Friday, November 6, 2009

FatELF Dead?

A while back, someone came up with a project called FatELF. I won't go into the exact details of all its trying to accomplish, but the basic idea was that like Mac OS X has universal binaries using the Mach-o object format which can run on multiple architectures, the same should be possible with software for Linux and FreeBSD, which use the ELF object format.

The creators of FatELF cite many different reasons why FatELF is a good idea, which most of us probably disagree with. But I found it could solve a pretty crucial issue today.

The x86 line of processors which is what everyone uses for their home PCs recently switched from 32-bit to 64-bit. 64-bit x86 known as x86-64 is backwards compatible with the old architecture. However programs written for the new one generally run faster.

x86-64 CPUs contain more registers than traditional x86-32 ones, so a CPU can juggle more data internally without offloading it to much slower RAM. Also, most distributions offered precompiled binaries designed for a very low common denominator, generally a 4x86 or the original Pentium. Programs compiled for these older processors can't take advantage of much of the improvements that have been done to the x86 line in the past 15 years. A distribution which targets the lowest common denominator for x86-64 on the other hand is targeting a much newer architecture, where every chip already contains MMX, SSE, similar technologies, and other general enhancements.

Installing a distribution geared for x86-64 can mean a much better computing experience for the most part. Except certain programs unfortunately are not yet 64 bit ready, or are closed source and can't be easily recompiled. In the past year or two, a lot of popular proprietary software were ported by their companies to x86-64, but some which are important for business fail completely under x86-64, such as Cisco's Webex.

x86-32 binaries can run on x86-64, provided all the libraries it needs are available on the system. However, many distributions don't provide x86-32 libraries on their x86-64 platform, or they provide only a couple, or provide ones which simply don't work.

All these issues could be fixed if FatELF was supported by the operating system. A distribution could provide an x86-64 platform, with all the major libraries containing both 32 and 64 bit versions within. Things like GTK, Qt, cURL, SDL, libao, OpenAL, and etc. We wouldn't have to worry about one of these libraries conflicting when installing two variations, or simply missing from the system.

It would make it easier on those on an x86-64 bit platform knowing they can run any binary they get elsewhere without a headache. It would also ease deployment issues for those that don't do anything special to take advantage of x86-64, and just want to pass out a single version of their software.

I as a developer have to have an x86-32 chroot on all my development systems to make sure I can produce 32 bit binaries properly, which is also a hassle. All too often I have to jump back and forth between a 32 bit shell to compile the code, and a 64 bit shell where I have the rest of my software needed to analyze it, and commit it.

But unfortunately, it now seems FatELF is dead, or on its way.

I wish we could find a fully working solution to the 32 on 64 bit problem that crops up today.


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