Skip to content

Forearmed

In researching my piece for the upcoming de Programmatica Ipsum issue on cloud computing, I had thoughts about Apple, arm, and any upcoming transition that didn’t fit in the context of that article. So here’s a different post, about that. I’ve worked at both companies so don’t have a neutral point of view, but I’ve also been in bits of the companies far enough from their missions that I don’t have any insider insight into this transition.

So, let’s dismiss the Mac transition part of this thread straight away: it probably will happen, for the same reasons that the PowerPC->Intel transition happened (the things Apple needed from the parts – mostly lower power consumption for similar performance – weren’t the same things that the suppliers needed, and the business Apple brought wasn’t big enough to make the suppliers change their mind), and it probably will be easier, because Apple put the groundwork in to make third-party devs aware of porting issues during the Intel transition, and encourage devs to use high-level frameworks and languages.

Whether you think the point is convergence (now your Catalyst apps are literally iPad IPAs that run on a Mac), or cost (Apple buy arm chipset licences, but have to buy whole chips from Intel, and don’t get the discount everybody else does for sticking the Intel Inside holographic sticker on the case), or just “betterer”, the arm CPUs can certainly provide. On the “betterer” argument, I don’t predict that will be a straightforward case of tomorrow’s arm Mac being faster than today’s Intel Mac. Partly because compilers: gcc certainly has better optimisations on Intel and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that llvm does too. Partly because workload, as iOS/watchOS/tvOS all keep the platform on guard rails that make the energy use/computing need expectations more predictable, and those guard rails are only slowly being added to macOS now.

On the other hand, it’s long been the case that computers have controller chips in for interfacing with the hardware, and that those chips are often things that could be considered CPUs for systems in their own rights. Your mac certainly already has arm chips in if you bought it recently: you know what’s running the OS for the touch bar? Or the T2 security chip? (Actually, if you have an off-brand PC with an Intel-compatible-but-not-Intel chip, that’s probably an arm core running the x86-64 instructions in microcode). If you beef one of those up so that it runs the OS too, then take a whole bunch of other chips and circuits off the board, you both reduce the power consumption and put more space in for batteries. And Apple do love talking battery life when they sell you a computer.

OK, so that’s the Apple transition done. But now back to arm. They’re a great business, and they’ve only been expanding of late, but it’s currently coming at a cost. We don’t have up to date financial information on Arm Holdings themselves since they went private, but that year they lost ¥31bn (I think about $300M). Since then, their corporate parent Softbank Group has been doing well, but massive losses from their Vision Fund have led to questions about their direction and particularly Masayoshi Son’s judgement and vision.

arm (that’s how they style it) have, mostly through their partner network, fingers in many computing pies. From the server and supercomputer chips from manufacturers like Marvell to smart lightbulbs powered by Nordic Semiconductor, arm have tentacles everywhere. But their current interest is squarely on the IoT side. When I worked in their HPC group in 2017, Simon Segars described their traditional chip IP business as the “legacy engine” that would fund the “disruptive unit” he was really interested in, the new Internet of Things Business Unit. Now arm’s mission is to “enable a trillion connected devices”, and you can bet there isn’t a world market for a trillion Macs or Mac-like computers.

If some random software engineer on the internet can work this out, you can bet Apple’s exec team have worked it out, too. It seems apparent that (assuming it happens) Apple are transitioning the Mac platform to arm at start of the (long, slow) exit arm make from the traditional computing market, and still chose to do it. This suggests something else in mind (after all, Apple already designs its chips in-house, so why not have them design RISC-V or MIPS chips, or something entirely different?). A quick timetable of Mac CPU instruction sets:

  • m68k 1984 – 1996, 12 years (I exclude the Lisa)
  • ppc 1994 – 2006, 12 years
  • x86 and x86-64 2006 – 2021?, 15 years?
  • arm 2020? – 203x?, 1x years?

I think it likely that the Mac will wind down with arm’s interest in traditional computing, and therefore arm will be the last ever CPU/SoC architecture for computers called Macs. That the plan for the next decade is that Apple is still at the centre of a services-based, privacy-focused consumer electronics experience, but that what they sell you is not a computer.

Continuous Integration for Amiga

Amiga-Smalltalk now has continuous integration, I don’t know if it’s the first Amiga program ever to have CI but definitely the first I know of. Let me tell you about it.

I’ve long been using AROS, the AROS Research Operating System (formerly the A stood for Amiga) as a convenient place to (manually) test Amiga-Smalltalk. AROS will boot natively on PC but can also be “hosted” as a user-space process on Linux, Windows or macOS. So it’s handy to build a program like Amiga-Smalltalk in the AROS source tree, then launch AROS and check that my program works properly. Because AROS is source compatible with Amiga OS (and binary compatible too, on m68k), I can be confident that things work on real Amigas.

My original plan for Amiga-Smalltalk was to build a Docker image containing AROS, add my test program to S:User-startup (the script on Amiga that runs at the end of the OS boot sequence), then look to see how it fared. But when I discussed it on the aros-exec forums, AROS developer deadwood had a better idea.

He’s created AxRuntime, a library that lets Linux processes access the AROS APIs directly without having to be hosted in AROS as a sub-OS. So that’s what I’m using. You can look at my Github workflow to see how it works, but in a nutshell:

  1. check out source.
  2. install libaxrt. I’ve checked the packages in ./vendor (and a patched library, which fixes clean termination of the Amiga process) to avoid making network calls in my CI. The upstream source is deadwood’s repo.
  3. launch Xvfb. This lets the process run “headless” on the CI box.
  4. build and run ast_tests, my test runner. The Makefile shows how it’s compiled.

That’s it! All there is to running your Amiga binaries in CI.

Mature Optimization

This comment on why NetNewsWire is fast brings up one of the famous tropes of computer science:

The line between [performance considerations pervading software design] and premature optimization isn’t clearly defined.

If only someone had written a whole paper about premature optimization, we’d have a bit more information. …wait, they did! The idea that premature optimization is the root of all evil comes from Donald Knuth’s Structured Programming with go to Statements. Knuth attributes it to C.A.R. Hoare in The Errors of TeX, though Hoare denied that he had coined the phrase.

Anyway, the pithy phrase “premature optimization is the root of all evil”, which has been interpreted as “optimization before the thing is already running too slow is to be avoided”, actually appears in this context:

There is no doubt that the grail of efficiency leads to abuse. Programmers waste enormous amounts of time thinking about, or worrying about, the speed of noncritical parts of their programs, and these attempts at efficiency actually have a strong negative impact when debugging and maintenance are considered. We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time: premature optimization is the root of all evil.

Yet we should not pass up our opportunities in that critical 3%. A good programmer will not be lulled into complacency by such reasoning, [they] will be wise to look carefully at the critical code; but only after that code has been identified. It is often a mistake to make a priori judgements about what parts of a program are really critical, since the universal experience of programmers who have been using measurement tools has been that their intuitive guesses fail.

Indeed this whole subsection on efficiency opens with Knuth explaining that he does put a lot of effort into optimizing the critical parts of his code.

I now look with an extremely jaundiced eye at every operation in a critical inner loop, seeking to modify my program and data structure […] so that some of the operations can be eliminated. The reasons for this approach are that: a) it doesn’t take long, since the inner loop is short; b) the payoff is real; and c) I can then afford to be less efficinet in the other parts of my programs, which therefore are more readable and more easily written and debugged. Tools are being developed to make this critical-loop identification job easy (see for example [Dan Ingalls, The execution time profile as a programming tool] and [E. H. Satterthwaite, Debugging tools for high level languages]).

So yes, optimize your code, but optimize the bits that benefit from optimization. NetNewsWire is a Mac application, and Apple’s own documentation on improving your app’s performance describe an iterative approach for finding underperforming characteristics (note: not “what is next to optimize”, but “what are users encountering that needs improvement”), making changes, and verifying that the changes led to an improvement:

Plan and implement performance improvements by approaching the problem scientifically:

  1. Gather information about the problems your users are seeing.
  2. Measure your app’s behavior to find the causes of the problems.
  3. Plan one change to improve the situation.
  4. Implement the change.
  5. Observe whether the app’s performance improves.

I doubt that this post will change the “any optimization is the root of all evil” narrative, because there isn’t a similarly-trite epithet for the “optimize the parts that need it” school of thought, but at least I’ve tried.

Episode 7: A touch of class

I’m building support for classes in the Amiga-Smalltalk Virtual Machine today, so that’s what is on my mind.

If you missed episode 6, it’s over on Youtube.

The podcast is now in the iTunes Store!

Video podcast: Hisoft C for the ZX Spectrum

Episode 6 of the SICPers podcast is over on Youtube. I introduce a C compiler for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. For American readers, that’s the Timex Sinclair TS2068.

SICPers podcast episode 5

It lives! Kinda. Amiga-Smalltalk now runs on Amiga. Along the way I review The K&R book as a tutorial for C programming, mentioning my previous comparison to the Brad Cox and Bjarne Stroustrup books. I also find out how little I know “C”, it turns out I’ve been using GNU C for the last 20 years.

Thanks to Alan Francis for his part in my downfall.

It lives! (Kinda)

Amiga-Smalltalk now works on an Amiga! I describe the journey to a working port. Full show notes

SICPers podcast episode 4

We’re back to Amiga-Smalltalk today, as the moment when it runs on a real Amiga inches closer. Listen here.

I think I’ve isolated all extraneous sound except the nearby motorway, which I can’t do much about. I hope the experience is better!

Episode 4: do you C what I C?

We’re getting closer to running Amiga-Smalltalk actually on an Amiga. Full show notes

SICPers Podcast Episode 3

The latest episode of SICPers, in which I muse on what programming 1980s microcomputers taught me about reading code, is now live. Here’s the podcast RSS feed.

It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration. Edsger Dijkstra, “How do we tell truths that might hurt?”

As always, your feedback and suggestions are most welcome.