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The history of Mesa

By Jake Edge
October 2, 2013
X.Org Developers Conference

The Mesa project (aka "Mesa 3D") is "almost old enough to drink" (21 in the US), said Ian Romanick when introducing Brian Paul's X.Org Developers Conference (XDC) talk. Paul is "the father of Mesa", Romanick said; he was presenting a look back at the 20 (or so) years of development on the open source OpenGL graphics language implementation.

Paul noted that there is some question about when development on Mesa actually began. He has been doing some archeology to try to figure it out, but he doesn't think the August 1993 date noted on the Mesa web site is correct. He thinks he may have gotten started in 1992 and hopes to eventually find the Amiga floppies (with timestamps) to determine that.

[Brian Paul]

He was following the newsgroup in 1992 when Silicon Graphics (SGI) posted an announcement of the OpenGL language. At the time, he was working at the University of Wisconsin on a visualization package using SGI's IRIS GL, which was "terrible". There were other contenders for a replacement (e.g. PHIGS), but SGI was pretty dominant in the graphics world. After the announcement, he read all the documentation "in a couple of days" and "jumped pretty quickly" into OpenGL. It was "beautiful and slick", he said, which is an interesting comparison to OpenGL today, which has 1000 functions and "tons of ways to do the same thing".


Before all of that, though, he got started with computers (and graphics) as a freshman in high school on the TRS-80 Model III. It had 128x48 monochrome graphics (with non-square pixels) and he wrote a paint program for it in BASIC. That's what got him "hooked on graphics", he said.

His first computer was an Atari 800XL, which was a "quantum leap" as it was the first color graphics he had access to (160x192 with four colors, or 320x192 monochrome). Using that, he wrote a 3D modeling program, a 3D renderer using Painter's algorithm, and a ray tracing program. The ultimate output from the ray tracer was a ten-frame animation that took two-and-a-half days to render.

By the time he got to college, he had an Amiga 500, which had 640x400 resolution with 4K colors. Even though it had lots more RAM (1M vs. 64K on the Atari), it still lacked the memory for a real Z-buffer. That didn't prevent him from writing a scan-line rasterizer with lighting and dithering as well as another ray tracer. That was all written in Modula-2 because that compiler was cheaper than the Amiga C compiler, he said with a laugh. He did eventually switch to Matt Dillon's C compiler when that became available.

In the early 90s, he was working on visualization software on "really expensive" workstations (like $180K). The price of those workstations made them prohibitive for most, but there were other barriers too. Each vendor had its own API for graphics, so graphics programs had to have multiple backends to support each. But SGI and IRIS GL were pretty dominant, and that was most of what he was doing then.

There were lots of 2D workstations around at the time, it was 3D hardware that was lacking. The Vis5D 3D visualization package for atmospheric science that he developed needed to be able to run on 2D workstations. He found the VOGL library that was a small subset of IRIS GL. It didn't have triangle rendering or hidden surface removal, both of which he hacked in. "It worked but it was ugly", he said.

When OpenGL was announced, he immediately knew it was the direction he wanted to go. SGI targeted it to replace all of the other alternatives, and some industry players (DEC and IBM) were supportive of that, but others (Sun and HP) were not. But it took a surprisingly long time before vendors had OpenGL implementations. It was 1994 or 1995 before SGI shipped anything, he said, and it wasn't until 1996 that it was available across all SGI models.

Starting from scratch

He began work on Mesa (though it didn't yet have that name) in either 1992 or 1993. He was working on the Amiga at home and on Unix systems at work, using floppy disks to move the code back and forth. He developed the device driver interface to accommodate the two different drawing interfaces (Amiga and Xlib).

He had a "lot more spare time then", he said, so he had a mostly complete OpenGL implementation in November 1994. It was still missing some features, but he was using it at work and thought it might be useful to others. So he started talking with SGI about open-sourcing the code.

SGI was "pretty reasonable", he said, contrasting that reaction to what he thinks Microsoft would have said to a similar request. He and SGI went back and forth a bit, but eventually the company said "go for it". SGI said he shouldn't use the letters "GL" in the name and that it needed a disclaimer saying it was not a "real OpenGL". The irony is that today Mesa is a real OpenGL "and we have the certification to prove it", as an audience member noted. The name, Mesa, "just popped into my head one day", Paul said.

He thinks that SGI was receptive to the idea of releasing Mesa because it wanted to get the interface out in front of people as much as possible. Open source would "push that goal forward". Folks that didn't have OpenGL for their workstation could get Mesa instead, so it filled a hole in the ecosystem.

He got permission to release the code in early 1995 and announced Mesa 1.0 beta on on February 3, 1995. When he did that, he had no feel for how much interest there would be, but within days it became clear that there was lots. He started receiving dozens of emails about the project, ranging from "wow" or "thanks" to patches.

To support the project, he wrote his first page for the web, which was just getting traction at that point. He also set up a mailing list. He only had email access at work, so he had to try to deal with the mailing list before work or on weekends. As the project quickly ramped up, his boss, Bill Hibbard, was quite supportive and allowed him to use part of his workday for Mesa. The project owes a lot to Hibbard, he said.

Early days

In the early days, the project faced a number of issues. Supporting multiple different systems (IRIX, SunOS, HPUX, ...) was sometimes difficult due to compiler incompatibilities. Some of those kinds of problems are still seen today. The displays could be problematic as well. 24-bit displays were expensive, so most displays were 8 or 16-bit. That meant dealing with color maps and dithering. He remembers spending "days and weeks" on dithering patterns, which just "seems crazy" today.

Handling lots of patches and rolling out new releases without using revision control was another problem area. He's not sure why he didn't use SCCS or RCS, but he didn't have any revision control until Mesa moved to a SourceForge predecessor in the late 1990s, he said. Performance was another issue. PCs had 16MHz 386 processors. Workstations were faster, but "still not super fast". Calling Mesa "interactive 3D graphics" was sometimes an overstatement, he said.

But OpenGL was "pretty small back then", so he could still keep all of the Mesa code in his head in those days. That "was a lot of fun", but with a million lines of code today, Mesa is "pretty overwhelming".

Late 90s

In the late 1990s, 3D was really starting to take off. There was consumer 3D hardware available from companies like NVIDIA, ATI, Matrox, 3dfx, and others, with price points that were fairly reasonable. Those cards used Direct3D, Glide (for 3D effects), or some one-off vendor API, and there was little OpenGL support.

SGI did open up its GLX client/sever code so that programs could use OpenGL in X windows. The Utah GLX project, which was an XFree86 server-side driver that provided indirect rendering, also got started. Paul said he was not directly involved in Utah, but it attracted some talented developers to Mesa. That included Keith Whitwell who had done a lot of work to increase the performance of Mesa. Around that time, John Carmack of id Software donated $10,000 to Mesa, which funded more of Whitwell's work.

In addition, Precision Insight was formed as a company to work on X and other related technology in 1998. Paul met the founders of the company at the SIGGRAPH 99 conference and joined Precision Insight in September 1999. That meant that he could finally work on Mesa, Direct Rendering Infrastructure (DRI), and GLX full time. Prior to that, most of his work on Mesa had been done in his spare time.

In the 2000s, DRI became well established. Precision Insight was acquired by VA Linux, but then the dot-com bubble popped "and we all got laid off", so he helped form Tungsten Graphics with other former Precision Insight employees in 2001. There were multiple releases of Mesa (4.x–7.x) over that decade with "lots of hardware drivers". The Gallium3D project was started by Whitwell in 2008 to simplify creating new 3D drivers. The existing device driver interface was not a good match to what the graphics hardware was doing, so Gallium3D provided a different interface that would help reduce the code duplication in Mesa drivers, he said.


Paul said that he never expected Mesa to be so successful, nor to last as long as it has. He would have guessed that vendors would put out their own OpenGL libraries so that there would be no need for Mesa. But people still need software rendering, using llvmpipe and other drivers. It's also important to have an open source implementation available that people can adapt and use for new projects, he said.

There have been as many as 1000 contributors to Mesa over the years, which is far beyond what he expected. The project has grown in size and complexity beyond his expectations as well. Mesa is in all of the Linux distributions and used by thousands (or millions?) of users every day. By his measure, it is a "very successful project".

Paul outlined what he saw as the keys to that success. Mesa was "the right project at the right time". He happened to have a job that caused him to follow, which led him to start the project. If he hadn't, though, someone else would have around the same time, he said. He also has always liked the perspective that Fred Brooks has espoused about computer scientists as "tool makers". He took that idea to heart and made a tool that others use to do their job. In the early days, that job was visualization, today it is entertainment, which is "not as noble" as it once was, "but still pretty cool".

As project lead, he let people "smarter than me" take control of areas they were interested in. Beyond that, the Mesa development community has always been "pretty civilized". There are no insults or screaming in the mailing list. He has seen other open source leaders who do that and he doesn't like it at all, he said. But perhaps the most significant reason for Mesa's success is that it was following a specification. "We are the carpenters" who are building a "house that someone else designed".

He closed by thanking the developers who contributed "amazing work" to the project over the years. Mesa is now his calling card and the project has greatly exceeded his expectations. In addition, he met some of his closest friends through the project.

At the start of the talk, Paul said it has been around five years since he last attended an XDC. He is now with VMware (which bought Tungsten Graphics along the way). He said that he was quite impressed to see all of the new faces of those involved with X today. Keith Packard likely summed up the feelings of many in the room (and beyond) when he thanked Paul for his longtime work on an important project that is available as open source so that it can be used by all.

[I would like to thank the X.Org Foundation for travel assistance to Portland for XDC.]

Comments (8 posted)

TT-RSS makes a comeback

By Nathan Willis
October 2, 2013

Veterans of The Great Google Reader Shutdown scattered in a number of different directions once the search giant's RSS- and Atom-feed reading service closed its doors in July 2013. Quite a few proprietary web services stepped up in an attempt to attract former Google Reader users, but free software projects gained prominence as well. The ownCloud project added a feed reading application, for example, but Tiny Tiny RSS (TT-RSS) had a considerable head start. The project recently released its latest update, the latest from a post–Google Reader surge in development.

TT-RSS has been in development for more than eight years, but prior to the March announcement of the Google Reader shutdown, the pace of development had slowed. The project still made regular updates every few months, but there was not a steady influx of new developers and the feature set grew in small increments with each new release. The uptick in interest after the Reader announcement was dramatic; one need only look at the Ohloh graphs for contributor count and commits to see the difference. From a low of 54 commits by two committers in January, activity shot up to 564 commits by 31 committers in March. Most of those commits came from lead developer Andrew Dolgov, but it would be fair to say that the Reader deactivation reinvigorated interest in the project.

The first new major release following this flurry of activity was version 1.8 in June. That update brought updates to feed parsing (including dropping the Simplepie parsing library in favor of a native TT-RSS parser), moved several optional plugins out of the core codebase into a separate contrib repository, and reworked the user interface. The moved plugins constitute a significant number of lines of code, including several authentication modules (such as IMAP, LDAP, and RADIUS authentication) and connections to a variety of third-party web services. Those web-service plugins include the ability to share items from TT-RSS via Twitter,, Google+, Pinterest, ownCloud, and several other well-known sites.

Version 1.9 followed in late July. Several parser fixes were included, as were translation updates and a refresh of the icon set. Arguably the most visible changes were the addition of a plugin that serves a feed of the user's shared articles and the migration of TT-RSS from GPLv2 to GPLv3. Version 1.10 arrived on September 21, containing only minor changes and bug fixes. [TT-RSS]

There are a glut of feed-reading options available these days, and many look the same on the surface. The TT-RSS interface will feel familiar to anyone who has used Google Reader, Feedly, Digg Reader, NewsBlur, or the like. A scrollable list on the left-hand side shows all of the subscribed feeds by category (plus special categories for saved and starred items) and how many unread entries are available, while the remainder of the screen is occupied by split-pane news reading interface: one can view feeds by headline or by full text, mark or unmark them as read, and so on.

But TT-RSS still offers a handful of features that the majority of the competition does not—even though those features may not jump out of the interface. For one thing, it is one of the few feed readers that supports subscribing to username/password-protected feeds. There are not a lot of feeds out there that require authentication, but that is something of a chicken-and-egg problem: lack of reader support decreases the demand for authenticated feeds, and vice versa.

Another example of TT-RSS's feature set is its support for automatically detecting duplicate articles and removing the duplicates from the unread item interface. This, too, is not a common problem at the global scale, perhaps, but it is one that many free software fans are likely to run into. Planet software aggregates multiple blogs, but in doing so a single person's blog may get carried by multiple planets if that person is involved in multiple projects. Having reader software like TT-RSS filter out the duplicates that come from extra-active bloggers is surely a better solution than trying to persuade those bloggers to participate in fewer projects.

As for the changes in the latest releases, TT-RSS does feel snappier than it used to. That may be attributable to the new, lightweight feed parsing code, to the reduction in the number of plugins installed, or even to the accumulated improvements of all of those new contributors and Dolgov's surge of development in March. Whatever the cause, I last used TT-RSS more than two years ago and frequently found it pausing momentarily when switching to a new folder or when loading large posts; I have noticed no such hangs with version 1.10.

A resurgence in interest is welcome news for any free software project. The lone dark cloud in the recent uptick in TT-RSS's popularity has been the project's hostility toward forum users who bring suggestions or questions that the team does not like. The FAQ directs users with Google Reader–related requests to an antagonistic forum thread where one such user is ridiculed, and the same FAQ page defends Dolgov's right to "either mock or not deal with people" who ask "stupid questions again and again because new people gracing tt-rss community with their presence largely can't be bothered to read anything." The justification given for this approach is that community management is too time-consuming.

No doubt community management is a task that requires a significant time investment, but it is hardly an unsolved problem—and one would think the ten-fold increase in volunteers seen last March could have provided some person-power that could be directed toward community building. Prickly project leads are not a new problem, but TT-RSS is quality code and it was in essence handed a ready-made stable of millions of potential users when Google Reader closed; it would be a shame to drive them away.

Comments (7 posted)

Some tidbits from XDC

By Jake Edge
October 2, 2013
X.Org Developers Conference

The X.Org Developers Conference (XDC) is a three-day, one-track event with presentations covering many different parts of the graphics stack. This year it was held September 23–25 at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon—home of Voodoo Doughnuts, which were provided daily. XDC is an intense experience and this year's edition will lead to a few more articles in the coming weeks. There were also a few shorter sessions with some news and plans that seem worth reporting on here.

Non-profit status

X.Org Foundation board member Peter Hutterer reported on the state of the foundation. The most recent news about the foundation was that it had lost its 501(c)(3) (US) non-profit status in August. Hutterer was happy to report that had all been reversed. With help from the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), which helped the foundation become a non-profit in 2012, the foundation was able to regain its status. The paperwork was "still in transit", he said, but the non-profit status was restored.

[Peter Hutterer]

Part of the problem that led to the revocation of the non-profit status was that it is a lot of work to maintain a 501(c)(3) organization. The members of the foundation board are not lawyers or accountants, he said, and some of them are not even living in the US, which makes it that much more difficult. So the board decided to look into organizations that manage free software projects, foundations, and the like. Umbrella organizations like the Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC), Apache Software Foundation (ASF), and Software in the Public Interest (SPI) are set up to handle much of the paperwork for various types of projects.

The board has voted that SPI is the right umbrella organization for the X.Org Foundation. That switch is not finalized as it may require a vote of the X.Org membership, Hutterer said. The board will be consulting with the SFLC and looking at the by-laws to determine that. Assuming the change is made, SPI would take 5% of any donations made to the foundation for the work that it does, which "seems fair", he said.

The foundation has "a slab of money" that remains from a number of years ago, when it was getting donations of $100,000 or so per year. It uses that money to put on XDC and to sponsor the travel of several participants (four this year, including a Google Summer of Code student and an LWN editor). It also funds GSoC students and participants in the X.Org Endless Vacation of Code program. The pile of money is enough to last for another four or five years, Hutterer said, before the foundation needs to consider doing some fundraising—something that's never been done since he became involved.

[Meeting room]

The foundation is also moving banks after HSBC closed its account for unclear reasons. "Banks are fun", Hutterer said with a laugh. The current plan is to move to Bank of America, he said.

The Board of Directors consists of eight people and four of those seats turn over every year. There are 78 members of the foundation, which is "lots better than it was a couple of years ago". Hutterer strongly encouraged those present to think about joining, which allows voting in elections and has a few other benefits.

X server 1.15 planning

Keith Packard took the floor on the first day to discuss plans for the X server 1.15 release. It was supposed to have been released the week of XDC, but in August he and others realized that the release itself was "really boring". He asked the assembled developers if there were any features due in 1.15 that they were "desperate to have". Hutterer mentioned that having touch input working would be nice, but Packard noted that those changes had been backported to 1.14. [Keith Packard]

In fact, as far as he knows, all of the security, stability, and usability bug fixes have been added to 1.14. The 1.14 release manager has been making minor releases with those changes, which are, of course, ABI-compatible with 1.14—unlike 1.15. At this point, Packard said, 1.15 looks like "1.14 plus an ABI change".

There are, however, many features that are awaiting the release of 1.15 before they get merged. So, an idea that had been batted around on IRC was to delay the release of 1.15 until it had some features of note. Those features might include a rewrite of the Xephyr nested X server (that deleted "many thousands of lines of code, which is what we do best at Xorg", Packard said, pronouncing the last word as "zorg"), Packard's own DRI3 and Present extensions which are getting close to being ready to merge, some XWayland changes, Adam Jackson's GLX rewrite (which removes around 40,000 lines of code), and possibly others.

Packard would talk about DRI3 and Present later in the conference, as would Jackson about the GLX rewrite, so the final decision would be made after those discussions. All of the proposed features seemed like they would plausibly be ready in time for a code freeze at the end of October. The normal pattern would be for a two-month stabilization period after that, putting the release of 1.15 at the end of the year. "A Christmas present", Jackson suggested.

An informal straw poll of those in the room found all in favor of the proposed change, but there wasn't any real emotion one way or the other. "Consensus by apathy", one developer suggested, which is a "hallmark of X.Org" added another—to chuckles around the room. Packard encouraged anyone with additional features they would like to see in 1.15 to "let us know". In the end, the X.Org calendar shows a final 1.15 release scheduled for December 25.

Links to the slides and videos for most of the sessions can be found from the XDC schedule page.

[I would like to thank the X.Org Foundation for travel assistance to Portland for XDC.]

Comments (4 posted)

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