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OLS closes on a keynote

By David Graham on July 02, 2007 (6:32:43 PM)

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The fourth and final day of the ninth annual Ottawa Linux Symposium wrapped up on Saturday with a few more session and a keynote address by Linux kernel SCSI maintainer James Bottomley.

During the day I attended a few sessions, among them one entitled "Cleaning Up the Linux Desktop Audio Mess" by PulseAudio lead developer Lennart Poettering.

Linux audio is a mess, Poettering asserted. There are too many incompatible sound APIs, with OSS, ALSA, EsounD, aRts, and others vying for the sound device. Each of these systems has limitations, Poettering said. There are also abstraction APIs, but they are not widely accepted, he said. Abstraction layers slow things down while removing functionality from the APIs they are abstracting.

What desktops lack, he said, is a "Compiz for sound." Different applications should be able to have different volumes. Music should stop for VoIP calls. It should be possible for the application in the foreground to be louder than the application in the background in X. Applications should remember which audio device to use. Hot switching of playback streams, for example between music and voice over IP, should be possible, and the sound streams should seamlessly be able to transition between speakers an a USB headset without interruption, he said.

In spite of these missing capabilities and the API mishmash, Poettering said that there are some things that Linux audio does do well -- among them, network transparent sound, the range of high-level sound applications, and a low-latency kernel at the core.

The audio mess in Linux, Poettering said, is not a law of nature. Apple's CoreAudio proves this, as does Windows Vista's userspace sound system. In the effort to improve Linux audio, he said, we need to acknowledge that although the drivers may be going away, the Open Sound System (OSS) API is not. It is the most cross-platform of the Linux sound APIs. It is important to remain compatible with the OSS API, he said, but it is necessary to standardise on a single API. Linux audio needs to stop abstracting layers, he said, and it needs to marry together all the existing APIs and retain existing features.

Poettering said PulseAudio, a modular GPL-licensed sound server that is a drop-in replacement for EsounD, offers a solution to the problem. It is a proxy for sound devices that receive audio data from applications and send audio data to applications, he said. It can adjust sample rate, volume, provides filters, and can redirect sound and reroute channels. PulseAudio comes with 34 modules and supports OSS, ALSA, Solaris sound, and Win32. It even supports the LIRC Linux remote control functionality.

PulseAudio is not a competitor for the professional audio package Jack, Poettering said; it can run side by side with it. What PulseAudio is not is a streaming solution, nor a demuxing or decoding system. It is not an effort to try to push another EsounD on people. It is a drop-in replacement for EsounD that will just work, superseding every aspect of EsounD and ALSA dmix in every way.

PulseAudio is included, but not enabled, in most distributions. Now that he works at Red Hat, Poettering says, maybe Fedora 8 will have it enabled by default.

James Bottomley's keynote address

This year's keynote address was delivered by kernel SCSI maintainer James Bottomley, a charismatic Brit known, among other things, for wearing a bow tie. His lively presentation was called "Evolution and Diversity: The Meaning of Freedom and Openness in Linux."

Borrowing a slide from Greg Kroah-Hartman's 2006 keynote, Bottomley showed a picture of David and the flying spaghetti monster with the caption: "Linux is evolution, not intelligent design." Evolution is a process for selection, he said, and diversity is the input to the evolution. Evolution selects the most perfect options from the diversity tree. In nature, evolution results in only one or two or three perfect species from the diversity input. In Linux, Bottomley said, evolution is an adversarial process with the occasional bloodbath of the Linux Kernel Mailing List, patch review, testing, and taste.

Bottomley said oddball architectures like Voyager and PA-RISC create diversity to feed the evolutionary process of Linux. Getting architectures like these included in the kernel requires innovation. There are other constituencies with small communities that make a big difference -- accessibility, for example. It is not popularity and number of users that determine what gets into the kernel; anything that is done well can go in.

Evolution and diversity are battling forces, Bottomley said. Innovation is created by their give and take. Freedom also appears as a result of this give and take. As long as the ecosystem works, you have freedom to think, innovate, and dream. Linux supports any device, large or small.

Openness is not like freedom, Bottomley said. Openness is a fundamental input to the evolutionary process, while freedom appears as a result of the process. Unless you show the code, no one can review it, and it cannot be debugged and stabilised.

If you are not testing Linux kernel -rc1, you have less right to complain about the kernel, he said. Don't concentrate on distribution kernels, concentrate on upstream kernels. If you test for bugs upstream, fewer bugs will flow to the distros. Wouldn't it be nice, he asked, to find the bugs before they get into distribution kernels?

Maintainers are arbiters of taste and coding style. They are the guarantors of the evolutionary process. They have the job of applying the process to get people to come forward and innovate.

Diversity itself acts as an evolutionary pressure, he said. Bit rot, an old but heavily used term, is the equivalent of mold, sweeping up dead things. Bit rot ensures old code is dead and gone. Bit rot is why we will never have a stable API in Linux, Bottomley said.

A lot of people are afraid of forking, Bottomley said, but the -mm tree is technically a fork of the Linux kernel. He posted a slide quoting Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz: "They like to paint the battle as Sun vs. the community, and it's not. Companies compete, communities simply fracture." The quote was part of an argument on the Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML) earlier this year.

What does it mean that companies compete, asked Bottomley, posting a slide of the names HP-UX, AIX, SYSV, SunOS, and MP-RAS overlayed over a nuclear explosion. The battle of the Unixes is what it means, he said, and it left a lot of corpses and wounded a lot of customers. He warned that Schwartz is trying to portray Linux as an inevitable return to the Unix wars.

The forking that we do and the fragmentation that we do in Linux, he said, is necessary for our ecosystem. Forking provides the energy for our evolutionary process. It is a hard idea to get your mind around, a paradigm shift, he said. No project is open source unless it is prone to forking, he stated. Go look at Solaris code, he challenged, and see how you can fork it. No one owns Linux, but all of the thousands of people who have contributed own a piece of the Linux kernel. The freedom to think, to experiment, and to fork is what drives the community. Sun is engaged in a FUD campaign to link Linux to fragmentation. Rather than fighting this we must embrace this message, he said. Openness and innovation force forks to merge. The combination of these forks is usually better than either fork. Nature creates lots of forks, he noted. Evolution is wasteful, but Linux does this in a useful way.

We must increase the pace of the "innovation stream," Bottomley said. The process is getting faster. The increasing number of lines modified per release is not a problem, it is in fact a good thing. Increasing the pace of change must increase the evolutionary pressure.

One of the problems facing Linux, he noted, is that it is written in English, which limits the non-English-speaking majority of the world from contributing to the Linux kernel. We need to come up with a way of accepting patches in foreign languages, he said.

No talk about Linux is complete, Bottomley said, without a discussion of closed source drivers. When you produce a closed source driver, you cut yourself off from the community and from the evolutionary process. Bit rot is powerful against you and you are in a constant race to keep up with the kernel. Closed source drivers waste the talent of your engineers and waste money. They aren't immoral or illegal, just "bloody stupid," he said.

We often preach to the converted, he warned. Engineers at companies providing closed source drivers generally support open aims. It is the management and lawyers that have the problems. They see the code as intellectual property, and property needs defending. Encouragement is not brought about by flaming the engineers on the LKML, he warned. You have to go after the executives and the legal arm. Go to the Linux Foundation if need be, you can tell the companies. The Linux Foundation has an NDA program to produce fully open source drivers from NDA specifications. Saying he wasn't sure if it had been announced, but that if not he hereby announced it, Adaptec will be the first company to use the NDA program to get open source drivers.

The purpose of the NDA program, he said, is for companies whose specs themselves are fine for releasing, but whose document margins are full of comments from the engineers that could be construed as slanderous. Hewlett-Packard, for instance, once gave out some PA-RISC documentation with doodles containing blasts against the competition. Lawyers had to redact the doodles before it could be released. The NDA program can get around the issue of dirty little secrets like this, he explained. All we want, he said, is the driver.

To wrap up, he said, evolution and diversity put tension in the system until freedom is created in the middle. Forking is good. Whatever we are doing, we need to keep doing.

Wrap-up

Following the keynote, the OLS organisers provided entertaining announcements and gave away prizes. Aside from the routine announcements about the functioning of the conference, organiser Craig Ross said that this, the ninth OLS, is the first at which the organisers had not heard from the main hotel where attendees were staying, the police, or the city of Ottawa about any of the attendees.

The ninth Ottawa Linux Symposium demonstrated Andrew J. Hutton and C. Craig Ross's professionalism at putting on the conference yet again. The well-oiled organisation team kept everything flowing smoothly and more or less on time, with nearly all talks recorded on high definition video, and WPA-protected wireless available throughout the conference centre.

Just a couple of days before this year's Ottawa Linux Symposium, I attended the annual Debian Conference (DebConf) in Edinburgh, Scotland. I saw fewer than five people in common between the two conferences -- a testament to the diversity and number of people involved in the Linux community.

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