Tuesday, September 9, 2014

State of Legacy Drivers 2014: AMD vs NVIDIA


While they are both categorically in the legacy cards section of their respective manufacturers as of the date of this post, the cards I have do not provide for a completely fair comparison: ATI (AMD) HD 4350 (PCIe x16) vs NVIDIA 8400GS (PCIe x1).

The AMD card (GPU release date 30 Sep 2008) is one generation ahead of the NVIDIA one (17 Apr 2007). Not only that, the 8400GS is handicapped by its PCI-E x1 1.1 bus interface (HD 4350 has a PCI-E x16 2.0 interface). Everything hence shows that the AMD card is way superior, and it truly is.

Technology 55nm 80nm
Release Date Sep 30, 2008 Apr 17, 2007
Transistors 242M 210M
Bus Interface PCI-E 2.0 x16 @ x16 2.0 PCI-E 1.1 x16 @ x1 1.1
Memory Size 512 MB 256 MB
DirectX Support 10.1 / SM4.1 10.0 / SM4.0

Drivers - Availability

Knowing that the AMD is a superior card, how does its drivers compare with NVIDIA's? A graphics card cannot function without its drivers after all.

With the 8400GS, it was as easy to install drivers as it is for the latest NVIDIA graphics cards - GeForce drivers 340.52 thus installed without a fuss. AMD have have dropped the HD 4350 drivers from the latest drivers distribution. It directed me to its legacy drivers page and the latest version happens to be 13.4 BETA! A quick Google search seems to suggest that 13.9 is simply the WHQL'd version of 13.4. So I downloaded v13.9 and installed it. All good so far.

Drivers - Quality

I'm basing my assessment off a Direct3D 9 Shader Model 3.0 Video Renderer I wrote -- Media Player .NET (MPDN). The reason I'm doing this is because I know what my code does intimately and how it should work.

Let's get onto testing the cards then. Both cards were tested with the MPDN default settings on a 1280x1024 monitor at 50Hz. The NVIDIA card ran without any issues (render time of ~19ms). The AMD card however, kept causing Windows 7 to complain "Windows has detected that your computer's performance is slow" and if MPDN kept on playing, Windows reverted back to the basic colour scheme (turned off Aero mode). Turning on MPDN's on-screen player stats, it was immediately obvious: render and present times were all over the place! However, once full screen exclusive mode was activated, render time immediately settled at ~10ms.

I was baffled. As it turns out, AMD drivers have a problem with 50Hz monitors. Even without running MPDN, you could see Windows 7 DWM dropping frames as you move just a Windows Explorer window (it was visibly jerky)! I then switched the monitor to 60Hz to see if it exhibits the same problem -- Not at all! At 60Hz, it ran fine, mostly. Occasionally render and present times still shot up and caused MPDN to drop frames (which did not happen on the NVIDIA card), but it mostly ran fine.

Without spending more time into my investigations (although I did ran several other versions of legacy drivers from 12.11 HotFix to 13.1 modded ones to no avail), I'll have to point my fingers at AMD. Among the three major GPU vendors, AMD have the worst drivers. Yes, Intel is one of the three vendors and they have much better drivers than AMD! Oh how the tides have turned in recent years!

I have no evidence to suggest that this bug affects all of the AMD HD 4000 series GPUs but given they were based of the foundation chip RV770, I would not be surprised if the entire line suffers from this very bug. Furthermore, with AMD's track record (i.e. absolute disinterest) in fixing bugs in their legacy drivers (and even drivers for their latest GPUs), it is likely that this will never get fixed.

On my test PC, the Catalyst drivers face an even more daunting task - they need to get the graphics card to coexist with an Intel GPU (i.e. Main monitor is hooked up to the Intel GPU while a secondary monitor is hooked up to the AMD card). This particular setup worked beautifully with the NVIDIA 8400GS. With the AMD HD 4350, however, it would always cause Windows 7 to revert to basic colour scheme when you have it render the frames but present it on another GPU (i.e. rendering is done on the AMD GPU and then gets presented on the Intel GPU in windowed mode). On the other hand, both Intel and NVIDIA drivers worked well either directions (rendering on Intel, present on NVIDIA and vice versa).

This particular setup cannot be considered unorthodox in this day and age. Unfortunately, AMD cannot seem to get their drivers to work properly under any circumstances besides the monitor refresh rate set at 60Hz and on a single GPU setup. You have been warned: Deviate at your own peril.


While the AMD HD 4350 card is definitely a superior card to the NVIDIA 8400GS, it suffers from abysmal driver quality. This makes it completely useless as a HTPC card where you would want to set your TV frequency to match the video being played. In the recent releases of MPDN, the AMD card is also exhibiting artefacts running PixelShader code that both Intel and NVIDIA GPUs have no problems running. I have yet to investigate into this issue so this will be an article for another day. Given my experience as a software developer, I would stay away from AMD graphics cards if I were you.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

JMicron JMB36x RAID Status Monitor

I recently worked on a project that requires scheduled status monitoring of a RAID1 (mirrored) volume facilitated via the inexpensive JMicron JMB36x chipset.

To my disbelief, JMicron's xRaidSetup (the facility to create RAID volumes) does not have the ability to report RAID status via email notification which other brands such as Marvell do (I believe Silicon Image as well). So, I had to do it the hard way - reverse engineer xRaidSetup.exe and painstakingly via dis-assembly figure out what it does to get a RAID volume's status (all I wanted to know was if it's running normally!).

I've created xRaidChecker (download) for those who needed the same feature. It's a console application that returns a number indicating the RAID status of the first RAID volume (currently only supports one volume).

Return value of 1 indicates volume is running normally. Any other values indicate an 'Abnormal' status according to xRaidSetup.exe. I'm convinced, however, that there must be specific values that indicate statuses such as 'Rebuild Required' and 'Rebuilding'. If you encounter a return value other than 1, do find out what it means and let me know.

p.s. xRaidChecker needs to be run in elevated command prompt (run as Administrator), or, as I've got it set up, via Task Scheduler running with System privileges and sending out email notifications via a batch file.

p.p.s. JMicron's xRaidSetup must already be installed and your RAID volume set up before you run xRaidChecker (it uses xRaidAPI.dll).

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Building ICU (ICU4C) on Cygwin

Now that MCP relies on ICU 50 for its String class (and likely other globalization related classes in the future), we need to build and install ICU first in order to get MCP to compile on Cygwin.

For some reason, the default build instructions does not work. Make will error out (-f pkgdataMakefile is unrecognized by /bin/sh). The problem is with ICU's runConfigureICU script which doesn't properly configure compiler / linker / make flags for Cygwin. Worse, if you follow the instructions and ran runConfigureICU Cygwin, there will be more errors you'll have to deal with.

This is what I had to do instead:
runConfigureICU Linux
export MAKE=make

Notice the first line after you run runConfigureICU Linux. It exports CC, CXX, CFLAGS and CXXFLAGS appropriately. The runConfigureICU Cygwin version however does not. All that the former was missing was a MAKE export. Once you've done that, you can go ahead and make.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Introducing Managed C++ for GCC

I was not particularly impressed with Boost's hack of getting C++ to have some sort of automatic memory management via boost::shared_ptr. Not only does it suffer from circular references, its handling of 'this' pointer is also dismally complicated especially for classes with multiple inheritance. Yes, there may be solutions out there for these common boost problems, **but** it should not have been a problem to begin with!

Two years ago, I created a .NET like framework for C++ Builder with precise GC and found it to be a lot more straight forward to use compared to Boost. Ironically, C++ is actually better suited to a precise garbage collector than it is to smart pointers. For example, have you inadvertently called shared_from_this() (indirectly, of course) from a class' constructor? This is just another one of many pesky pitfalls C++ programmers have to constantly remind themselves. Isn't there enough pitfalls in the highly ambiguous language already? With sequence points, most vexing parse and whatnot, the C++ language itself is already too complicated for its own good. Herb Sutter certainly thought it's a good idea to add another layer of complexity to that by championing Boost.

Sure, Boost is much more than just shared_ptr. In fact, I intend to make this Managed C++ framework completely compatible with Boost, replacing all the various different boost pointers (e.g. shared_ptr, intrusive_ptr, unique_ptr/auto_ptr, scoped_ptr, shared_array, scoped_array, weak_ptr) with their GC counterparts and dropping most of the nonsense along the way. We only need 2 types of GC pointers -- gc_ptr and gc_array -- along with a WeakReference class for weak_ptr replacement.

In my future blogs, I'll explain more about the unnecessary complexities added by Boost's smart pointer and how gc_ptr and gc_array transparently and naturally avoid all these complexities.

In the meantime, I have released MCP -- Managed C++ for GCC under the GPLv3 license. Head to the MCP website on SourceForge for more information.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Building Cygwin GCC 4.5.3 with --enable-plugin

Many people have tried building GCC 4.5.3 on Cygwin with the configure flag of --enable-plugin only to find that make subsequently fails with the following errors.
checking for -rdynamic... objdump: conftest: not a dynamic object no
checking for library containing dlopen... none required
checking for -fPIC -shared... no
configure: error:
Building GCC with plugin support requires a host that supports
-fPIC, -shared, -ldl and -rdynamic.
make[1]: *** [configure-gcc] Error 1

It appears that GCC would not build with --enable-plugin on Cygwin as -rdynamic and -fPIC are not applicable for a Windows PE.

Why would it need -rdynamic and -fPIC? I honestly thought those requirements are purely artificial as it would be absolutely possible to create a DLL under Windows and there is no reason why GCC can't use it.

So I set about finding out how this could be done and eventually found two articles [1][2] that allowed me to get to a working solution. I've combined the two articles to create these procedures.

Note: Start the following steps from a directory where you will have all your GCC files location in it.

1) Download and extract helper files I've put together which you'll be using later.

# obtain Cygwin GCC Plugin helper files
wget http://www.zachsaw.com/downloads/cygwin_gcc_plugin/cygwin_gcc_plugin_files.tar.bz2
tar -jxvf cygwin_gcc_plugin_files.tar.bz2

2) Run the following commands

# obtain GCC 4.5.3 (see http://gcc.gnu.org/mirrors.html for alternate mirrors)
wget http://www.netgull.com/gcc/releases/gcc-4.5.3/gcc-4.5.3.tar.bz2
tar -jxvf gcc-4.5.3.tar.bz2

# apply patches
cd gcc-4.5.3
patch -p0 < ../cygwin_gcc_plugin/finish_decl.diff
patch -p0 < ../cygwin_gcc_plugin/cygwin_enable_plugin.diff
patch -p0 < ../cygwin_gcc_plugin/cygwin_enable_plugin_cc1.diff
patch -p0 < ../cygwin_gcc_plugin/cygwin_enable_plugin_cc1plus.diff

# build GCC
cd ..
mkdir gcc-objdir
mkdir gcc-dist

cd gcc-objdir

../gcc-4.5.3/configure --disable-bootstrap --enable-version-specific-runtime-libs --enable-static --enable-shared --enable-shared-libgcc --disable-__cxa_atexit --with-dwarf2 --disable-sjlj-exceptions --enable-languages=c,c++,lto --enable-lto --enable-libssp --enable-plugin --enable-threads=posix --prefix=$PWD/../gcc-dist

make install
cd ..

*** make took 2 hours on my machine!

3) Create symlink for g++-plugin and gcc-plugin in /usr/bin to point to the newly built g++ and gcc respectively.

4) Set environment vars for $GCC_PLUGIN_DIR and $builtgcc.

export GCC_PLUGIN_DIR=`g++-plugin -print-file-name=plugin`
export builtgcc=<path>/gcc-objdir

5) Generate import libraries.

mkdir $GCC_PLUGIN_DIR/lib
cygwin_gcc_plugin/lazyimp.pl $GCC_PLUGIN_DIR/lib/libcc1.a $builtgcc/gcc/cc1.def
cygwin_gcc_plugin/lazyimp.pl $GCC_PLUGIN_DIR/lib/libcc1plus.a $builtgcc/gcc/cc1plus.def  

This will take some time.

6) Compile dll.c and archive it into libcc1.a and libcc1plus.a

gcc-plugin -O3 -Wall cygwin_gcc_plugin/dll.c -c 
ar rcs $GCC_PLUGIN_DIR/lib/libcc1.a dll.o
ar rcs $GCC_PLUGIN_DIR/lib/libcc1plus.a dll.o 

7) You now have both libcc1.a (for C) and libcc1plus.a (for C++) that you can link to when you build your gcc plugin.

To build a plugin:
g++-plugin -c -I`g++-plugin -print-file-name=plugin`/include main.cpp
g++-plugin -fPIC -shared -Wl,-e,_lazymain@12 -L`g++-plugin -print-file-name=plugin`/lib -o plugin.dll main.o -lcc1plus

Or one step build and link:
g++-plugin -shared -Wl,-e,_lazymain@12 -I`g++-plugin -print-file-name=plugin`/include -L`g++-plugin -print-file-name=plugin`/lib -o plugin.dll main.cpp -lcc1plus

Test the plugin:
g++-plugin -S -fplugin=./plugin.dll test.cpp

Monday, October 22, 2012

GCC Linker - Library Flag Order

My recent ventures into the Linux world has brought about some experiences I have not encountered before in the Microsoft world.

One in particular is the behavior of GCC linker in treating the library flag parameters. It appears that the order of which is of high importance. Get it wrong and it would be as if the flag was never specified!

For example,
    g++ -shared -lfoo -o plugin.dll main.o
In the above example, main.o depends on libfoo.a. However, as main.o is specified *after* -lfoo, g++ will fail to find the necessary dependencies. Rather than keeping a list of all exported symbols as it encounters them, the linker throws the symbols away as soon as it finishes processing the module if nothing before it requires them. In the case of the example, libfoo.a does not depend on main.o -- it is the other way around. So, all of libfoo.a's export symbols get thrown away!

I do not even want to start postulating the reason behind this design, but I would imagine it had something to do with memory usage. Imagine if you'd done it the other way around (which MSVC and Borland both do), you'd end up with a huge export table consisting of all the export symbols from every single module. More than likely the linker would simply fail with an out of memory error (prime example: the notoriously problematic ilink32.exe).

So, some things are upside down in the Linux world (or you could argue vice versa for the Microsoft world depending on your POV) and it does take a little getting used to.

The correct linker command line for the above example? Here it is.
    g++ -shared -o plugin.dll main.o -lfoo

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Multithreading under Cygwin

A while ago, I found a nasty Cygwin bug that prevents all multithreaded applications from working properly under multi-core/thread CPUs. This includes any CPUs with more than one logical core as seen by Windows (e.g. Dual / Quad core CPUs with or without Hyperthreading as well as Single core CPUs with Hyperthreading). It's such a fundamental flaw with Cygwin that virtually renders all multithreaded applications useless since most PCs these days have at least 2 logical cores (8 is common).

Multi logical core CPUs are nothing new. The first Hyperthreaded CPU was a Pentium 4 Northwood (all Northwood CPUs had Hyperthreading although it was only the later steppings that Intel marketting decided to enable the feature for the consumer market) and that dates back to January 2002. That's more than 10 years the Cygwin bug went unnoticed!

How did a Cygwin bug as enormous as that survive 10 years in the wild, still without a fix in sight?

I see a few possibilities.

1) No one does anything of production quality under Cygwin (at least not multithreaded ones).
2) Someone noticed it but just thought Cygwin's naturally slow due to its "emulation" layer.
3) Someone noticed it and reported it but no one cared.
4) Someone noticed it and did not have the technical know-how to root cause it to a Cygwin issue.

Then again, it's not really surprising. Microsoft Windows 64-bit OSes have a WOW64 bug that plagued them since XP and is still not fixed.

The workaround

While there's no way to get a multithreaded app to fully utilize a multicore processor, you could at least get it to run as fast as on a single core processor. To do this, you would have to set your CPU affinity for the Cygwin process to a single logical CPU.

You could do this via the Task Manager - right-click on an Image Name under the Processes tab and select Set Affinity. If you need to start the Cygwin process with it bound to a single logical core from the very beginning, you could use the Start command. It has an affinity option (/AFFINITY 1). However, this only works in Windows Vista and later. You would need to use Microsoft Sysinternal's psexec on WinXP.