Update from the PipeWire hackfest

As the third and final day of the PipeWire hackfest draws to a close, I thought I’d summarise some of my thoughts on the goings-on and the future.

Thanks

Before I get into the details, I want to send out a big thank you to:

  • Christian Schaller for all the hard work of organising the event and Wim Taymans for the work on PipeWire so far (and in the future)
  • The GNOME Foundation, for sponsoring the event as a whole
  • Qualcomm, who are funding my presence at the event
  • Collabora, for sponsoring dinner on Monday
  • Everybody who attended and participate for their time and thoughtful comments

Background

For those of you who are not familiar with it, PipeWire (previously Pinos, previously PulseVideo) was Wim’s effort at providing secure, multi-program access to video devices (like webcams, or the desktop for screen capture). As he went down that rabbit hole, he wrote SPA, a lightweight general-purpose framework for representing a streaming graph, and this led to the idea of expanding the project to include support for low latency audio.

The Linux userspace audio story has, for the longest time, consisted of two top-level components: PulseAudio which handles consumer audio (power efficiency, wide range of arbitrary hardware), and JACK which deals with pro audio (low latency, high performance). Consolidating this into a good out-of-the-box experience for all use-cases has been a long-standing goal for myself and others in the community that I have spoken to.

An Opportunity

From a PulseAudio perspective, it has been hard to achieve the 1-to-few millisecond latency numbers that would be absolutely necessary for professional audio use-cases. A lot of work has gone into improving this situation, most recently with David Henningsson’s shared-ringbuffer channels that made client/server communication more efficient.

At the same time, as application sandboxing frameworks such as Flatpak have added security requirements of us that were not accounted for when PulseAudio was written. Examples including choosing which devices an application has access to (or can even know of) or which applications can act as control entities (set routing etc., enable/disable devices). Some work has gone into this — Ahmed Darwish did some key work to get memfd support in PulseAudio, and Wim has prototyped an access-control mechanism module to enable a Flatpak portal for sound.

All this said, there are still fundamental limitations in architectural decisions in PulseAudio that would require significant plumbing to address. With Wim’s work on PipeWire and his extensive background with GStreamer and PulseAudio itself, I think we have an opportunity to revisit some of those decisions with the benefit of a decade’s worth of learning deploying PulseAudio in various domains starting from desktops/laptops to phones, cars, robots, home audio, telephony systems and a lot more.

Key Ideas

There are some core ideas of PipeWire that I am quite excited about.

The first of these is the graph. Like JACK, the entities that participate in the data flow are represented by PipeWire as nodes in a graph, and routing between nodes is very flexible — you can route applications to playback devices and capture devices to applications, but you can also route applications to other applications, and this is notionally the same thing.

The second idea is a bit more radical — PipeWire itself only “runs” the graph. The actual connections between nodes are created and managed by a “session manager”. This allows us to completely separate the data flow from policy, which means we could write completely separate policy for desktop use cases vs. specific embedded use cases. I’m particularly excited to see this be scriptable in a higher-level language, which is something Bastien has already started work on!

A powerful idea in PulseAudio was rewinding — the ability to send out huge buffers to the device, but the flexibility to rewind that data when things changed (a new stream got added, or the stream moved, or the volume changed). While this is great for power saving, it is a significant amount of complexity in the code. In addition, with some filters in the data path, rewinding can break the algorithm by introducing non-linearity. PipeWire doesn’t support rewinds, and we will need to find a good way to manage latencies to account for low power use cases. One example is that we could have the session manager bump up the device latency when we know latency doesn’t matter (Android does this when the screen is off).

There are a bunch of other things that are in the process of being fleshed out, like being able to represent the hardware as a graph as well, to have a clearer idea of what is going on within a node. More updates as these things are more concrete.

The Way Forward

There is a good summary by Christian about our discussion about what is missing and how we can go about trying to make a smooth transition for PulseAudio users. There is, of course, a lot to do, and my ideal outcome is that we one day flip a switch and nobody knows that we have done so.

In practice, we’ll need to figure out how to make this transition seamless for most people, while folks with custom setup will need to be given a long runway and clear documentation to know what to do. It’s way to early to talk about this in more specifics, however.

Configuration

One key thing that PulseAudio does right (I know there are people who disagree!) is having a custom configuration that automagically works on a lot of Intel HDA-based systems. We’ve been wondering how to deal with this in PipeWire, and the path we think makes sense is to transition to ALSA UCM configuration. This is not as flexible as we need it to be, but I’d like to extend it for that purpose if possible. This would ideally also help consolidate the various methods of configuration being used by the various Linux userspaces.

To that end, I’ve started trying to get a UCM setup on my desktop that PulseAudio can use, and be functionally equivalent to what we do with our existing configuration. There are missing bits and bobs, and I’m currently focusing on the ones related to hardware volume control. I’ll write about this in the future as the effort expands out to other hardware.

Onwards and upwards

The transition to PipeWire is unlikely to be quick or completely-painless or free of contention. For those who are worried about the future, know that any switch is still a long way away. In the mean time, however, constructive feedback and comments are welcome.

1 Comment

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  1. Typo: “This is note as flexible as we”. Not, not note.

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