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Yocto and OpenEmbedded

Recently, I attended an Embedded Linux summit hosted by the Linux Foundation to discuss the Yocto project. Overall, I thought the meeting was very positive and constructive. Having met and discussed at length the methods and goals of the Linux Foundation with some of their people, I’m impressed with their approach. They are there to help Linux succeed in the Embedded space in any way they can.

It is my understanding that the Yocto project has the goal of making Linux much more accessible and usable in embedded systems, and improve efficiencies. While the OpenEmbedded project has served many of us well for many years, we all can readily understand there are some deficiencies. These can be overcome by experienced developers, but there are a number of areas that can obviously be improved. Not only are we concerned with making it easier for new users to use Embedded Linux, I think there are areas where we can drastically improve the efficiency of implementing embedded Linux systems for those who are experienced. It was stated once that tools implemented must be useful to both the new developer as well as the experienced developer.

It should be noted that building an embedded Linux system is an inherently complex undertaking, and although we can improve tools and processes to make it more efficient, and somewhat easier, in the end it is still a very complex problem, and will require considerable skill to be an effective embedded Linux developer. There is no substitute for experience, and developer skill. Just as we would not slap a fancy GUI on top of a robotic surgery instrument, and tell a novice to have at it, likewise it is still going to require considerable engineering skill to be effective in developing Embedded Linux systems. But, if we improve the base technologies, and tools, we will spend less time messing with these and doing the same things over and over, and will have more resources toward implementing new things.

One example of the pain experienced in a typical OpenEmbedded system is getting Oprofile to run. Oprofile requires that ARM system be built with frame pointers (OE defaults to not), and that you have symbols in your binaries. Figuring out how to build a reasonably sized image with the needed symbols might be a 1-2 day process for me. Then there is the issue of kernel symbols, etc. I’m sure many other developers go through the same steps, but as many of us are paid to develop products on tight schedules, we don’t have the time to polish the Oprofile integration and tools.

As an extension of this, the application development story with OpenEmbedded is not all that great. Yes, we can generate a binary SDK, but again it may take a couple days of messing around to figure out the process, and get all the necessary libraries, etc. Then you still have the problem that application developers want Eclipse/Qt Creator integration, etc. Again, this can all be done, but takes time, and many people are doing the same things over and over again.

The Yocto project seems to have two primary thrusts:

  1. stabilize a subset of the OpenEmbedded (called Poky) metadata and make it very high quality.
  2. improve tools associated with the build process, and general embedded Linux development.

One thing the OpenEmbedded project has historically lacked in the past is industry funding and ongoing developer commitment. The OE project is characterized by a rotating group of developers. When someone needs OE for a project, they jump in and do a lot of work on OE, then they disappear again once their need is met. We have very few developers who work on the project consistently for long periods of time. This has been positive in some ways in that we have a very large number of contributors, and a very open commit policy. There are so many patches coming in right now, we can’t even keep up with processing them. Week after week, we have a healthy number of committers and changesets. The community behind OE is rather astounding, and it is amazing how OE succeeds almost in spite of itself as a self organizing project without much organization.

In the past the OpenEmbedded and Poky projects have existed as two independent trees, and things were shared back and forth manually. This works fairly well as recipes are self contained, and generally can simply be copied from one tree to another. However, some of the core recipes are fairly complex, and if they start to diverge, then sharing information can get more difficult.

It seems the vision that is emerging is that Poky could become the core component of OpenEmbedded. Poky would contain a very controlled subset of core recipes that must remain at a very high quality level. OpenEmbedded could then expand on this (through the use of layers) to provide the breadth and scope it has traditionally provided.

We may bemoan the lack of quality in the OpenEmbedded project as it has 1000’s of recipes, and many of them have rotted, etc. But as a consultant helping people implement products, I still find considerable value in this. For example, one of the products I support uses the HPLIP drivers from HP. Yes, the recipe is broke every time I go to use the latest version, but with a little work I can get it working again. Having something to start with provides value. The same is true for the geos mapping libraries. Very few people are going to use geos, so it will never be in a Poky type repository, but some of us do use geos, so having a common place like OpenEmbedded to put recipes like this is very important. Using Poky as the core of OpenEmbedded seems like a win-win. We are relieved of some of the burden of maintaining core components (like compilers, C library, tool integration, sdk generation, etc), but we can still have a very open culture, and provide a wide scope of platform, library, and application support that we have historically provided.

Richard Purdie is poised to become the Linus Torvalds of Yocto, and if OpenEmbedded choses to base on Poky, then the Torvalds of the OpenEmbedded core. I am personally fine with this as I don’t know anyone else who has contributed so much time and has the same level of skill in the OE/Poky area. He has proven over time to be levelheaded and able to deal with difficult situations. Also, as a Linux Foundation fellow, he is positioned to be company neutral, which is very important for someone in this position.

Yocto is using a “pull” model similar to the Linux kernel for accepting changes. It is planned to put maintainers in place for various subsystems. With the goal of providing a very high quality subset of embedded Linux technologies, it seems this makes a lot of sense. If OpenEmbedded choses to base on Poky, there is no reason OpenEmbedded can’t continue to still use the push model for its layer that has worked well in the past. But, as we see patches languishing in the patchwork, perhaps a pull model might actually be more efficient at processing incoming patches so they don’t get lost. This is also an area where layers might actually help in that we have dedicated people committed to processing patches for each layer. One of the problems with the OpenEmbedded project with its 1000’s of recipes, the structure is very flat, and its fairly difficult to divide it up into areas of responsibility.

So going forward, it seems that if OpenEmbedded can somehow use Poky as a core technology (just like it uses bitbake, etc), then we could have the best of both worlds. With Poky, we get strong industry commitment and dedicated people working on making the core pieces better, and the tools better (50 engineers are already dedicated). This is something those of us developing products don’t really have time for and we are not currently funded to do this. With OpenEmbedded we can still keep our broad involvement, and vast recipe and target collection. Yes, the quality of OpenEmbedded will be lower, but it still provides a different type of value. Poky provides the known stable core, and OpenEmbedded is just that–it is “open”, and provides the broad menu of components that can be used. Over time this could evolve into something different, but for now it seems a good place to start.

The last thing to consider is the OpenEmbedded brand. It is recognizable from the name what it is (unlike Yocto, and Poky). It has had broad exposure for many years. It has historically been very vendor neutral with very little corporate direction or influence. From this perspective, it seems the Yocto project can benefit greatly from having an association with the OpenEmbedded project. This topic was discussed at the summit, and there was general consensus on the strong awareness of the OpenEmbedded brand, as well as an openness to how branding for the Yocto core build system might look.

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