Fear and Loathing in Les Rambles/ blog/ Plymouth is not a bootsplash

Congrats to the Debian release team on the new release of Debian 7.0 (wheezy)!

Leading up to the release, a meme making the rounds on Planet Debian has been to play a #newinwheezy game, calling out some of the many new packages in 7.0 that may be interesting to users. While upstart as a package is nothing new in wheezy, the jump to upstart 1.6.1 from 0.6.6 is quite a substantial change. It does bring with it a new package, mountall, which by itself isn't terribly interesting because it just provides an upstart-ish replacement for some core scripts from the initscripts package (essentially, /etc/rcS.d/*mount*). Where things get interesting (and, typically, controversial) is the way in which mountall leverages plymouth to achieve this.

What is plymouth?

There is a great deal of misunderstanding around plymouth, a fact I was reminded of again while working to get a modern version of upstart into wheezy. When Ubuntu first started requiring plymouth as an essential component of the boot infrastructure, there was a lot of outrage from users, particularly from Ubuntu Server users, who believed this was an attempt to force pretty splash screen graphics down their throats. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Plymouth provides a splash screen, but that's not what plymouth is. What plymouth is, is a boot-time I/O multiplexer. And why, you ask, would upstart - or mountall, whose job is just to get the filesystem mounted at boot - need a boot-time I/O multiplexer?

Why use plymouth?

The simple answer is that, like everything else in a truly event-driven boot system, filesystem mounting is handled in parallel - with no defined order. If a filesystem is missing or fails an fsck, mountall may need to interact with the user to decide how to handle it. And if there's more than one missing or broken filesystem, and these are all being found in parallel, there needs to be a way to associate each answer from the user to the corresponding question from mountall, to avoid crossed signals... and lost data.

One possible way to handle this would be for mountall to serialize the fsck's / mounts. But this is a pretty unsatisfactory answer; all other things (that is, boot reliability) being equal, admins would prefer their systems to boot as fast as possible, so that they can get back to being useful to users. So we reject the idea of solving the problem of serializing prompts by making mountall serialize all its filesystem checks.

Another option would be to have mountall prompt directly on the console, doing its own serialization of the prompts (even though successful mounts / fscks continue to be run in parallel). This, too, is not desirable in the general case, both because some users actually would like to have pretty splash screens at boot time, and this would be incompatible with direct console prompting; and because mountall is not the only piece of software that need to prompt at boot time (see also: cryptsetup).

Plymouth: not just a pretty face

Enter plymouth, which provides the framework for serializing requests to the user while booting. It can provide a graphical boot splash, yes; ironically, even its own homepage suggests that this is its purpose. But it can also provide a text-only console interface, which is what you get automatically when booting without a splash boot argument, or even handle I/O over a serial console.

Which is why, contrary to the initial intuitions of the s390 porters upon seeing this package, plymouth is available for all of Debian's Linux architectures in wheezy, s390 and s390x included, providing a consistent architecture for boot-time I/O for systems that need it - which is any machine using a modern boot system, such as upstart or systemd.

Room for improvement

Now, having a coherent architecture for your boot I/O is one thing; having a bug-free splash screen is another. The experience of plymouth in Ubuntu has certainly not been bug-free, with plymouth making significant demands of the kernel video layer. Recently, the binary video driver packages in Ubuntu have started to blacklist the framebuffer kernel driver entirely due to stability concerns, making plymouth splash screens a non-starter for users of these drivers and regressing the boot experience.

One solution for this would be to have plymouth offload the video handling complexity to something more reliable and better tested. Plymouth does already have an X backend, but we don't use that in Ubuntu because even if we do have an X server, it normally starts much later than when we would want to display the splash screen. With Mir on the horizon for Ubuntu, however, and its clean separation between system and session compositors, it's possible that using a Mir backend - that can continue running even after the greeter has started, unlike the current situation where plymouth has to cede the console to the display manager when it starts - will become an appealing option.

This, too, is not without its downsides. Needing to load plymouth when using crypted root filesystems already makes for a bloated initramfs; adding a system compositor to the initramfs won't make it any better, and introduces further questions about how to hand off between initramfs and root fs. Keeping your system compositor running from the initramfs post-boot isn't really ideal, particularly for low-memory systems; whereas killing the system compositor and restarting it will make it harder to provide a flicker-free experience. But for all that, it does have its architectural appeal, as it lets us use plymouth as long as we need to after boot. As the concept of static runlevels becomes increasingly obsolete in the face of dynamic systems, we need to design for the world where the distinction between "booting" and "booted" doesn't mean what it once did.