July 2013

Matthew Garrett: ARM and firmware specifications

Jon Masters, Chief ARM Architect at Red Hat, recently posted a description of his expectations for baseline arm64 servers. The quick summary is that systems should implement UEFI and ACPI, and any more traditional ARM boot mechanisms should be ignored. This is an interesting departure from the status quo in the ARM world, and it's worth thinking about the benefits and drawbacks of this approach.

It's very easy to build a generic kernel for most x86 systems, since the PC platform is fairly well defined even if not terribly well specified. Where system hardware does vary, it's almost always exposed on an enumerable bus (such as PCI or USB) which allows the OS to bind appropriate drivers. Things are different in the ARM world. Even once you're past the point of different SoC vendors requiring different kernel setup code and drivers, you still have to cope with the fact that system vendors can wire these SoCs up very differently. Hardware is often attached via GPIO lines without any means to enumerate them. The end result is that you've traditionally needed a different kernel for every ARM board. This is viable if you're selling the OS and hardware as a single product, but less viable if there's any desire to run a generic OS on the hardware.

The solution that's been adopted for this in the Linux world is called Device Tree. Device Tree actually has significant history, having been used as the device descriptor format in Open Firmware. Since there was already support for it in the Linux kernel, adapting it for use in ARM devices was straightforward. Device Tree aware devices can pass a descriptor blob to the kernel at startup[1], and devices without that knowledge can have a blob build into the kernel.

So, if this problem is already solved, why the push to move to UEFI and ACPI? This push didn't actually originate in the Linux world - Microsoft mandate that Windows RT devices implement UEFI and ACPI, and were they to launch a Windows ARM server product would probably carry that over. That makes sense for Microsoft, since recent versions of Windows have been x86 only and so have grown all kinds of support for ACPI and UEFI. Supporting Device Tree would require Microsoft to rewrite large parts of Windows, whereas mandating UEFI and ACPI allowed them to reuse most of their existing Windows boot and driver code. As a result, largely at Microsoft's behest, ACPI 5 has grown a range of additional features for describing things like GPIO pinouts and I2C connections. Whatever your weird device layout, you can probably express it via ACPI.

This argument works less well for Linux. Linux already supports Device Tree, whereas it currently doesn't support ACPI or UEFI on ARM[2]. Hardware vendors are already used to working with Device Tree. Moving to UEFI and ACPI has the potential to uncover a range of exciting new kernel issues and vendor bugs. It's not obviously an engineering win.

So how about users? There's an argument that since server vendors are now mostly shipping ACPI and UEFI systems, having ARM support these technologies makes it easier for customers to replace x86 systems with ARM systems. This really doesn't fly for ACPI, which is entirely invisible to the user. There are no standard ACPI entry points for system configuration, and the bits of ACPI that are generically useful (such as configuring system wakeup times) are already abstracted away to a standard interface by the kernel. It's somewhat more compelling for UEFI. UEFI supports a platform-independent bytecode language (EFI Byte Code, or EBC), which means that customers can write their own system management utilities, build them for EBC and then deploy them to their servers without caring about whether they're x86 or ARM. Want a bootloader that'll hit an internal HTTP server in order to determine which system image to deploy, and which works on both x86 and ARM? Straightforward.

Arnd Bergmann has a interesting counterargument. In a nutshell, ARM servers aren't currently aiming for the same market as x86 servers, and as a result customers are unlikely to gain any significant benefit from shared functionality between the two.

So if there's no real benefit to users, and if there's no benefit to kernel developers, what's the point? The main one that springs to mind is that there is a benefit to distributions. Moving to UEFI means that there's a standard mechanism for distributions to interact with the firmware and configure the bootloader. The traditional ARM approach has been for vendors to ship their own version of u-boot. If that's in flash then it's not much of a problem[3], but if it's on disk then you have to ship a range of different bootloaders and know which one to install (and let's not even talk about initial bootstrapping).

This seems like the most compelling argument. UEFI provides a genuine benefit for distributions, and long term it probably provides some benefit to customers. The question is whether that benefit is worth the flux. The same distribution benefit could be gained by simply mandating a minimum set of u-boot functionality, which would seem much more straightforward. The customer benefit is currently unclear.

In the end it'll probably be a market decision. If Red Hat produce an ARM product that has these requirements, and if Suse produce an ARM product that will work with u-boot and Device Tree, it'll be up to vendors to decide whether the additional work to support UEFI/ACPI is worth it in order to be able to sell to customers who want Red Hat. I expect that large vendors like HP and Dell will probably do it, but the smaller ones may not. The customer demand issue is also going to be unclear until we learn whether using UEFI is something that customers actually care about, rather than a theoretical benefit.

Overall, I'm on the fence as to whether a UEFI requirement is going to stick, and I suspect that the ACPI requirement is tilting at windmills. There's nothing stopping vendors from providing a Device Tree blob from UEFI, and I can't think of any benefits they gain from using ACPI instead. Vendor interest in the generic parts of the ACPI spec has been tepid even in the x86 world (the vast majority of ACPI spec updates come from Microsoft and Intel, not any of the system vendors), and I don't see that changing with the introduction of a range of ARM vendors who are already happy with Device Tree.

We'll see. Linux is going to need to gain the support for UEFI and ACPI on ARM in any case, since there's already hardware shipping in that configuration. But with ARM vendors still getting to grips with Device Tree, forcing them to go through another change in how they do things is going to be hard work. Red Hat may be successful in enforcing these requirements at the cost of some vendor unhappiness, or Red Hat may find that their product doesn't boot on most of the available hardware. It's an aggressive gamble, and while it'll be interesting to see how it plays out, I'm not that optimistic.

[1] The blob could be pulled from the firmware, but it's not uncommon for it to be built into u-boot instead. This does mean that you have a device-specific u-boot even if you have a generic kernel, but that's typically true anyway.
[2] Patches have been posted for ARM UEFI support. They're not mergeable in their current form, but they should be in the near future. ACPI support is in development.
[3] Although not all u-boots are created equal - some vendors ship versions that will only boot off FAT, some vendors ship versions that will only boot off ext2. Having to special case this stuff in your installer is a pain.

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