Mesa drivers just reached an important milestone regarding to its ability to support OpenGL 3.0. With the latest patch the version is officially pumped to GLSL 1.30 for Gen4+ drivers. What is interesting is the path towards this milestone and everything happening around Mesa shader compiler on generating machine code from your Shading Language.
What the Mesa shader compiler in high level does is that it takes your GLSL shader as an input, tokenizes the input string and parses this to an form of an Abstract Syntax Tree (AST). From the AST the compiler gets its first IR, an High level Intermediate Representation (HIR), optimized for compilers usage. From this HIR, GLSL IR through optimization and linking the code is generated to an form of Mesa IR, an IR made to be similar with GPU assembly. This is kind of an classic compiler design with your front and backend and also what Mesa has adopted from the beginning.
As Tungsten Graphics started to sketch out a new driver model for Mesa - Mesa Over Gallium, they also wanted to questions this Mesa Representation model. With Mesa Over Gallium the people from Tungsten wanted to split the DRI driver and isolate the OS dependent and independent parts. Along the new driver model Gallium also introduced its own syntax for shader called Tokenized Gallium Shader Instructions (TGSI). The driver for TGSI where coming interestingly from DirectX and one of the goals was to have it close as possible to what the proprietary Direct3D assembly looked like. The model for this was coming from AMD's Intermediate Language spec which essentially is Direct3D assembly. With this goal in mind it was hoped that if a given GPU would be well optimized for Windows, it would also perform well with TGSI.
With TGSI model the Mesa vertex/fragment shaders are translated into TGSI representation passed to Gallium Mesa state tracker from where the driver code will eventually convert them to GPU specific instructions. Still the TGSI model was far from perfect especially as the TGSI IR was achieved by first parsing applications shader programs and generating IR from that and covenanting eventually the result as TGSI.
Towars GLSL 1.30 and new model for IR's
The optimization with the two models continue and Intel for ex did a lot of optimization for the IR by rewriting the ARB program parser part. Still the model for layering multiple IRs and the next GLSL specification 1.30 required a bit of an bigger changes to the current Mesa drivers.
With Gallium/TGSI path there was an extra step on generating TGSI from Mesa IR and not doing this directly from GLSL IR. For this what started as an work to optimize and make Mesa GLSL 1.30 compliant was an effort of skipping completely the Mesa IR and to generate TGSI directly from GLSL IR. This work also introduced the first GLSL 1.30 support for Mesa/Gallium drivers as the translator added an native integer support for Gallium drivers.
On the Gallium side there was also an another effort on refactoring the IR model by placing Mesa on top of of LLVM and as an ultimate goal of having GLSL generating directly LLVM IR. The first ideas of this work was introduced already a while ago and is something that the people at LunarG have adopted wih their goal on having an HW independent IR and dependent parts of the IR separated. Layering the shader compiler called LunarGlass similarly to the Gallium architecture.
Later on the Classic Mesa driver side an new GLSL compiler was introduced and developed from scratch. The new GLSL version 2 (or at least take 2) aims to generate GLSL IR directly from assembly shaders and from fixed functions, and most importantly using GLSL IR directly with the drivers rather than stepping through Mesa IR - the original Mesa Intermediate Representation. This mainly as the Mesa IR was designed and written in the times when ARB - OpenGL Assembly Language was still the way to control the graphics pipeline and the and having 1-to-1 mapping all to way to HW instructions was seen as an benefit. This was not the case with modern GPU's and having higher level shader language existing.
Along the IR changes this work also brought the GLSL 1.30 support to Classic Mesa drivers for ex by not anymore assuming that the only HW type is vec4.
Were we are now is that that the pixel shader units themselves are still faster than what we need. Still the longer and more complicated shader programs will become more common even beyond games and also the usage of shaders is becoming more diverse. This meaning that the performance will definitely be welcomed also to our Linux drivers.