Wayland and graphics card uncertainty

March 23, 2016

Yesterday I wrote about several points of general technology churn that make me reluctant to think about a new PC. But as it happens there's an additional Linux specific issue that I worry about, and that's Wayland. More exactly, it's what Wayland is likely to require from graphics cards.

I use a very old fashioned X based environment, which means that all I need is old fashioned basic X. I think I run some things that like to see OpenGL, but probably not very many of them, and there's basic OpenGL support in even basic X these days. This has left me relatively indifferent to graphics cards and graphics card support levels; even what was a low end card at the time was (and is) good enough for my desktop.

I would like to keep on using my basic X environment for the lifetime of my next machine, but the forces behind Wayland are marching on with sufficient force that I don't think I can assume that any more. People are really trying to ship Wayland based desktops within the next couple of years on major Linux distributions (in particular, on Fedora), and once that happens I suspect that my sort of X environment will only have a few more years of viable life before toolkits and major programs basically stop supporting it.

(Oh, they'll technically 'support' X. But probably no one will be actively maintaining the code and so steadily increasing numbers of pieces will break.)

At that point, switching to Wayland will be non-optional for me (even if it results in upending my environment and makes me unhappy). In turn that means I'll need a graphics system that can handle Wayland well. Wayland is a modern system, so as far as I know it really wants things like hardware composition, hardware alpha-blending, and so on. Using Wayland without OpenGL-level hardware acceleration may be possible, but it's not likely to be pleasant.

What sort of graphics card (or integrated graphics) does this call for? I have no real idea, and I'm not sure anyone knows yet what you'll want to have for a good Wayland experience. That uncertainty makes me want to postpone buying a graphics card until we know more, which will probably need some brave Linux distribution to enable Wayland by default so that a lot of people run it.

(Of course I may be overthinking this as part of mostly not wanting to replace my current machine.)

Comments on this page:

By Ewen McNeill at 2016-03-23 02:19:55:

As an observation, if you're buying a traditional "modular desktop" style machine, typically the graphics card is one of the more replaceable bits. Should you find you actually need to do so in, say 2-3 years time. Now that the "graphics card bus interface" seems to have settled on PCI Express for a non-trivial amount of time that should be pretty easy to do.

Disks, too, are of course pretty easily replaced. And while 3/6Gbps SATA might eventually not be flavour of the desktop, the most likely "not welded to the motherboard" alternatives seem to be some sort of PCI Express card.

But besides that, my impression is that Wayland and most "compositor manages all"/"3D engine for everything" desktop environments are likely work fine with pretty much any modern graphics card you can get. Even "integrated graphics" these days comes with a fair bit of 3D acceleration. I imagine anything capable of driving a 4K display would also be fine for Wayland for some years.

Personally my rule for replacing computer hardware has been the earlier of "I'm really concerned it's going to stop working" and "new things are at least twice as good in at least two dimensions that matter to me". If neither of those are true, maybe put it to one side and review replacement options again in 6-12 months.

FWIW, my home server is also "late 2011" vintage. I don't think I'd be replacing it except to get larger drives and/or faster-than-1.5Gbps SATA providing the hardware stays reliable. But my main "desktop" environment is a laptop, with SSD, lots of RAM, and a large (external) display. So YMMV.

Perhaps you just want a 4K display and a video card to drive it? :-)


PS: There's never a perfect time to buy new computer tech. Immediately after new announcements is sometimes as good as any (particularly if you find the now-"last years' model" is still good enough for you and suddenly cheaper). But at best that only gets you one extra 6 month period of relaxing from the "should I have waited for the Next Big Thing" thoughts....

I'm of the same mind (must be why I enjoy your blog :)). I'm a long time Xmonad user, and my X usage is primarily a bunch of xterms and a browser.

Each time I replace my desktop machine, I look for opportunities to make it simpler; to build, configure, and to maintain. When the nouveau driver made it into debian several years ago, it felt like a win since all my graphics junk worked reasonably well, I didn't have to install any third party stuff or deal with dkms. It did mean that I needed to keep getting Nvidia cards, and they couldn't be either too old nor too new lest I find myself outside Nouveau's supported range.

The last time I replaced my machine, I opted for a mini-itx enclosure, and was hoping to find some cheap late-model, fanless Nvidia card for it. The board I used (one of the Asus Z97 boards, I forget which) had the right connectors for my display wired to the onboard Intel graphics hardware. The Intel stuff worked so well out of the box with Debian that I never bothered to get a discrete card.

The test for me has always been whether things fall apart when I finally get around to doing one of the things I do infrequently, like opening something with VNC, playing a Flash video, or when one of my kids cons me into letting them run Minecraft on my Linux box. The Intel hardware has worked fine in all these cases, and to my delight I have not had to screw around with anything to have it work. I suppose it's a little disappointed that my hard-won skills are no longer needed, but I don't think I miss it.

Anyway I can't comment on the Skylake and newer Intel support, but I like to stay a generation back anyway, and for my needs the Haswell CPUs feel blindingly fast and there are lots of good motherboard options. If Intel keeps up the good work I'll never buy another video card for my workstation.

By James (trs80) at 2016-03-23 12:01:19:

The embedded GPUs in Intel's latest CPUs are definitely capable of basic OpenGL tasks. The higher-end ones can be used for gaming, although they're only available in mobile chips.

If you want ECC though, perhaps look at Intel Xeon-D, which also has 10Gb built in to the chip. No integrated graphics though.

By Anon at 2016-03-25 05:00:57:

It's worth noting that in Fedora 23 it is possible to choose a Wayland desktop when running under VMware Fusion on a Mac Mini (which has a 2013 era integrated Intel card).

While the desktop itself was glitchy, the performance seemed fine so the key going forward looks to be drivers (and maturity of the desktop stack) rather than the raw power of the hardware (even with the virtualization overhead). Having said that I wasn't using 4K resolutions or huge monitors...

Hopefully running X under Wayland will work well and then people will be able to continue using the same desktop environments that way until they are ported.

By Ben Hutchings at 2016-03-25 22:37:16:

Microsoft made this a requirement for the "Designed for Windows" logo when they launched Windows Vista in 2007 including the DWM compositor. Oddly enough, since then integrated GPUs have been quite capable of running a compositor, whether that's DWM or it's GNOME Shell on X or Wayland.

Written on 23 March 2016.
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