Thursday, May 19, 2016

Updating the broadcom softmac driver (bwn), or "damnit, I said I'd never do this!"

If you're watching the FreeBSD commit lists, you may have noticed that I .. kinda sprayed a lot of changes into the broadcom softmac driver.

Firstly, I swore I'd never touch this stuff. But, we use Broadcom (fullmac!) parts at work, so in order to get a peek under the hood to see how they work, I decided fixing up bwn(4) was vaguely work related. Yes, I did the work outside of work; no, it's not sponsored by my employer.

I found a small cache of broadcom 43xx cards that I have and I plugged one in. Nope, didn't work. Tried another. Nope, didn't work. Oh wait - I need to make sure the right firmware module is loaded for it to continue. That was the first hiccup.

Then I set up the interface and connected it to my home AP. It worked .. for about 30 seconds. Then, 100% packet loss. It only worked when I was right up against my AP. I could receive packets fine, but transmits were failing. So, off I went to read the transmit completion path code.

Here's the first fun bit - there's no TX completion descriptor that's checked. There is in the v3 firmware driver (bwi), but not in the v4 firmware. Instead, it reads a pair shared memory registers to get completion status for each packet. This is where I learnt my first fun bits about the hardware API - it's a mix of PIO/DMA, firmware, descriptors and shared memory mailboxes. Those completion registers? Reading them advances the internal firmware state to read the next descriptor completion. You can't just read them for fun, or you'll miss transmit completions.

So, yes, we were transmitting, and we were failing them. The retry count was 7, and the ACK bit was 0. Ok, so it failed. It's using the net80211 rate control code, so I turned on rate control debugging (wlandebug +rate) and watched the hilarity.

The rate control code was never seeing any failures, so it just thought everything was hunky dory and kept pushing the rate up to 54mbit. Which was the exact wrong thing to do. It turns out the rate control code was only called if ack=1, which meant it was only notified if packets succeeded. I fixed up (through some revisions) the rate control notification path to be called always, error and success, and it began behaving better.

Now, bwn(4) was useful. But, it needs updating to support any of the 11n chipsets, and it certainly didn't do 5GHz operation on anything. So, off I went to investigate that.

There are, thankfully, three major sources of broadcom softmac information:
  • Linux b43
  • Linux brcmsmac
The linux folk did a huge reverse engineering effort on the binary broadcom driver (wl) over many years, and generated a specification document with which they implemented b43 (and bcm-v3 for b43legacy.) It's .. pretty amazing, to be honest. So, armed with that, I went off to attempt to implement support for the first 11n chip, the BCM4321.

Now, there's some architectural things to know about these chips. Firstly, the broadcom hardware is structured (like all chips, really) with a bunch of cores on-die with an interconnect, and then some host bus glue. So, the hardware design can just reuse the same internals but a different host bus (USB, PCI, SDIO, etc) and reuse 90% of the chip design. That's a huge win. But, most of the other chips out there lie to you about the internal layout so you don't care - they map the internal cores into one big register window space so it looks like one device.

The broadcom parts don't. They expose each of the cores internally on a bus, and then you need to switch the cores on/off and also map them into the MMIO register window to access them.

Yes, that's right. There's not one big register window that it maps things to, PCI style. If you want to speak to a core, you have to unmap the existing core, map in the core you want, and do register access.

Secondly, the 802.11 core exposes MAC and PHY registers, but you can't have them both on at once. You switch on/off the MAC register window before you poke at the PHY.

Armed with this, I now understand why you need 'sys/dev/siba' (siba(4)) before you can use bwn(4). The siba driver provides the interface to PCI (and MIPS for an older Broadcom part) to probe/attach a SIBA bus, then enumerate all of the cores, then attach drivers to each. There's typically a PCI/PCIe core, then an 802.11 core, then a chipcommon core for the clock/power management, and then other things as needed (memory, USB, PCMCIA, etc.) bwn(4) doesn't attach to the PCI device, it sits on the siba bus as a child device.

So, to add support for a new chip, I needed to do a few things.

  • The device needs to probe/attach to siba(4);
  • The SPROM parsing is done by siba(4), so new fields have to be added there;
  • The 802.11 core revision is what's probe/attached by bwn(4), so add it there;
  • Then I needed to ensure the right microcode and radio initvals are added in bwn(4);
  • Then, new PHY code is needed. For the BCM4321, it's PHY-N.
There are two open PHY-N implementations - brcmfmac is BSD licenced, and b43's is GPL licenced. I looked at the brcmfmac one, which includes full 11n support, but I decided the interface was too different for me to do a first port with. The b43 PHY-N code is smaller, simpler and the API matched what was in the bcm-4 specification. And, importantly, bwn(4) was written from the same specification, so it's naturally in alignment.

This meant that I would be adding GPLv2'ed code to bwn(4). So, I decided to dump it in sys/gnu/dev/bwn so it's away from the main driver, and make compiling it in non-standard. At some point yes, I'd like to port the brcmfmac PHYs to FreeBSD, but I wanted to get familiar with the chips and make sure the driver worked fine. Debugging /all/ broken and new pieces didn't sound like fun to me.

So after a few days, I got PHY-N compiling and I fired it up. I needed to add SPROM field parsing too, so I did that too. Then, the moment of truth - I fired it up, and it connected. It scanned on both 2G and 5G, and it worked almost first time! But, two things were broken:
  • 5GHz operation just failed entirely for transmit, and
  • 2GHz operation failed transmitting all OFDM frames, but CCK was fine.
Since probing, association and authentication in 2GHz did it at the lowest rate (CCK), this worked fine. Data packets at OFDM rates failed with a PHY error of 0x80 (which isn't documented anywhere, so god knows what that means!) but CCK was fine. So, off I went to b43 and the brcmfmac driver to see what the missing pieces were.

There were two. Well, three, but two that broke everything.

Firstly, there's a "I'm 5GHz!" flag in the tx descriptor. I set that for 5GHz operation - but nothing.

Secondly, the driver tries a fallback rate if the primary rate fails. Those are hardcoded, same as the RTS/CTS rates. It turns out the fallback rate for 6MB OFDM is 11MB CCK, which is invalid for 5GHz. I fixed that, but I haven't yet fixed the 1MB CCK RTS/CTS rates. I'll go do that soon. (I also submitted a patch to Linux b43 to fix that!)

Thirdly, and this was the kicker - the PHY-N and later PHYs require more detailed TX setup. We were completely missing initializing some descriptor fields. It turns out it's also required for PHY-LP (which we support) but somehow the PHY was okay with that. Once I added those fields in, OFDM transmit worked fine.

So, a week after I started, I had a stable driver on 11bg chips, as well as 5GHz operation on the PHY-N BCM4321 NIC. No 11n yet, obviously, that'll have to wait.

In the next post I'll cover fixing up the RX RSSI calculations and then what I needed to do for the BCM94322MC, which is also a PHY-N chip, but is a much later core, and required new microcode with a new descriptor interface.


  1. I am amazed by the rate with which you managed to get the bwn(4) driver to (somewhat) work. Really well done!

    I myself have an old MacBook-2009 with the Broadcom chip you're working on (bcm4321), so I am willing to participate in testing :).

    Also, as far as I could tell, the BCM94322 chip was not even detected on GNU/Linux for me.

    ~Andy Mender

    1. hi! cool! lemme know how it goes!