Expedient ABIs

The biggest change we’ve seen in the Linux kernel for ARM over the past few years has been the transition to providing descriptions of the hardware in systems via device tree. This splits out the description of the devices in the system that can’t be automatically enumerated from the kernel into a separate binary instead of being part of the kernel binary. Currently for most systems that are actively used upstream the device tree source code is kept in the kernel but the goal is to allow people to use device trees that are distributed separately to the kernel, especially device trees that are shipped as part of the board firmware. This is something that other platforms have done for a long time, PowerPC Macs and Sun SPARC systems use device tree as the mechanism for describing the hardware to the operating system.

One consequence of this desire to allow the kernel and device tree to be shipped separately is that the device tree becomes an ABI. This is a really big change for people working in the embedded and consumer electronics areas where ARM has been most widely deployed, it means that any descriptions of the hardware need to be something that can stand the test of time. Anything we release is something we have to expect to carry code for indefinitely. When everything was done as part of the kernel binary we could easily do something that doesn’t quite represent the hardware with the intention of replacing it later, now it is much harder to do that.

An example of this is the SAW in Qualcomm SoCs. This is a block in the SoC which provides control of some regulators used for the CPU cores in the PMIC in very low power states and also allows the CPU to control the regulator with fast memory mapped registers rather than the slower buses used to control the PMIC. Unfortunately it doesn’t fully replace direct access to the PMIC, it supports a subset of the control we need for the PMIC but not all of it. We could represent the SAW as an independent regulator but from a system integration point of view it is functioning as an extra control interface for the external PMIC and if we want to use the extra functionality that is only available via direct access to the PMIC we need to consider that and represent the SAW as an extension of it. If we don’t need that extra PMIC functionality at the current time this means we need to do some extra work to make sure we describe the PMIC before we can use the SAW even if we have no intention to use anything other than the SAW.

Now, few if any people are actually using the device tree as an ABI at present so those working on enabling platforms often forget about the requirement and find it an obstacle to getting things done – they have pressure to get things done, they don’t have quite the same pressure to make sure that attention is paid to device tree compatibility so it can easily get forgotten. Over time this may change, especially if people start to take advantage of the device tree as an ABI that become more and more important, but for now if we want to enable that in the future it’s something we have to actively think about and work on, accepting that this means we won’t always be able to do the most expedient thing.

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