March 20, 2018

A New Era for Linux's Low-Level Graphics

The latest enhancements to the DRM subsystem have made mainline Linux much more attractive, making drivers easier to write, applications portable, and a much more friendly and collaborative community than we've ever had.

By Daniel Stone, Graphics Lead at Collabora.

Over the past couple of years, Linux's low-level graphics infrastructure has undergone a quiet revolution. Since experimental core support for the atomic modesetting framework landed a couple of years ago, the DRM subsystem in the kernel has seen roughly 300,000 lines of code changed and 300,000 new lines added, when the new AMD driver (~2.5m lines) is excluded. Lately Weston has undergone the same revolution, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Daniel Vetter's excellent two-part series on LWN covers the details quite well, but in short atomic has two headline features. The first is better display control: by grouping all configuration changes together, it is possible to change display modes more quickly and more reliably, especially if you have multiple monitors. The second is that it allows userspace to finally use overlay planes in the display controller for composition, bypassing the GPU.

A third, less heralded, feature is that the atomic core standardises user-visible behaviour. Before atomic, drivers had very wide latitude to implement whatever user-facing behaviour they liked. As a result, each chipset had its own kernel driver and its own X11 driver as well. With the rewrite of the core, backed up by a comprehensive test suite, we no longer need hardware-specific drivers to take full advantage of hardware features. With the substantial rework of Weston's DRM backend, we can now take full advantage of these. Using atomic gives us a smoother user experience, with better performance and using less power, whilst still being completely hardware-agnostic.

This has made mainline Linux much more attractive: the exact same generic codebases of GNOME and Weston that I'm using to write this blog post on an Intel laptop run equally well on AMD workstations, low-power NXP boards destined for in-flight entertainment, and high-end Renesas SoCs which might well be in your car. Now that the drivers are easy to write, and applications are portable, we've seen over ten new DRM drivers merged to the upstream kernel since atomic modesetting was merged. These drivers are landing in a much more friendly and collaborative community than we've ever had.

Continue reading on Collabora's blog.

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