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A new era for LWN

When the plans for were being laid, back toward the end of 1997, we (Liz Coolbaugh and Jonathan Corbet) set out to create a high-quality news source that would allow the Linux community to keep up with the incredible pace of its development. Plus, of course, we wanted to draw attention to an ill-advised support operation that we were launching at the same time. The support offerings are long since forgotten, but LWN has grown with the community it reports on. LWN, now approaching its fifth anniversary, processes a great deal of news and requires several people for its production. As readers of these pages have been told too many times, advertising does not cover even a fraction of the costs of producing LWN, and similar types of revenue, such as corporate sponsorships, are mostly unavailable.

Back in July, we had come to the conclusion that LWN was not a sustainable operation, and that it was time for us to move on to other endeavors. The result was an amazing and unexpected show of support from our readers, in the form of donations, that caused us to rethink things. An unexpected show of, well, something else from our (former) credit card processor slowed that rethink greatly, but the time has now come. LWN is now at a definitive, and possibly final, crossroads.

We will now try to transition LWN into a subscription-based publication, supported by the readers that benefit from it. If LWN is valuable enough to its readers to earn that support, we will continue to produce it - and try to make it better. If not, well, then we will search for some other way to use our skills in the free software community.

Here's the deal: a basic LWN subscription will cost $5/month, with options for those wanting to pay a little less or a little more. Starting October 3, the LWN Weekly Edition will be available only to subscribers for the week following its publication; thereafter it will be freely available to all. Some other features, such as the ability to receive news via email, will be available to subscribers only. Other new features which we may introduce in the future will also be restricted to subscribers, at least initially. The LWN front page and the news items posted there will remain free, as will our security database, kernel patch page, and various other features of the site.

What this means is that all news posted to LWN will continue to be freely available - if you are sufficiently patient. But we strongly hope that most of our regular readers will consider becoming subscribers in order to have immediate access to our content, and, most importantly, to help keep LWN operating.

Those of you working in the software field may want to consider asking your employers to fund an LWN subscription as a useful tool for your job. Or, even better, have them talk to us about group subscriptions, which can provide access to LWN's subscription content for an entire group, company, or university at substantial savings in cost.

We have a lot of ideas for where we would like to take LWN. We would like to cover many important development projects the way we cover Linux kernel development now. We would like to have Linux in Business coverage that is more than a pile of press releases. It would be great to be able to pay for occasional articles by well-known authors. We will release our site code as free software as soon as we find the time to do it. It would be nice, even, to have a search engine that truly works well for the first time ever.

But first we have to stabilize LWN and turn it into a sustainable operation, and an important part of that process is now in the hands of our readers. With sufficient support from you, we can take LWN forward and make it better than ever: a reader-supported community news resource which need not worry about keeping big advertisers happy. If LWN is worthwhile to you, now is the time to act; please consider signing up for a subscription today.

Comments (60 posted)

The Native POSIX Thread Library

Readers of the LWN Kernel Page have been aware of the intensive effort to improve threading performance on Linux - at least from the kernel point of view. Now, with the announcement of version 0.1 of the Native POSIX Thread Library (NPTL), the user-space side of this project has come into view. This article will take a look at the technical and performance aspects of NPTL; the next will wander briefly into the political issues.

Threads, of course, are processes (or something that looks like processes) that share an address space and various other resources. Multi-threaded applications can be tricky to write (they end up presenting the same sorts of problems with race conditions that operating system programmers have to deal with), but they can be a good solution to a number of programming challenges. Your web browser, for example, likely keeps one thread around to respond quickly to user events (mouse clicks and such) while another thread downloads a web page and yet another one renders it onto the screen. Java programs also tend to be highly threaded. Some applications can create many thousands of threads; obviously, such applications can only be reasonably run on systems with top-quality thread support.

Threading can be implemented entirely in user space, in kernel space, or a combination of both. User-space threads are traditionally lighter weight, since they do not require system calls and do not run in independent processes. They can be tricky to make work in all situations, however, and a pure user-space implementation can not make good use of multiprocessor systems, since all threads run within a single process. So most operating systems provide some degree of kernel support for threading. Linux has long had this support via the flexible clone() system call, which allows a great deal of control over which resources are to be shared with the new thread, and which are to be private.

Pure kernel-based threads are often perceived as being slow, however, since the kernel scheduler must be invoked to switch between threads. So conventional wisdom has often said that the best way to get good thread performance is with the "M:N model." M:N is a hybrid approach, where M user space threads run on each of N kernel threads. The multiple kernel threads allow the application to use all processors on the system, while keeping the performance benefits of doing (most) switching between user-space threads. Many people have said that the key to fixing the (not great) performance of Linux threads is adopting the M:N approach.

So it is interesting to note that NPTL has, instead, stayed with the 1:1 pure kernel thread model. NPTL authors Ulrich Drepper and Ingo Molnar took a close look at the problem, and came to the conclusion that 1:1 was, in the end, the more promising approach. Their reasoning can be found in the NPTL white paper (available in PDF format); the main points are:

  • The kernel problems which slow down thread performance can be eliminated; that has been the focus of Ingo Molnar's work.

  • An M:N threading implementation requires two schedulers: the usual kernel scheduler, and a user-space implementation. Getting the two to work together for best performance is difficult - especially if you do not want to impact performance for the system as a whole. Rather than duplicate the scheduling function, the NPTL implementers felt it was better to use the (highly optimized) kernel scheduler exclusively.

  • Signal handling is the bane of many threading implementations, and M:N implementations have an even harder time of it. The 1:1 model leaves signal handling in the kernel.

  • User-space threading implementations have to go to great length to ensure that one thread, when it performs a blocking operation, does not block all threads running under that process; this can be a complex task. Kernel-based threads naturally schedule (and block) independently of each other.

Finally, the 1:1 implementation is generally simpler, since user space need not duplicate functionality already found in the kernel.

Of course, all of that means little if the 1:1 model is unable to perform up to expectations. The benchmarking process has just begun, but the initial signs are encouraging. Ingo ran one [Benchmark results] test where he started up and ran 100,000 concurrent threads - in less than two seconds. This test would have taken about 15 minutes before the threading improvements went into the kernel.

Ulrich Drepper has posted some other benchmarks which mostly measure thread creation and shutdown time; some of his results can be seen in the chart to the right.. Such a test should naturally favor the M:N model, since user-space thread creation and destruction can be performed without any system calls. And, in fact, the M:N Next Generation POSIX Threading (NGPT) implementation beat standard Linux threads by at least a factor of two in these tests. The NPTL library, however, beat NGPT by about a factor of four. So the initial indications are that NPTL can deliver the goods. And this is only the 0.1 release.

Comments (none posted)

On the NPTL process

At the first encounter, the Native POSIX Thread Library looks like ideal grist for the Red Hat basher's mill. The library appears to have sprung fully formed from the head of glibc maintainer (and Red Hat employee) Ulrich Drepper, who has made his plans clear:

Unless major flaws in the design are found this code is intended to become the standard POSIX thread library on Linux system and it will be included in the GNU C library distribution.

Installing this library is not easy, since it requires some fairly bleeding-edge software: a 2.5.36 kernel, gcc 3.2, and a current glibc 2.3 snapshot. In fact, the "only environment known to date which works" is an updated version of the "(Null)" Red Hat beta. And, of course, this development has seemingly ignored the longstanding efforts of the Next Generation POSIX Threading project, which is at release 2.0.2.

A certain (relatively small) amount of grumbling along these lines has been seen on the net. But it's uncalled for.

NPTL was developed independently from NGPT for a straightforward reason: the NPTL developers wanted to try a very different approach. NGPT is designed around the M:N model, which, as noted above, NPTL avoids. There was no way to integrate the NPTL approach into NGPT without massive changes. The NPTL developers did, however, work with the NGPT hackers with regard to the kernel changes; those enhancements will benefit both projects in the end.

A new library at version 0.1 can probably be forgiven for using bleeding-edge tools; it is a bleeding-edge tool, after all. By the time NPTL has stabilized, the environments available to users will have caught up substantially. Ingo Molnar, author of the kernel side of the NPTL work, tells us that he intends to backport the kernel changes to the 2.4 kernel once things have stabilized in 2.5. (Whether 2.4 maintainer Marcelo Tosatti will accept them is a separate issue, of course).

And, in the end, this development has been going on for less than two months - it is a very new initiative.

This development shows some of the best aspects of the free software model. Two hackers with some good ideas have proved those ideas in the way the community accepts best: with code. We will all benefit from this work.

Comments (none posted)

Looking the OpenSSL gift horse in the mouth

Sun's announcement of its donation of an elliptic curve encryption implementation to the OpenSSL project was generally well received. After all, the donation of more open source code has got to be a good thing. As it turns out, however, some people are looking at this gift and wondering how free it really is.

If you look at the OpenSSL LICENSE file in the current snapshot, nothing has changed; it's a fairly straightforward BSD-style license. But the Sun-contributed code contains its own license text which differs from the OpenSSL license. In particular, it contains this rather impenetrable language:

In addition, Sun covenants to all licensees who provide a reciprocal covenant with respect to their own patents if any, not to sue under current and future patent claims necessarily infringed by the making, using, practicing, selling, offering for sale and/or otherwise disposing of the Contribution as delivered hereunder (or portions thereof)...

One would that Sun, by virtue of having released the code under a free license, would have given up the right to sue people for using that code. This clause, however, seems to put a string on it: Sun explicitly says it won't sue, but only if you don't sue them either. The limitation seems to only apply to suits over the elliptical curve code itself, but it's hard to say for sure; the language is not all that clear.

For those who object to this language, the distinction does not matter. If you start attaching strings to free code, they say, it is no longer free. The most vocal of the dissenters is, of course, OpenBSD hacker Theo de Raadt, who states:

It means that OpenSSL is becoming a non-free software project, because the code from Sun contains licenses which invoke patent litigation; the licence on the new code basically builds a contract that says "if you use this code, you cannot sue Sun". In such a way, by means of the slippery slope, a free software project becomes not as free, and eventually, less and less free.

Theo has gone as far as suggesting a fork in the OpenSSL project as a way of maintaining a version that is, to his eyes, truly free.

Whether or not this particular bit of language bothers people, there is an issue here: companies often have a hard time resisting the temptation to attach their own language to free software licenses. The tendency toward custom licenses for each company and project has subsided somewhat, but it is not completely gone. It will always be necessary to scrutinize software licenses carefully, whether they are presented as free or not.

Comments (8 posted)

The Lulu Tech Circus

For those of you who are curious about what Bob Young has been up to since he left Red Hat: the Lulu Tech Circus is happening in Raleigh, NC starting September 27. It has the look of a fun event for people who like to play with free software, and with cool technology in general. Wish we could be there...

Comments (none posted)

Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
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