14 December 2008 - The State of Alpha Linux

Software is never finished; it's forgotten. There is always one more enhancement to be made or one little quirk to work out. Sometimes there are even big problems. It happens from time to time. It's expected, and it's expected that the problems will be fixed. After spending quite a bit of time recently working with Linux on the Alpha platform, I've come to realize we face some very serious problems. And unfortunately, these may not ever be fixed, putting in jeopardy the future (hah!) of Alpha/Linux. I decided to articulate these problems in an email to the Linux on Alpha Processors mailing list in order to inform and ultimately find solutions and breathe a bit of life back into Alpha/Linux. I'd like to think that Alpha/Linux isn't a piece of forgotten software, not yet.

The State of Alpha Linux

We're all subscribed to this list because we use a dying platform. We do what we can to keep it going, but in recent months the State of Alpha Linux has been deteriorating at an accelerated rate.

Let me outline some issues facing us today:

  1. We have no glibc/Alpha maintainer [1]
  2. Kernel development for Alpha is comatose
  3. We can't run modern X.Org [2]

To make things worse, for such a small group of users, we're much too segregated and disorganized. For instance, how many (of the only four) Gentoo/Alpha maintainers are subscribed to this list? Debian/Alpha? How many realized we were without a glibc maintainer? That we can't use X.Org 7.4?

If this trend continues, we will completely first lose X.Org support. I even had an X.Org developer tell me he didn't care [about Alpha support] when I pinged him about an Alpha bug he had originally filed [3]!

We'll later lose glibc support. As it stands now, Alpha isn't even in the main tree [4]. I'm not sure what version Debian ships, but Gentoo is 3 versions behind at 2.6.1. Newer than that and the test suite causes a hard lock [5]. How much longer is it going to be before 2.6 is incompatible with the latest version and we begin to lose the ability to use other modern software?

While we may never lose kernel support, it will certainly begin to lag behind other platforms more and more. Bugs begin to take longer and longer to be fixed [6]. Release candidate kernels as late in the cycle as rc-8 of the 2.6.28 series fail to compile on Alpha [7]. This is definitely a worrying sign.

It is certainly expected that as a platform ages, it slowly loses its users and developers. In 1999, many average users knew or we're interested in learning Alpha assembly language, were interested in support for Alpha among Free Software, and were interested in programming for the platform. Obviously this cannot be the case today. We don't expect that it should.

We, the ones who do wish to see our platform live on, even if only a little longer, should focus on fixing what we can and maintaining what we already have.

Whether Fedora adds Alpha as a Second Tier Architecture is trivial in comparison to these issues. We should focus on making sure we have working software for Fedora/Alpha before we consider how to properly market it.

We, the small band of Alpha users, need to work together. We have the same problems, why should we work separately on them?

In order to facilitate better communication among Alpha users, developers, please use the Alpha IRC channel on Freenode, #alpha, and the Wiki [8]. If you have unused hardware that may be useful to developers, consider donating it.

From here, it's up to us to find solutions to these problems.

Ideas and Suggestions requested.

Matt Turner

  1. http://sourceware.org/ml/libc-alpha/2008-12/msg00009.html
  2. http://bugs.freedesktop.org/show_bug.cgi?id=17801
    http://bugzilla.kernel.org/show_bug.cgi?id=10893
  3. http://bugs.freedesktop.org/show_bug.cgi?id=19026
  4. http://sources.redhat.com/bugzilla/show_bug.cgi?id=6896
  5. Actually a kernel problem,
    http://bugs.gentoo.org/show_bug.cgi?id=205099
  6. http://bugzilla.kernel.org/show_bug.cgi?id=10893
  7. http://lkml.org/lkml/2008/10/29/69
  8. http://alphalinux.org/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

What can we do? I think there are a couple things we need to do, namely:

If we can do these things, we will be on the road to recovery.

Tags: alpha gentoo glibc linux xorg