Friday, June 6, 2014

On Free Software and if proprietary software should be considered harmful

I communicate with a lot of people on the internet and they have various opinions on FOSS ranging from "only proprietary software written by a renowned company can deliver quality" to "if you're using binary blobs, you're a dick". Since these issues arise very often in discussions, I think I need to write it up so I can just shove the link next time.

On the one hand, I am a strong proponent of free and open-source software and I have contributed to several projects related to porting Linux to embedded hardware, especially mobile phones (, Replicant and I also consulted some of the people). Here are the reasons I like free software (as well as free hardware and free knowledge):

  • The most important for me is that you can learn a lot. I have mostly learnt C and subsequently other languages by hacking on the linux kernel and following interesting projects done by fellow developers
  • Practically speaking, it is just easier to maintain and develop software when you have the source code
  • When you want to share a piece of data or an app with someone, if you deal with closed software, you force them into buying a paid app which may compromise their security
  • You can freely distribute your contributions, your cool hacks and research results without being afraid of pursuit by some patent troll
But you know, some people are quite radical in their FOSS love. They insist that using anything non-free is a sin. While I highly respect them for their attitude, I have a different point of view and I want to comment on some common arguments against using or developing non-free software:
  • "Oh, it may threaten your privacy, how can you run untrusted code"? My opinion here is that running untrusted firmwares or drivers for devices is not a big deal because unless you manufacture the SoC and all the peripherals yourself, you can not be sure of what code is running in your system. For example, most X86 CPUs have SMM mode with a proprietary hypervisor, most ARMs have TrustZone mode. If your peripheral does not require you to load the firmware, it just means that the firmware is stored in some non-volatile memory chip in hardware, and you don't have the chance to disable the device by providing it with a null or fake binary. On the other hand, if your device uses some bus like I2C or USB which does not have DMA capabilities or uses IOMMU to restrict DMA access, you are relatively safe even if it runs malicious code.
  • "You can examine open source software and find backdoors in it". Unfortunately this is a huge fallacy. First of all, some minor errors which can lead to huge vulnerabilities can go unnoticed for years. Recent discoveries in OpenSSL and GnuTLS came as a surprise to many of us. And then again, have you ever tried to develop a piece of legacy code with dozens of nested ifdefs when you have no clue which of them get enabled in the final build? In this case, analyzing disassembled binaries may even be easier.
  • "By developing or using non-free software you support it". In the long run it would be better for humanity to have all knowledge to be freely accessible. However, if we consider a single person, their priorities may differ. For example, until basic needs (which are food, housing, safety) are satisfied, one may resort to developing close-sourced software for money. I don't think it's bad. For me, the motivation is knowledge. In the end, even if you develop stuff under an NDA, you understand how it works and can find a way to implement a free analog. This is actually the same reason I think using proprietary software is not bad in itself. For example, how could you expect someone to write a good piece of free software - an OpenGL driver, an OS kernel, a CAD until they get deeply familiar with existing solutions and their limitations?
Regarding privacy, I am more concerned about the government and "security" agencies like NSA which have enough power to change laws and fake documents. Officials change, policy changes and even people who considered themselves safe and loyal patriots may be suddenly labeled traitors.

In the end, it boils down to individual people and communities. Even proprietary platforms like Palm, Windows Mobile or Apple iOS had huge communities of helpful people who were ready to develop software, reverse-engineer hardware and of course help novices. And there are quite some douchebags around free software. Ultimately, just find the people you feel comfortable around, it is all about trust.

Minor notes about recent stuff

I've been quite busy with work and university recently so I did not have much time to work on my projects or write rants, so I decided to roll out a short post discussing several unrelated ideas.

On deprecating Linux (not really)
Recently several Russian IT bloggers have been writing down their ideas about what's broken with Linux and how it should be improved. Basically, one guy started by saying we need to throw away POSIX and write everything from scratch and the other two are trying to find a compromise. You may fire up Google Translate and follow the discussion at

I personally think that these discussions are a bit biased because all these guys are writing from the point of view of an engineer working on distributed web systems. At the same time, there are domains like embedded software, computer graphics, high-performance computations which have other challenges. What's common is that people are realizing the obvious idea: generic solutions designed to work for everyone (like POSIX) limit the performance and flexibility of your system, while domain-specific solutions make your job easier but they may not fit well into what other people are doing.

Generally both in high-performance networking and graphics people are trying to do the same: reduce the number of context switches (it is true that on modern X86 a context switch is relatively cheap and we may use a segmented memory model like in Windows CE 5.0 instead of the common user/kernel split, but the problem is not the CPU execution mode switch but that system calls like "flush", "ioctl" and library calls like "glFlush()" are used as a point of synchronization where a lot of additional work is done besides the call itself) and move all execution into userspace. Examples include asynchronous network servers using epoll and cooperative scheduling, Intel's networking stack in user land (Netmap, DPDK), modern Graphics APIs (Microsoft DirectX 12, AMD Mantle, Apple Metal). The cost of maintaining abstractions - managing buffers and contexts in drivers - has risen so high that neither hardware vendors want to write complex drivers nor they can deliver performance. So, we'll have to step back and learn to use hardware wisely once again.

Actually I like the idea of using minimalistic runtimes on top of hypervisors like Erlang on Xen from the point of simplicity. Still, security and access control are open questions. For example, capability-based security as in L4, has always looked interesting, but whether cheap system calls and dramatically reduced "trusted code base" promises have been fulfilled is very arguable. Then again, despite the complexity of linux, its security is improving because of control groups which are heavily utilized by docker and systemd distros. Another issue is that lightweight specific solutions are rarely reusable. Well, from the economic point of view a cheap solution that's done overnight and does its job is just perfect, but generally the amount of NIH and engineers basically writing the same stuff - drivers, applications, libraries and servers in an absolutely identical way but for a dozen identical OSs is amazing and rather uncreative.

Anyway, it looks like we're there again: rise of Worse is Better

Work (vaapi, nix).
At work, among other things, I was asked to figure out how to use the Intel GPU for H.264 video encoding. Turns there are two alternatives: the open source VAAPI library and the proprietary Intel Media SDK. Actually, the latter still uses a modified version of VAAPI, but I feel that fitting it into our usual deployment routine is going to be hard, because even basic critical components of the driver stack, such as the kernel KMS module and are provided in the binary form.

Actually VAAPI is very low-level. One thing that puzzled me initially is that it does not generate H.264 bitstream. You have to make it yourself and feed into the encoder via a special buffer type. Besides, you have to manually take the reconstructed picture and feed it as a reference for subsequent frames. There are several implementations using this API for encoding: gstreamer, ffmpeg, vlc. I have spent quite some time until I got it to encode a sample chunk of YUV data. Ultimately my code started looking identical to the "avcenc.c" sample from libva except that encoder data is stored in a "context" structure instead of global variables.

My advice is that if you want to learn about video decoding APIs on linux and Android, take a look at Chromium source code (well, you may expect to find a solution for any relevant computer science or engineering problem given how much code it contains). And also take a look at GST, FFMPEG and VLC. Notice how each of them has its own way of managing buffers (and poor error handling btw).
Another thing we're using at work is the Nix package manager. I have always wanted to try it but did not really do it until coming to work to this place. Nix is a fantastic concept (Even +Norman Feske got inspired by it for their Genode OS). However, we've notices a slowdown when compiling software under Nix. Here are some of my observations:
  • Compiling a simple C file with just "main" function takes 30ms in linux but >300ms in Nix chroot. Nix installs each library to a separate prefix and uses LDFLAGS and CFLAGS to direct the compiler to use them. Gcc then iterates over each of these directories trying to find each library which ends up being slow. Anyone knows a workaround?
  • Running gcc under the "perf" profiler shows that it spends most of its time in multibyte string collation functions. I find it ridiculous that exporting "LC_ALL=C" magically makes the compilation time fall down to 100ms.
Hacking on FreeBSD
As a part of my GSoC project I got the FreeBSD kernel booting on Android emulator and I've just have to write the virtual ethernet and MMC drivers. Unfortunately my university has distracted me a lot from this project but now that I have time I hope to finish it by midterm. And then I'll probably port FreeBSD to Qualcomm MSM8974 SoC. Yay, red Nexus 5 is an awesome phone!

My little project (hacking is magic)
Long time ago I decided to give Windows Mobile emulation a shot and got the kernel to start booting in QEMU. Since Microsoft's Device Emulator was open-source and emulated a real Samsung S3C2410 SoC, it was easy. I still plan to get it fully working one day.

But QEMU is a boring target actually. What's more interesting is developing a bare-metal hypervisor for A15 and A7 CPUs. Given the progress made by Rob Clark on reverse-engineering Qualcomm Adreno GPU driver, I think it could be doable with reasonable effort to emulate the GPU and consequently enough hardware to run Windows Mobile and Windows RT. A very interesting thing is that ARMs trap almost all coprocessor registers for guest access (privilege levels 0 and 1) meaning you can fake any CPU ID or change memory access behavior by modifying caching and buffering settings.

What is really interesting is that there are a lot of Chinese phones which copy Nokia smartphones, iPhones, Android phones. Recent revisions of Mediatek MTK SoCs are Arm A7 meaning they support virtualization. Ultimately it means someone could make a high quality replica of any phone and virtualize any SoC without a trace which has interesting security implications.

Software sucks!
The other day some systemd update came out which totally broke my debian bootup. Now, there's a race condition between the encrypted disk password entry and root password entry for "recovery". Then, latest kernel (3.15-rc3) OOPSes and crashes randomly on ACPI events which subsequently breaks networking and spawning new processes.

Ultimately after a day of struggle my rootfs broke and after and FSCK everything was gone. So now I'm deciding what distro I should try instead. Maybe ArchLinux? Either way, I have to build a lot of software from source and install to /usr/local or custom prefixes for development.

The easiest way would be to install into a VM in OS X. But then, I want to fix issues with drivers, especially GPU switching in the macbook.  On the other hand, I spent ages fixing switchable graphics on an older Sony VAIO laptop and resorted to an ugly hack to force Intel GPU. Since GPU switching is not working properly in Linux, maybe I should write a graphics multiplexor driver for FreeBSD and ditch Linux altogether? FreeBSD looks much more attractive these days with clang and no systemd and no and no Lennart Poettering.