Monthly Archives: November 2009

Is FFmpeg Doomed To Be The GCC of Multimedia?

FFmpeg is quite an amazing program. There’s a certain smugness that comes with being involved with it. That can lead to a bit of complacency followed by shock when realizing that you’re not as good as you thought you were.

That happened to me recently when I realized the official libtheora decoder is significantly more performant than FFmpeg’s Theora decoder. I suddenly wondered if this was true in any other departments, i.e., if FFmpeg is slower than other open source libraries that are dedicated to a single purpose. Why do I care? Because I started to wonder if FFmpeg would simply come to be known as the gcc of multimedia processing.

Is it good or bad to be compared to gcc in this way? Depends; gcc has its pros and cons. A colleague once succinctly summarized these trade-offs thusly: “You can generally count on gcc to generate adequate code for just about any platform.” Some free software fans grow indignant when repeated benchmarks unequivocally show, e.g., Intel’s proprietary compilers slaughtering gcc’s various versions. But what do you expect? gcc spreads the effort around to all kinds of chips while Intel largely focuses on generating code for chips that they invented and know better than anyone else. Frankly, I’ve always admired gcc for being able to do as well as it does.

But does it have to be that way with FFmpeg? “You can generally count on FFmpeg to be able to decode a particular format fairly quickly and encode to a wide variety of formats with reasonable quality.” That’s certainly the case currently regarding Theora (it can decode the format, just not as efficiently as libtheora). What about some other notable formats? I think some tests are in order.

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FFmpeg and Multiple Build Threads

I got bored today and decided to empirically determine how much FFmpeg compilation time can be improved by using multiple build threads, i.e., ‘make -jN’ where N > 1. I also wanted to see if the old rule of “number of CPUs plus 1” makes any worthwhile difference. The thinking behind that latter rule is that there should always be one more build job queued up ready to be placed on the CPU if one of the current build jobs has to access the disk. I think I first learned this from reading the Gentoo manuals. I didn’t find that it made a significant improvement. But then, Gentoo is for ricers.

FFmpeg being built with multiple threads on a 2x Core 2 Duo

FFmpeg being built with multiple threads on a Core 2 Duo

FFmpeg being built with multiple threads on a dual-core hyperthreaded Atom

I think the most interesting thing to observe about these graphs is the CPU time (the amount of time the build jobs are actually spending on the combined CPUs). The number is roughly steady for the Core 2 CPUs regardless of number of jobs while the Hyperthreaded Atom CPU sees a marked increase in total CPU time. Is that an artifact of Hyperthreading? Or maybe I just didn’t put together a stable testing methodology.

Process Runner Redux

Pursuant to yesterday’s conundrum of creating a portable process runner in Python for FATE that can be reliably killed when exceeding time constraints, I settled on a solution. As Raymond Tau reminded us in the ensuing discussion, Python won’t use a shell to launch the process if the program can supply the command and its arguments as a sequence data structure. I knew this but was intentionally avoiding it. It seems like a simple problem to break up a command line into a sequence of arguments– just split on spaces. However, I hope to test metadata options eventually which could include arguments such as ‘-title “Hey, is this thing on?”‘ where splitting on spaces clearly isn’t the right solution.

I got frustrated enough with the problem that I decided to split on spaces anyway. Hey, I control this system from top to bottom, so new rule: No command line arguments in test specs will have spaces with quotes around them. I already enforce the rule that no sample files can have spaces in their filenames since that causes trouble with remote testing. When I get to the part about testing metadata, said metadata will take the form of ‘-title “HeyIsThisThingOn?”‘ (which will then fail to catch myriad bugs related to FFmpeg’s incorrect handling of whitespace in metadata arguments, but this is all about trade-offs).

So the revised Python process runner seems to work correctly on Linux. The hangaround.c program simulates a badly misbehaving program by eating the TERM signal and must be dealt with using the KILL signal. The last line in these examples is a tuple containing return code, stdout, stderr, and CPU time. For Linux:

$ ./ 
['./hangaround', '40']
process ID = 2645
timeout, sending TERM
timeout, really killing
[-9, '', '', 0]

The unmodified code works the same on Mac OS X:

$ ./
['./hangaround', '40']
process ID = 94866
timeout, sending TERM
timeout, really killing
[-9, '', '', 0]

Now a bigger test: Running the script on Linux in order to launch the hangaround process remotely on Mac OS X via SSH:

$ ./ 
['/usr/bin/ssh', 'foster-home', './hangaround', '40']
process ID = 2673
timeout, sending TERM
[143, '', '', 50]

So that’s good… sort of. Monitoring the process on the other end reveals that hangaround is still doing just that, even after SSH goes away. This occurs whether or not hangaround is ignoring the TERM signal. This is still suboptimal.

It would be possible to open a separate SSH session to send a TERM or KILL signal to the original process… except that I wouldn’t know the PID of the remote process. Or could I? I’m open to Unix shell magic tricks on this problem since anything responding to SSH requests is probably going to be acceptably Unix-like. I would rather not go the ‘killall ffmpeg’ route because that could interfere with some multiprocessing ideas I’m working on.

Here’s a brute force brainstorm: When operating in remote-SSH mode, prefix the command with ‘ln -s ffmpeg ffmpeg-<unique-key>’ and then execute the symbolic link instead of the main binary. Then the script should be able to open a separate SSH session and execute ‘killall ffmpeg-<unique-key>’ without interfering with other processes. Outlandish but possibly workable.

Process of Confusion

I am working hard at designing a better FATE right now. But first thing’s first: I’m revisiting an old problem and hoping to conclusively determine certain process-related behavior.

I first described the problem in this post and claimed in this post that I had hacked around the problem. Here’s the thing: When I spin off a new process to run an FFmpeg command line, Python’s process object specifies a PID. Who does this PID belong to? The natural assumption would be that it belongs to FFmpeg. However, I learned empirically that it actually belongs to a shell interpreter that is launching the FFmpeg command line, which has a PID 1 greater than the shell interpreter. So my quick and dirty solution was to assume that the actual FFmpeg PID was 1 greater than the PID returned from Python’s subprocess.Popen() call.

Bad assumption. The above holds true for Linux but not for Mac OS X, where the FFmpeg command line has the returned PID. I’m not sure what Windows does.

This all matters for the timeout killer. FATE guards against the possibility of infinite loops by specifying a timeout for each test. Timeouts don’t do much good when they trigger TERM and KILL signals to the wrong PID. I tested my process runner carefully when first writing FATE (on Linux) and everything worked okay with using the same PID returned by the API. I think that was because I was testing the process runner using the built-in ‘sleep’ shell command. This time, I wrote a separate program called ‘hangaround’ that takes a number of seconds to hang around before exiting. This is my testing methodology:

From another command line:

$ ps ax|grep hangaround
21433 pts/2    S+     0:00 /bin/sh -c ./hangaround 30
21434 pts/2    S+     0:00 ./hangaround 30
21436 pts/0    R+     0:00 grep hangaround

That’s Linux; for Mac OS X:


$ ps ax|grep hangaround
82079 s005  S+     0:00.01 ./hangaround 30
82084 s006  R+     0:00.00 grep hangaround

So, the upshot is that I’m a little confused about how I’m going to create a general solution to work around this problem– a problem that doesn’t occur very often but makes FATE fail hard when it does show up.