29
Nov 11

OpenMAX: a rant

I used to work with OpenMAX a while ago. I was exploring an approach to wrap OpenMAX components with GStreamer elements. The result was gst-goo. Its purpose was to test the OpenMAX components in complex scenarios and it was only focused for the Texas Instruments’ OpenMAX implementation for the OMAP3 processor.

Some time after we started gst-goo, Felipe Contreras released gst-openmax, which had a more open development, but with a hard set of performance objectives like zero-copy. And also only two implementations were supported at that moment: Bellagio and the TI’s one mentioned before.

Recently, Sebastian Dröge has been working on a redesign of gst-openmax, called gst-omx. He explained the rational behind this new design in his talk in the GStreamer Conference 2011. If you are looking for a good summary of the problems faced when wrapping OpenMAX with GStreamer, because of their semantic impedance mismatch, you should watch his talk.

In my opinion, the key purpose of OpenMAX is to provide a common application interface to a set of different and heterogeneous multimedia components: You could take different implementations, that could offer hardware-accelerated codecs or either any other specialized ones, and build up portable multimedia applications. But this objective has failed utterly: every vendor delivers a incompatible implementation with the others available. One of the causes, as Dröge explained, is because of the specification, it is too ambiguous and open to interpretations.

From my perspective, the problem arises from the need of a library like OpenMAX. It is needed because the implementer wants to hide (or to abstract if you prefer) the control and buffer management of his codification entities. By hiding this, the implementer has the freedom to develop his own stack closely, without any kind of external review.

In order to explain the problem brought by the debauchery in the hind of OpenMAX, let me narrow the scope of the problem: I will not fall on the trap of portability among different operative systems, specially in those of non-Unix. Even more, I will only focus on the ARM architecture of the Linux kernel. Thus, I will not consider the software-based codecs, only the hardware-accelerated ones. The reason upholding these constrains is that, beside the PacketVideo’s OpenCORE, I am not aware of any other successful set of non-Unix / software-based multimedia codecs, interfaced with OpenMAX.

As new and more complex hardware appears, with its own processing units, capable of off-loading the main processor, silicon vendors must deliver also the kernel drivers to operate them. This problem is very recurrent among the ARM vendors, where the seek of added value gives the competitive advantage, and the Linux kernel has the virtues required for a fast time to market.

But these virtues have turned into a ballast: It has been observed excessive churn in the ARM architecture, duplicated code, board-specific data encoded in source files, and conflicts at kernel’s code integration. In other words, every vendor has built up their own software stack without taking care of developing common interfaces among all of them. And this has been particularly true for the hardware-accelerated multimedia components, where OpenMAX promised to the user-space developers what the kernel developers could not achieve.

First we need a clear and unified kernel interface for hardware accelerated multimedia codecs, so the user-space implementations could be straight, lean and clean. Those implementations could be OpenMAX, GStreamer, libav, or whatever we possibly want and need.

But there is hope. Recently there has happened a lot of effort bringing new abstractions and common interfaces for the ARM architecture, so in the future we could expect integrated interfaces for all these new hardware, independently of the vendor.

Though, from my perspective, if we reach this point (and we will), we will have less motivation for a library like OpenMAX, because a high level library, such as GStreamer, it would cover a lot of hardware within a single element. Hence, it is a bit pointless to invest too much in OpenMAX or its wrappers nowadays.

Of course, if you think that I made a mistake along these reasons, I would love to read your comments.

And last but not least, Igalia celebrates its 10th anniversary! Happy igalian is happy :)