Why ACPI on ARM?

Why are we doing ACPI on ARM? That question has been asked many times, but we haven’t yet had a good summary of the most important reasons for wanting ACPI on ARM. This article is an attempt to state the rationale clearly.

During an email conversation late last year, Catalin Marinas asked for a summary of exactly why we want ACPI on ARM, Dong Wei replied with the following list:
> 1. Support multiple OSes, including Linux and Windows
> 2. Support device configurations
> 3. Support dynamic device configurations (hot add/removal)
> 4. Support hardware abstraction through control methods
> 5. Support power management
> 6. Support thermal management
> 7. Support RAS interfaces

The above list is certainly true in that all of them need to be supported. However, that list doesn’t give the rationale for choosing ACPI. We already have DT mechanisms for doing most of the above, and can certainly create new bindings for anything that is missing. So, if it isn’t an issue of functionality, then how does ACPI differ from DT and why is ACPI a better fit for general purpose ARM servers?

The difference is in the support model. To explain what I mean, I’m first going to expand on each of the items above and discuss the similarities and differences between ACPI and DT. Then, with that as the groundwork, I’ll discuss how ACPI is a better fit for the general purpose hardware support model.

Device Configurations

2. Support device configurations
3. Support dynamic device configurations (hot add/removal)

From day one, DT was about device configurations. There isn’t any significant difference between ACPI & DT here. In fact, the majority of ACPI tables are completely analogous to DT descriptions. With the exception of the DSDT and SSDT tables, most ACPI tables are merely flat data used to describe hardware.

DT platforms have also supported dynamic configuration and hotplug for years. There isn’t a lot here that differentiates between ACPI and DT. The biggest difference is that dynamic changes to the ACPI namespace can be triggered by ACPI methods, whereas for DT changes are received as messages from firmware and have been very much platform specific (e.g. IBM pSeries does this)

Power Management Model

4. Support hardware abstraction through control methods
5. Support power management
6. Support thermal management

Power, thermal, and clock management can all be dealt with as a group. ACPI defines a power management model (OSPM) that both the platform and the OS conform to. The OS implements the OSPM state machine, but the platform can provide state change behaviour in the form of bytecode methods. Methods can access hardware directly or hand off PM operations to a coprocessor. The OS really doesn’t have to care about the details as long as the platform obeys the rules of the OSPM model.

With DT, the kernel has device drivers for each and every component in the platform, and configures them using DT data. DT itself doesn’t have a PM model. Rather the PM model is an implementation detail of the kernel. Device drivers use DT data to decide how to handle PM state changes. We have clock, pinctrl, and regulator frameworks in the kernel for working out runtime PM. However, this only works when all the drivers and support code have been merged into the kernel. When the kernel’s PM model doesn’t work for new hardware, then we change the model. This works very well for mobile/embedded because the vendor controls the kernel. We can change things when we need to, but we also struggle with getting board support mainlined.

This difference has a big impact when it comes to OS support. Engineers from hardware vendors, Microsoft, and most vocally Red Hat have all told me bluntly that rebuilding the kernel doesn’t work for enterprise OS support. Their model is based around a fixed OS release that ideally boots out-of-the-box. It may still need additional device drivers for specific peripherals/features, but from a system view, the OS works. When additional drivers are provided separately, those drivers fit within the existing OSPM model for power management. This is where ACPI has a technical advantage over DT. The ACPI OSPM model and it’s bytecode gives the HW vendors a level of abstraction under their control, not the kernel’s. When the hardware behaves differently from what the OS expects, the vendor is able to change the behaviour without changing the HW or patching the OS.

At this point you’d be right to point out that it is harder to get the whole system working correctly when behaviour is split between the kernel and the platform. The OS must trust that the platform doesn’t violate the OSPM model. All manner of bad things happen if it does. That is exactly why the DT model doesn’t encode behaviour: It is easier to make changes and fix bugs when everything is within the same code base. We don’t need a platform/kernel split when we can modify the kernel.

However, the enterprise folks don’t have that luxury. The platform/kernel split isn’t a design choice. It is a characteristic of the market. Hardware and OS vendors each have their own product timetables, and they don’t line up. The timeline for getting patches into the kernel and flowing through into OS releases puts OS support far downstream from the actual release of hardware. Hardware vendors simply cannot wait for OS support to come online to be able to release their products. They need to be able to work with available releases, and make their hardware behave in the way the OS expects. The advantage of ACPI OSPM is that it defines behaviour and limits what the hardware is allowed to do without involving the kernel.

What remains is sorting out how we make sure everything works. How do we make sure there is enough cross platform testing to ensure new hardware doesn’t ship broken and that new OS releases don’t break on old hardware? Those are the reasons why a UEFI/ACPI firmware summit is being organized, it’s why the UEFI forum holds plugfests 3 times a year, and it is why we’re working on FWTS and LuvOS.

Reliability, Availability & Serviceability (RAS)

7. Support RAS interfaces

This isn’t a question of whether or not DT can support RAS. Of course it can. Rather it is a matter of RAS bindings already existing for ACPI, including a usage model. We’ve barely begun to explore this on DT. This item doesn’t make ACPI technically superior to DT, but it certainly makes it more mature.

Multiplatform support

1. Support multiple OSes, including Linux and Windows

I’m tackling this item last because I think it is the most contentious for those of us in the Linux world. I wanted to get the other issues out of the way before addressing it.

The separation between hardware vendors and OS vendors in the server market is new for ARM. For the first time ARM hardware and OS release cycles are completely decoupled from each other, and neither are expected to have specific knowledge of the other (ie. the hardware vendor doesn’t control the choice of OS). ARM and their partners want to create an ecosystem of independent OSes and hardware platforms that don’t explicitly require the former to be ported to the latter.

Now, one could argue that Linux is driving the potential market for ARM servers, and therefore Linux is the only thing that matters, but hardware vendors don’t see it that way. For hardware vendors it is in their best interest to support as wide a choice of OSes as possible in order to catch the widest potential customer base. Even if the majority choose Linux, some will choose BSD, some will choose Windows, and some will choose something else. Whether or not we think this is foolish is beside the point; it isn’t something we have influence over.

During early ARM server planning meetings between ARM, its partners and other industry representatives (myself included) we discussed this exact point. Before us were two options, DT and ACPI. As one of the Linux people in the room, I advised that ACPI’s closed governance model was a show stopper for Linux and that DT is the working interface. Microsoft on the other hand made it abundantly clear that ACPI was the only interface that they would support. For their part, the hardware vendors stated the platform abstraction behaviour of ACPI is a hard requirement for their support model and that they would not close the door on either Linux or Windows.

However, the one thing that all of us could agree on was that supporting multiple interfaces doesn’t help anyone: It would require twice as much effort on defining bindings (once for Linux-DT and once for Windows-ACPI) and it would require firmware to describe everything twice. Eventually we reached the compromise to use ACPI, but on the condition of opening the governance process to give Linux engineers equal influence over the specification. The fact that we now have a much better seat at the ACPI table, for both ARM and x86, is a direct result of these early ARM server negotiations. We are no longer second class citizens in the ACPI world and are actually driving much of the recent development.

I know that this line of thought is more about market forces rather than a hard technical argument between ACPI and DT, but it is an equally significant one. Agreeing on a single way of doing things is important. The ARM server ecosystem is better for the agreement to use the same interface for all operating systems. This is what is meant by standards compliant. The standard is a codification of the mutually agreed interface. It provides confidence that all vendors are using the same rules for interoperability.


To summarize, here is the short form rationale for ACPI on ARM:

  • ACPI’s bytecode allows the platform to encode behaviour. DT explicitly does not support this. For hardware vendors, being able to encode behaviour is an important tool for supporting operating system releases on new hardware.
  • ACPI’s OSPM defines a power management model that constrains what the platform is allowed into a specific model while still having flexibility in hardware design.
  • For enterprise use-cases, ACPI has extablished bindings, such as for RAS, which are used in production. DT does not. Yes, we can define those bindings but doing so means ARM and x86 will use completely different code paths in both firmware and the kernel.
  • Choosing a single interface for platform/OS abstraction is important. It is not reasonable to require vendors to implement both DT and ACPI if they want to support multiple operating systems. Agreeing on a single interface instead of being fragmented into per-OS interfaces makes for better interoperability overall.
  • The ACPI governance process works well and we’re at the same table as HW vendors and other OS vendors. In fact, there is no longer any reason to feel that ACPI is a Windows thing or that we are playing second fiddle to Microsoft. The move of ACPI governance into the UEFI forum has significantly opened up the processes, and currently, a large portion of the changes being made to ACPI is being driven by Linux.

At the beginning of this article I made the statement that the difference is in the support model. For servers, responsibility for hardware behaviour cannot be purely the domain of the kernel, but rather is split between the platform and the kernel. ACPI frees the OS from needing to understand all the minute details of the hardware so that the OS doesn’t need to be ported to each and every device individually. It allows the hardware vendors to take responsibility for PM behaviour without depending on an OS release cycle which it is not under their control.

ACPI is also important because hardware and OS vendors have already worked out how to use it to support the general purpose ecosystem. The infrastructure is in place, the bindings are in place, and the process is in place. DT does exactly what we need it to when working with vertically integrated devices, but we don’t have good processes for supporting what the server vendors need. We could potentially get there with DT, but doing so doesn’t buy us anything. ACPI already does what the hardware vendors need, Microsoft won’t collaborate with us on DT, and the hardware vendors would still need to provide two completely separate firmware interface; one for Linux and one for Windows.

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