New Supported Platform: powerpc64le-linux

It is a pleasure to announce that support for powerpc64le-linux (PowerISA v.2.07 and later) has now been merged to the master branch of GNU Guix!

This means that GNU Guix can be used immediately on this platform from a Git checkout. Starting with the next release (Guix v1.2.1), you will also be able to download a copy of Guix pre-built for powerpc64le-linux. Regardless of how you get it, you can run the new powerpc64le-linux port of GNU Guix on top of any existing powerpc64le GNU/Linux distribution.

This new platform is available as a "technology preview". This means that although it is supported, substitutes are not yet available from the build farm, and some packages may fail to build. Although powerpc64le-linux support is nascent, the Guix community is actively working on improving it, and this is a great time to get involved!

Why Is This Important?

This is important because it means that GNU Guix now works on the Talos II, Talos II Lite, and Blackbird mainboards sold by Raptor Computing Systems. This modern, performant hardware uses IBM POWER9 processors, and it is designed to respect your freedom. The Talos II and Talos II Lite have recently received Respects Your Freedom (RYF) certification from the FSF, and Raptor Computing Systems is currently pursuing RYF certification for the more affordable Blackbird, too. All of this hardware can run without any non-free code, even the bootloader and firmware. In other words, this is a freedom-friendly hardware platform that aligns well with GNU Guix's commitment to software freedom.

How is this any different from existing RYF hardware, you might ask? One reason is performance. The existing RYF laptops, mainboards, and workstations can only really be used with Intel Core Duo or AMD Opteron processors. Those processors were released over 15 years ago. Since then, processor performance has increased drastically. People should not have to choose between performance and freedom, but for many years that is exactly what we were forced to do. However, the POWER9 machines sold by Raptor Computing Systems have changed this: the free software community now has an RYF-certified option that can compete with the performance of modern Intel and AMD systems.

Although the performance of POWER9 processors is competitive with modern Intel and AMD processors, the real advantage of the Talos II, Talos II Lite, and Blackbird is that they were designed from the start to respect your freedom. Modern processors from both Intel and AMD include back doors over which you are given no control. Even though the back doors can be removed with significant effort on older hardware in some cases, this is an obstacle that nobody should have to overcome just to control their own computer. Many of the existing RYF-certified options (e.g., the venerable Lenovo x200) use hardware that can only be considered RYF-certified after someone has gone through the extra effort of removing those back doors. No such obstacles exist when using the Talos II, Talos II Lite, or Blackbird. In fact, although Intel and AMD both go out of their way to keep you from understanding what is going on in your own computer, Raptor Computing Systems releases all of the software and firmware used in their boards as free software. They even include circuit diagrams when they ship you the machine!

Compared to the existing options, the Talos II, Talos II Lite, and Blackbird are a breath of fresh air that the free software community really deserves. Raptor Computing Systems' commitment to software freedom and owner control is an inspiring reminder that it is possible to ship a great product while still respecting the freedom of your customers. And going forward, the future looks bright for the open, royalty-free Power ISA stewarded by the OpenPOWER Foundation, which is now a Linux Foundation project (see also: the same announcement from the OpenPOWER Foundation.

In the rest of this blog post, we will discuss the steps we took to port Guix to powerpc64le-linux, the issues we encountered, and the steps we can take going forward to further solidify support for this exciting new platform.

Bootstrapping powerpc64le-linux: A Journey

To build software, you need software. How can one port Guix to a platform before support for that platform exists? This is a bootstrapping problem.

In Guix, all software for a given platform (e.g., powerpc64le-linux) is built starting from a small set of "bootstrap binaries". These are binaries of Guile, GCC, Binutils, libc, and a few other packages, pre-built for the relevant platform. It is intended that the bootstrap binaries are the only pieces of software in the entire package collection that Guix cannot build from source. In practice, additional bootstrap roots are possible, but introducing them in Guix is highly discouraged, and our community actively works to reduce our overall bootstrap footprint. There is one set of bootstrap binaries for each platform that Guix supports.

This means that to port Guix to a new platform, you must first build the bootstrap binaries for that platform. In theory, you can do this in many ways. For example, you might try to manually compile them on an existing system. However, Guix has package definitions that you can use to build them - using Guix, of course!

Commonly, the first step in porting Guix to a new platform is to use Guix to cross-compile the bootstrap binaries for that new platform from a platform on which Guix is already supported. This can be done by running a command like the following on a system where Guix is already installed:

guix build --target=powerpc64le-linux-gnu bootstrap-tarballs

This is the route that we took when building the powerpc64le-linux bootstrap binaries, as described in commit 8a1118a. You might wonder why the target above is "powerpc64le-linux-gnu" even though the new Guix platform is called "powerpc64le-linux". This is because "powerpc64le-linux-gnu" is a GNU triplet identifying the new platform, but "powerpc64le-linux" is the name of a "system" (i.e., a platform) in Guix. Guix contains code that converts between the two as needed (see nix-system->gnu-triplet and gnu-triplet->nix-system in guix/utils.scm. When cross-compiling, you only need to specify the GNU triplet.

Note that before you can even do this, you must first update the glibc-dynamic-linker and system->linux-architecture procedures in Guix's code, as described in Porting. In addition, the versions of packages in Guix that make up the GNU toolchain (gcc, glibc, etc.) must already support the target platform. This pre-existing toolchain support needs to be good enough so that Guix can (1) build, on some already-supported platform, a cross-compilation toolchain for the target platform, (2) use, on the already-supported platform, the cross-compilation toolchain to cross-compile the bootstrap binaries for the target platform, and (3) use, on the target platform, the bootstrap binaries to natively build the rest of the Guix package collection. The above guix build command takes care of steps (1) and (2) automatically.

Step (3) is a little more involved. Once the bootstrap binaries for the target platform have been built, they must be published online for anyone to download. After that, Guix's code must be updated so that (a) it recognizes the "system" name (e.g., "powerpc64le-linux") that will be used to identify the new platform and (b) it fetches the new platform's bootstrap binaries from the right location. After all that is done, you just have to try building things and see what breaks. For example, you can run ./pre-inst-env guix build hello from your Git checkout to try building GNU Hello.

The actual bootstrap binaries for powerpc64le-linux are stored on the alpha.gnu.org FTP server. Chris Marusich built these bootstrap binaries in an x86_64-linux Guix System VM which was running on hardware owned by Léo Le Bouter. Chris then signed the binaries and provided them to Ludovic Courtès, who in turn verified their authenticity, signed them, and uploaded them to alpha.gnu.org. After that, we updated the code to use the newly published bootstrap binaries in commit 8a1118a. Once all that was done, we could begin bootstrapping the rest of the system - or trying to, at least.

There were many stumbling blocks. For example, to resolve some test failures, we had to update the code in Guix that enables it to make certain syscalls from scheme. In another example, we had to patch GCC so that it looks for the 64-bit libraries in /lib, rather than /lib64, since that is where Guix puts its 64-bit libraries by convention. In addition, some packages required in order to build Guix failed to build, so we had to debug those build failures, too.

For a list of all the changes, see the patch series or the actual commits, which are:

$ git log --oneline --no-decorate 8a1118a96c9ae128302c3d435ae77cb3dd693aea^..65c46e79e0495fe4d32f6f2725d7233fff10fd70
65c46e79e0 gnu: sed: Make it build on SELinux-enabled kernels.
93f21e1a35 utils: Fix target-64bit? on powerpc64le-linux.
8d9aece8c4 ci: %cross-targets: Add powerpc64le-linux-gnu.
c29bfbfc78 syscalls: Fix RNDADDTOENTCNT on powerpc64le-linux.
b57de27d03 syscalls: Fix clone on powerpc64le-linux.
a16eb6c5f9 Add powerpc64le-linux as a supported Guix architecture.
b50f426803 gnu: libelf: Fix compilation for powerpc64le-linux.
1a0f4013d3 gnu: texlive-latex-base: Fix compilation on powerpc64le*.
e9938dc8f0 gnu: texlive-bin: Fix compilation on powerpc64le*.
69b3907adf gnu: guile-avahi: Fix compilation on powerpc64le-linux.
4cc2d2aa59 gnu: bdb-4.8: Fix configure on powerpc64le-linux.
be4b1cf53b gnu: binutils-final: Support more Power architectures.
060478c32c gnu: binutils-final: Provide bash for binary on powerpc-linux.
b2135b5d57 gnu: gcc-boot0: Enable 128-bit long double for POWER9.
6e98e9ca92 gnu: glibc: Fix ldd path on powerpc*.
cac88b28b8 gnu: gcc-4.7: On powerpc64le, fix /lib64 references.
fc7cf0c1ec utils: Add target-powerpc? procedure.
8a1118a96c gnu: bootstrap: Add support for powerpc64le-linux.

In the end, through the combined efforts of multiple people, we slowly worked through the issues until we reached a point where we could do all of the following things successfully:

This was an exciting moment! But there was still more work to be done.

Originally, we did this work on the wip-ppc64le branch, with the intent of merging it into core-updates. By convention, the "core-updates" branch in Guix is where changes are made if they cause too many rebuilds. Since we were updating package definitions so deep in the dependency graph of the package collection, we assumed it wouldn't be possible to avoid rebuilding the world. For this reason, we had based the wip-ppc64le branch on core-updates.

However, Efraim Flashner proved us wrong! He created a separate branch, wip-ppc64le-for-master, where he adjusted some of the wip-ppc64le commits to avoid rebuilding the world on other platforms. Thanks to his work, we were able to merge the changes directly to master! This meant that we would be able to include it in the next release (Guix v.1.2.1).

In short, the initial porting work is done, and it is now possible for anyone to easily try out Guix on this new platform. Because guix pull works, too, it is also easy to iterate on what we have and work towards improving support for the platform. It took a lot of cooperation and effort to get this far, but there are multiple people actively contributing to this port in the Guix community who want to see it succeed. We hope you will join us in exploring the limits of this exciting new freedom-friendly platform!

Other Porting Challenges

Very early in the porting process, there were some other problems that stymied our work.

First, we actually thought we would try to port to powerpc64-linux (big-endian). However, this did not prove to be any easier than the little-endian port. In addition, other distributions (e.g., Debian and Fedora) have recently dropped their big-endian powerpc64 ports, so the little-endian variant is more likely to be tested and supported in the community. For these reasons, we decided to focus our efforts on the little-endian variant, and so far we haven't looked back.

In both the big-endian and little-endian case, we were saddened to discover that the bootstrap binaries are not entirely reproducible. This fact is documented in bug 41669, along with our extensive investigations.

In short, if you build the bootstrap binaries on two separate machines without using any substitutes, you will find that the derivation which cross-compiles %gcc-static (the bootstrap GCC, version 5.5.0) produces different output on the two systems. However, if you build %gcc-static twice on the same system, it builds reproducibly. This suggests that something in the transitive closure of inputs of %gcc-static is perhaps contributing to its non-reproducibility. There is an interesting graph toward the end of the bug report, shown below:

DifferingDerivations

This graph shows the derivations that produce differing outputs across two Guix System machines, when everything is built without substitutes. It starts from the derivation that cross-compiles %gcc-static for powerpc64-linux-gnu (from x86_64-linux) using Guix at commit 1ced8379c7641788fa607b19b7a66d18f045362b. Then, it walks the graph of derivation inputs, recording only those derivations which produce differing output on the two different machines. If the non-reproducibility (across systems) of %gcc-static is caused by a non-reproducible input, then it is probably caused by one or more of the derivations shown in this graph.

At some point, you have to cut your losses and move on. After months of investigation without resolving the reproducibility issue, we finally decided to move forward with the bootstrap binaries produced earlier. If necessary, we can always go back and try to fix this issue. However, it seemed more important to get started with the bootstrapping work.

Anyone who is interested in solving this problem is welcome to comment on the bug report and help us to figure out the mystery. We are very interested in solving it, but at the moment we are more focused on building the rest of the Guix package collection on the powerpc64le-linux platform using the existing bootstrap binaries.

Next Steps

It is now possible to install Guix on a powerpc64le-linux system and use it to build some useful software - in particular, Guix itself. So Guix is now "self-hosted" on this platform, which gives us a comfortable place to begin further work.

The following tasks still need to be done. Anyone can help, so please get in touch if you want to contribute!

About GNU Guix

GNU Guix is a transactional package manager and an advanced distribution of the GNU system that respects user freedom. Guix can be used on top of any system running the Hurd or the Linux kernel, or it can be used as a standalone operating system distribution for i686, x86_64, ARMv7, and AArch64 machines.

In addition to standard package management features, Guix supports transactional upgrades and roll-backs, unprivileged package management, per-user profiles, and garbage collection. When used as a standalone GNU/Linux distribution, Guix offers a declarative, stateless approach to operating system configuration management. Guix is highly customizable and hackable through Guile programming interfaces and extensions to the Scheme language.