June 23rd, 2009


(no subject)

It's now been over 6 months since Poulsbo hardware with Intel's GMA500 graphics core started shipping in volume. And we're still utterly lacking in any sort of worthwhile driver. It's an impressive turnaround from the recent days when the straightforward recommendation for mobile Linux hardware was "anything that has lots of Intel stuff in lspci", and while the Poulsbo situation in itself doesn't change that hugely it's potentially symptomatic of a worrying trend within parts of Intel.

The first thing to realise here is that, like most large companies, Intel consists of a large number of business units with different priorities. Their open-source technology center has historically had responsibility for providing Linux support for hardware, but this obviously depends on other business units cooperating with them. And there's strong evidence that many of those business units don't get it.

There's been signs of this for some time. Back before the days of the Intel X.org driver gaining native modesetting support, some people ran the Intel embedded graphics driver. This was (is?) a closed X driver that was able to provide native modesetting on platforms that could only otherwise be run at incorrect resolutions. One business unit was shipping a driver that was more functional than the official Intel Linux driver. To the best of my knowledge, none of that code was ever used in the rewritten Intel driver that now provides the same features.

Poulsbo is another example of this. Intel wanted a low-power mobile graphics chipset and chose to buy in a 3D core from an external vendor. IP issues prevent them from releasing any significant information about that 3D core, so the driver remains closed source. The implication is pretty clear - whichever section of Intel was responsible for the design of Poulsbo presumably had "Linux support" as a necessary feature, but didn't think "Open driver" was a required part of that. There's not a lot any other body inside Intel can do once IP-limiting contracts are signed and the hardware's shipping, but it ends up tarnishing the good reputation that other parts of Intel have built up anyway.

And while Poulsbo is the most obvious example of this to date, it's not the only one. Intel recently decided to make the EFI development kit discussion lists private. Various drivers for Moorestown (the followup platform to Poulsbo) have been submitted to the Linux kernel, and while they have the advantage of being GPLed they have the disadvantage of being barely above the level of typical vendor code. Objections that chunks of them simply don't integrate into Linux correctly has done little to get these problems fixed - I still have no real idea how the runtime interface to power management on the SD driver is supposed to be used, but I suspect the answer is probably "badly".

This all makes sense if you assume that there are large groups of people in Intel who don't talk to each other. But to the casual observer it just looks schizophrenic. Explaining to an irate user that the Intel who shipped a closed Linux graphics driver is only barely the same Intel who contribute so much to architectural improvements in the Linux graphics stack doesn't make their hardware work. And while all of this confusion is going on, Intel's competitors are catching up. Atheros are now making significant contributions to the state of Linux wireless. AMD are releasing graphics chipset documentation faster than Intel, and radeon support is improving rapidly.

Is the future going to be one where we can no longer simply say that Intel hardware will Just Work? Is their work on Moblin (easily the most compelling Linux UI for netbooks) going to be wasted on the broader Linux community because it'll mostly end up running on hardware that's not supported by the mainline Linux kernel? Does Intel have a real commitment to open source, or is that being lost in the face of short-term requirements?

Intel need to demonstrate that they have a company-wide understanding of what Linux support actually means or risk losing much of what they've earned over the past few years. I'm desperately hoping that Poulsbo and what we've seen so far of Moorestown are the exception, not the future norm.