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Xen on ARM and the Device Tree vs. ACPI debate

ACPI vs. Device Tree on ARM

Some of you may have seen the recent discussions on the linux-arm-kernel mailing list (and others) about the use of ACPI vs DT on the ARM platform. As always LWN have a pretty good summary (currently subscribers only, becomes freely available on 5 December) of the situation with ACPI on ARM.

Device Tree (or DT) and Advanced Configuration & Power Interface (or ACPI) are both standards which are used for describing a hardware platform e.g. to an operating system kernel. At their core both technologies provide a tree like data structure containing a hierarchy of devices and specifying what type they are and a set of “bindings” for that device. A binding is essentially a schema for specifying I/O regions, interrupt mappings, GPIOs and clocks etc.

For the last few years Linux on ARM has been moving away from hardcoded “board files” (a bunch of C code for each platform) towards using Device Tree instead. In the ARM space ACPI is the new kid on the block and has many unknowns. Given this the approach to ACPI which appears to have been reached by the Linux kernel maintainers, which is essentially to wait and see how the market pans out, seems sensible.

On the Xen side we started the port to ARM around the time that Linux’s transition from board files to Device Tree was starting and made the decision early on to go directly to device tree (ACPI wasn’t even on the table at this point, at least not publicly). Xen DT to discover all of the hardware on the system, both that which it intends to use itself and that which it intends to pass to domain 0. As well as consuming DT itself Xen also creates a filleted version of the host DT which it passes to the domain 0 kernel. DT is simple and yet powerful enough to allow us to do this relatively easily.

DT is also used by some of the BSD variants in their ARM ports as well.

My Position as Xen on ARM Maintainer

The platform configuration mechanism supported by Xen on ARM today is Device Tree. Device Tree is a good fit for our requirements and we will continue to support it as our primary hardware description mechanism.

Given that a number of operating system vendors and hardware vendors care about ACPI on ARM and are pushing hard for it, especially in the ARM server space, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that we will eventually find ourselves needing support ACPI as well. On systems which support both ACPI and DT we will continue to prefer Device Tree. Once ARM hardware platforms that only support ACPI are available, we will obviously need to support ACPI.

The Xen Project works closely with the Linux kernel and other open source upstreams as well as organisations such as Linaro. Before Xen on ARM can support ACPI I would like see it gaining some actual traction on ARM. In particular I would like to see it get to the point where it has been accepted by the Linux kernel maintainers. It is clearly not wise for Xen to be pioneering the use of ACPI before to it becoming clear whether or not it is going to gain any traction in the wider ecosystem.

So if you are an ARM silicon or platform vendor and you care about virtualization and Xen in particular, I encourage you to provide a complete device tree for your platform.

Note that this only applies to Xen on ARM. I cannot speak for Xen on x86 but I think it is pretty clear that it will continue to support ACPI so long as it remains the dominant hardware description on that platform.

It should also be noted that ACPI on ARM is primarily a server space thing at this stage. Of course Xen and Linux are not just about servers: both communities have sizable communities of embedded vendors (on the Xen side we had several interesting presentations at the recent Xen Developer Summit on embedded uses of Xen on ARM). Essentially no one is suggesting that the embedded use cases should move from DT to ACPI and so, irrespective of what happens with ACPI, DT has a strong future on ARM.

ACPI and Type I Hypervisors

Our experience on x86 has shown that the ACPI model is not a good fit for Type I hypervisors such as Xen, and the same is true on ARM. ACPI essentially enforces a model where the hypervisor, the kernel, the OSPM (the ACPI term for the bit of an OS which speaks ACPI) and the device drivers all must reside in the same privileged entity. In other words it effectively mandates a single monolithic entity which controls everything about the system. This obviously precludes such things as dividing hardware into that which is owned and controlled by the hypervisor and that which is owned and controlled by a virtual machine such as dom0. This impedance mismatch is probably not insurmountable but experience with ACPI on x86 Xen suggests that the resulting architecture is not going to be very agreeable.


Due to their history on x86 ACPI and UEFI are often lumped together as a single thing when in reality they are mostly independent. There is no reason why UEFI cannot also be used with Device Tree. We would expect Xen to support UEFI sooner rather than later.

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