Intel Sandy Bridge On Ubuntu 11.04 Is Still Troubling

Written by Michael Larabel in Display Drivers on 18 May 2011 at 06:50 AM EDT. Page 4 of 4. 3 Comments.

Who is to blame for Ubuntu 11.04, a major Linux distribution released after the release of Sandy Bridge, still not having all of the bits in place? There is no single point of failure, but there are several situations one could look at for why the Sandy Bridge graphics under Linux still do not have a suitable "out of the box" experience under Ubuntu:

- Mesa 7.10 was released in early January with the first-cut "Sandy Bridge" support following the hardware's initial release. Since then, there has not been a major update (the Mesa 7.11 release) to push out this latest 3D user-space code for the Intel DRI driver. It's likely we'll see the Mesa 7.11 release around June or July when Intel is preparing for their second quarter Linux driver update, but that will mean six months have nearly passed before this improved SNB code was released as stable. Had there been a release of the improved Intel 3D driver code around March with tagged snapshots before then, it is possible we could have seen this pushed into Natty, but the Mesa releases tend to be not too frequent due to its massive code-base and so many different hardware drivers being contained. Of course, Mesa does not revolve around Ubuntu and its release schedule either.
- Ditto basically the same above but for the Linux kernel, but of course keeping in mind that Linux does not revolve around Ubuntu. The Linux 2.6.38 kernel as found in Ubuntu 11.04 does work fairly well for Intel SNB hardware assuming you have the latest user-space Mesa code, which is the bigger problem.
- Canonical did not back-port Intel SNB fixes from the latest Linux kernel or Mesa code. Why? We do not know at this time. It could be that they figured the support was good enough, they did not have the resources to allocate to tracking down what to do, or they did not realize there were problems outstanding. From the talks last week in Budapest, I feel there's a lot to be desired and improved upon from their QA and automated testing / hardware certification. These Intel Sandy Bridge problems likely went unnoticed. You'll also still likely find Intel Sandy Bridge systems certified by Canonical as being Ubuntu 11.04 certified even with these dramatic problems remaining. [Granted, Canonical's back-porting effort could be made easier if they knew the specific commits that cause quantitative fixes, but the SNB laptop promised by Intel for doing this automated testing on a per-commit basis still hasn't arrived to be able to run such tests ourselves automatically to publish the information to the public.]
- Intel did not land proper SNB enablement in time. Intel has been working on Sandy Bridge hardware enablement in the public since February of 2010, but with Ubuntu 10.10 in October of last year or now with Ubuntu 11.04, the level of support still does not cut it as being a great experience. Intel can be congratulated for providing some level of same-day support for their hardware, but it is sub-optimal. This though isn't some OS-centric issue, but you will find that the Sandy Bridge Windows support also receives fixes and optimizations over time once the hardware has been released and testing takes place en mass with different configurations and work-loads.
- The biggest problem in all of this is not an Intel or Canonical specific issue at all. It is simply a matter of the open-source Linux graphics drivers are not easily updatable. Besides building the latest Linux kernel / Mesa / libdrm / DDX from source, one could also obtain these latest components from a third-party package repository for their distribution or even as official stable release updates, but under Linux those don't come without any risk. In particular, a major update to the Linux kernel may improve the graphics performance and stability, but it may very well break other areas of the system since the entire kernel is being updated and just not select modules. At least with the proprietary AMD and NVIDIA drivers, due to their self-contained stacks, the drivers are more maintainable assuming you are on supported kernel and xorg-server releases. The open-source graphics driver maintenance problem isn't a Intel driver issue either but it's the same for the Nouveau (NVIDIA) and Radeon drivers too. In fact, another article in the coming days illustrates a similar set of issues for Fusion finally being fixed upstream.

Going forward, the tentative plans laid last week for Ubuntu 11.10 "Oneiric Oncelot" set this next release as shipping with the Linux 2.6.40 kernel (or potentially Linux 2.6.41) and Mesa 7.11. This at least means the Intel Sandy Bridge support will be ironed out by October for Ubuntu where all of this latest code will ship. However, for Intel's next-generation "Ivy Bridge", it may be hit by the same support cycle problems.

As reported late last month, Intel pushed the initial DRM bits for Ivy Bridge and a week ago had then released the X.Org driver support for Ivy Bridge. The Mesa 3D support has yet to land. The initial kernel-side support will be pushed into the Linux 2.6.40 kernel when its merge window opens within the next week or two, but after that for 2.6.40 the Ivy Bridge changes will be limited to bug-fixes until its official release in the summer. On the Mesa side, they have until Mesa 7.11 is officially released, which will likely be controlled by Intel's Ian Romanick but that release is expected in the June or July time-frame. In other words, based upon the current models, there is just a month or two until we know how the support for Ivy Bridge will be in Ubuntu's next release, unless better back-porting is to take place by Canonical. Intel's Ivy Bridge hardware is expected to ship by the end of this calendar year.

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Michael Larabel

Michael Larabel is the principal author of and founded the site in 2004 with a focus on enriching the Linux hardware experience. Michael has written more than 20,000 articles covering the state of Linux hardware support, Linux performance, graphics drivers, and other topics. Michael is also the lead developer of the Phoronix Test Suite, Phoromatic, and automated benchmarking software. He can be followed via Twitter, LinkedIn, or contacted via