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Licensing to decide the result of gcc vs llvm?

December 17th, 2011 No comments

I was not surprised to hear today that Nvidia are halting development of their in-house C/C++ compiler and switching to one of the Open Source compilers. It is a lot cheaper to have one or two people looking after a companies interests in a compiler developed by somebody else than having an in-house development group. It will be interesting to see how much longer Intel continues to fund their in-house compiler.

Nvidia chose llvm and gave a variety of technical reasons why this was the best choice over gcc.

One advantage (from Nvidia’s point of view) not mentioned is that llvm is licensed under a BSD style agreement. This means Nvidia don’t have to release the source code of any modifications or additions they make (they said these will be kept closed source); gcc is licensed under the GNU general public license which requires source to be released. Arch rivals AMD (well, the ATI bit of AMD that does graphics hardware) also promote llvm and I’m sure Nvidia does not want to help them in any way.

The licensing difference between gcc and llvm has the potential to make a big differences to the finances of both development teams.

My understanding of gcc funding is that most of it comes from back-end work (i.e., a company pays to have gcc work or do a better job on some [I imagine their] processor). Given a choice would these companies rather release the source they paid to have written/modified or keep it closed? Some probably don’t care and hope that by making the source available others will help find and fix problems (i.e., there is a benefit to making it available), on the other hand companies introducing processors with fancy new features will want to minimise any technology that competitors can get for free.

In the years to come it is possible that gcc will loose a significant amount of this back-end income to llvm because of licensing.

PhD projects are the life-blood of new compiler optimization techniques and for many years source code from them has often ended up as the experimental version of a new optimization phase of gcc. Many students are firm believers in making source freely available and shy away from being involved in non-GPL projects. Will this deter them from using llvm in their research (there may be a growing trend favoring llvm over gcc in research, or the llvm people may be better than the gcc folk at marketing {not hard})?

If llvm does not get the new fancy optimizations for ‘free’ they are going to have to spend money doing the implementing themselves or have their performance slowly fall behind that of gcc. Will this cost be more or less than the additional income from closed source customers?

We are unlikely to know the impact that licensing has on the fortunes of both compilers until the end of this decade. Perhaps designing and building new processor will not be economically worthwhile in 10 years, perhaps all the worthwhile optimizations will be done. We will have to wait and see.

Update 4 Jan 2012: Video (235M) of talk on status of effort to make llvm the default compiler in FreeBSD at LLVM 2011 Developer’s meeting.