Matthew Garrett (mjg59) wrote,
Matthew Garrett
mjg59

Legacy PC design misery

I've spent chunks of the last couple of days fighting a problem that's existed for about 25 years. The 8086 was a 16-bit processor with a 20-bit address space, limiting the maximum physical address that could be accessed to 1MB. However, quirks of the segmented memory system meant that addresses greater than 1MB could be constructed - these would wrap around to the bottom of memory. Because loading the segment registers was a time consuming operation, some programmers used this behaviour as a performance optimisation.

The 80286 introduced 24 bit address space. Unfortunately, this meant that the addresses that previously wrapped to the bottom of memory now pointed at real addresses - not ideal if you were expecting the old behaviour. IBM fixed this by tying the 21st address line (A20 - they're zero indexed) through an and gate, with the default behaviour being to keep it tied at 0 and thus maintaining the old wraparound behaviour. Applications that wanted to access the full address space needed to enable the A20 logic gate. IBM didn't want to add any extra hardware to their system if they could avoid it, so tied the other side of the and gate to a spare pin on the keyboard controller. By writing a couple of bytes to the keyboard controller, your PC-AT stopped pretending to be an XT and gave you access to all of the insanely expensive RAM it had stuffed in it. Hurray!

PCs have been emulating this behaviour since the AT was first cloned. Of course, this being the PC industry, many have got it wrong. There's a set of approaches for controlling the A20 gate that may work, varying in terms of performance and desirability. Most hardware will give the desired result (ie, I have no desire to run DOS executables from 1982, make my A20 work damnit) using any of the various methods of A20 enabling. Some hardware doesn't. The most common method used in bootloaders (where we still have access to system BIOS services) is to call int 15h with an ax of 0x2401, which asks the BIOS to enable A20 for us. This isn't implemented on all hardware, but we should get a failure back that lets us go and bang on the keyboard controller in an attempt to get it to pay attention[1].

Enter the Kohjinsha SC3.

I picked this up second hand in Japan. It's a ridiculously cute little tablet, only slightly larger than hardware that's comfortably in the MID range. It booted a Fedora liveCD perfectly, though having GMA500 graphics meant that what appeared wasn't terribly attractive. Installation proceeded happily enough, followed by a reboot and... nothing. Grub loaded the kernel and initrd, jumped to the kernel and everything hung.

So, for the past couple of days, I was stepping through the kernel setup code, trying to work out where and why it was hanging. I'd got it narrowed down to the region where the kernel tried to free the memory used by the initramfs, but the failure hopped around depending on my kernel build. Something was clearly very wrong. The strangest thing about this was that if I booted the liveCD boot menu and selected "Boot from local drive", everything worked perfectly. isolinux was clearly doing something that grub wasn't, but there's rather a lot of code to step through there.

Things became a lot easier once I found that the OpenSuse version of grub worked. Their grub has a rather smaller set of patches than ours, and only a few looked even plausibly relevant. It only took ten minutes or so to figure out that it was one that altered the A20 code. Things became much clearer then.

The main functional difference between the Suse A20 implementation and the upstream one[2] is that the Suse one explicitly tests whether the A20 enabling worked by putting values at two different addresses that would be the same if A20 is disabled. By comparing them, we know whether A20 is working properly or not. If not it can then fall back to other mechanisms. The Fedora code trusted the BIOS's claim that the int 15 call had worked. The Kohjinsha's BIOS lied, A20 remained disabled, grub copied the kernel and initramfs to chunks of address space that contained lies rather than RAM and everything fell over horribly.

Thankfully, not a difficult fix once the problem was identified. But seriously, people. How hard can it be not to screw this up?

(For an excrutiatingly detailed analysis of how hard it can be not to screw this up, see here)

[1] the Intel Macs don't implement the int 15 approach, but return a failure. They also don't have a legacy keyboard controller, so attempting to hit that resulted in grub falling over. The magic IO port approach works. Another example of how the Intel Macs aren't really PCs...

[2] grub2 implements the more paranoid check
Tags: advogato, fedora
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