.o Files: Just Say No

As I mentioned in a previous entry, the ON sources that are available via opensolaris.org are a subset of the ON consolidation in the Solaris product (90% as of build 42, measured in lines of text). We've organized the ON source so that if part of a component (library, command, kernel module) is closed, the entire component is treated as closed. Closed components are in their own subtree (usr/closed), which parallels the open source tree (usr/src).

Since the OpenSolaris launch, I've gotten a few requests to support partial-source components. This is where the component is mostly open source, but it contains some code that can't be delivered as source for one reason or another. The usual proposal is to modify the OpenSolaris build to support a mix of .o and source files, similar to the way Sun and other vendors delivered their Unix kernels in the 1980s.

The appeal of supporting closed .o files is that once the infrastructure is in place, the open source for these components can be easily exposed outside Sun. And there's some precedent for this practice, such as the closed-source files that were split out from libc to libc_i18n.a, and the uuencoded .o files in the ath driver. But there are problems with this approach, and those problems are sufficiently large that we have no plans to implement it.

The most obvious problem with this approach is that it complicates the OpenSolaris build infrastructure. Mechanisms have to be implemented to identify which .o files need to be included with the closed binaries, and to restore them after a "make clean" (but only for external developers, mind you). By itself, this extra complexity wouldn't be sufficient to kill the .o approach, but it means we don't want to spend energy on it unless it's an approach we want to keep.

A second problem is that this approach blurs the separation between open and closed source. If we no longer have a system where everything in usr/src is delivered and nothing in usr/closed is delivered, we raise the risk that someone will accidentally copy closed code into an open file and forget to tag the open file as closed.

A third problem with this approach is that it makes it harder to work in the open source tree. Imagine you're working on a component that contains foo.c, bar.c, common.h, and baz.o, and you want to change a function myfunc() that's defined in foo.c. You can use nm(1) to determine that baz.o calls myfunc(), but without a copy of baz.c, you can't tell if your changes will break the code in baz.c or not.

Worse, suppose you want to change a struct that's defined in common.h. Maybe it's used for baz.o, maybe it isn't; there's no good way to tell[1]. And if it is used, all sorts of nastiness, including random memory corruption, is possible.

A fourth, more strategic, problem with this approach is that by reducing the barriers to having closed source in the Solaris product, it reduces the incentive to eliminate (or open up) the closed source.

A fifth and final problem with this approach is that it assumes a delivery model where the master workspace is internal to Sun, and the external workspace is just a mirror that is produced by filtering the main workspace. That's not the model we're after in the long term. Rather, we eventually want the external workspace to be the master.

So what about the precedents that I mentioned earlier? Let's look at libc and libc_i18n.a first. The libc library is such an important component that keeping it closed would have doomed OpenSolaris from the start. So we first tried creating a dynamic library (libc_i18n.so), where we could use spec files to enumerate and enforce the interface dependencies between libc_i18n and libc. But there was a performance hit that we couldn't figure out how to work around. So we settled for moving the code into a separate tree and doing some analysis to show that the libc_i18n code is fairly self-contained. That is, changes to private interfaces inside libc are unlikely to break the code in libc_i18n. But this isn't really a satisfactory approach. We adopted it with a great deal of reluctance, and only because of libc's importance.

The other precedent that I mentioned was the ath driver, which has some uuencoded .o files in the source tree. This approach reflects the regulatory requirements for wireless devices in (at least) the USA. Government certification is required to deploy these devices, and given the flexibility of the Atheros chip set, the Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) software is part of what gets certified. Change the HAL binaries, and you invalidate the certification. So even in Sun's internal source tree, the HAL files are kept as uuencoded binaries, not as source. This means that many of the issues with a general .o mechanism don't apply here. There is no special-case makefile magic for "make clean", and external developers get exactly what internal developers get.

In summary, the .o approach requires non-trivial work, it has legal risks, and it treats the external community as second-class citizens. For these reasons, we will not pursue it.


[1] We could set up the makefiles in such a way that you could tell if baz.o depends on something in common.h, but you wouldn't know exactly what.

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