Since I've been maintaining the PC Card layer in FreeBSD, I've accumulated a lot of PC Card hardware. Well over 100 different PC Card r2 (16-bit) and CardBus (32-bit) cards. Recently, Robert Watson started pushing to have all the network drivers in the tree be MPSAFE. John Bladwin posted some patches to the if_cs driver to bring it up to those standards. Since I had a soft spot in my heart for this driver for reasons I don't entirely understand, I took the IBM EtherJet PC Card that I had with me on a recent buisiness trip with the vague notion of testing out John's patches.
I discovered that the driver didn't work. It didn't work before the patches, nor after them. The breakage was minor and I likely wouldn't have noticed it except for the fact that I didn't have the Ethernet cable plugged in when I was doing the early testing. Since the breakage annoyed me, I went ahead and fixed it. I also noticed that the reading of the EEPROM was very slow, and caused me to drop characters when I inserted the card. I hate that. I discovered a number of DELAY statements in the EEPROM reading which were the cause of the problem. I thought "this is nuts" to myself, and went off to locate the datasheet for this part. After reading through it, I discovered the EEPROM busy bit that I polled in place of the hard coded 3ms DELAY. I went from having about 1.2s of DELAY and other busy waiting when I inserted the card to having on the order of 800us, a speedup of about 1500x.
This brings up a number of philosophical questions. Why did I bother with such an outdated chip? Why speed up a one time operation? Why spend any time at all on this after a busy day of meetings and crisis management?
Let's answer the last question first. I did it because I was absolutely exhausted by my meetings. While productive, and they helped to drive the problems of the project I was working on towards resolution, they were draining. By hacking on this driver I had a very safe area to make improvements. Unless I broke the build, nobody would notice the work, yet I'd have the satisfaction of a job well done. Since it is in an out-of-the way part of the kernel, I had the room to fail without throngs beating down my door. I had complete freedom to tinker and tidy as I saw fit, and doing so was very relaxing and invigorating after a long, hard day. Maybe I'm just weird, but sometimes a little bit of hacking to make something better is just what my brain needs to relax and unwind.
The reason I was spending any time at all on this was that this part made a resurgence in recent years inside embedded systems. There are several embedded designs that use this part when they don't have the ethernet on the SoC. More recent parts have all this built into the SoC, so the popularity has waned once again, but I knew some ARM boards used it, so in the back of my mind I had a justification for spending time on it based on my FreeBSD embedded hat that I wear from time to time. I was shocked to get email from someone who had one of these boards and wanted to know how to write a front end for this driver for that board within a day of my committing the cleanups. That was a nice bonus. Time will tell if he follows through, of course, but I was very amused by it.
Finally, why spend time optimizing an operation that happens only once at startup? I hate losing characters when I type. Since I didn't want to re-write the syscons keyboard driver to have a fast interrupt handler to read the keystrokes and queue them for later processing (the only thing that will interrupt a DELAY is a fast interrupt handler), I thought this was the easier path to solving my problem. I spend a lot of time at work making sure that the right priority calls are made, and it felt good to be "bad" and work on something that clearly is the wrong priority call in terms of everything else that's going on in FreeBSD.
I guess it all boils down to "I had an itch, and it felt good to scratch it." rather than any rational thought process. Sure, I justified it after the fact in many different ways, but it felt fundamentally good to just make something better for the sake of making it better and not have to worry about big picture this, or deadline that, or you broke my whatsit complaints. I had a well defined technical problem, I had to research solutions and hack a bit of code. It felt good being able to find the data I needed, fix the code, test it and see it working and passing packets again. I wish all problems that I faced in my technical life were so easy and rewarding.
Oh yea, and it turned out that I found a bug in John's patches and he was able to commit them to the tree, eliminating one more Giant Locked driver. I'm sure Robert will be happy. I'm sure there are others that would have been just as happy to have the impending removal of Giant Locked network drivers sweep it into the dustbin of history. Maybe I have that soft spot in my heart for it because it was one of the drivers that the Japanese Mobile community hacked years ago and seeing it the tree reminds me of happy trips to Japan, drinking way too much sake, and speaking bad Japanese as a result? Who knows....