"GNU Radio is Crap" and Other Such Insights

There seem to be two kinds of people that I meet when talking about GNU Radio. Those who loves it and those who hate it. I rarely get anyone either in between or who just want to know more about it. I am writing this to explore why this happens and why some people think GNU Radio is, as is often put, crap. 

First, let me take a step back. I was recently at the Software Radio Implementation Forum (SRIF) in Hong Kong to give a talk on GNU Radio. There were some enthusiastic people in the audience who I talked to afterwards about the project. Also there was a talk on Microsoft's Sora project, another software radio system. The presentation was very enlightening, especially in regards to identifying the differences between GNU Radio and Sora. In large part, we have come at things from two completely different philosophies, which I think plays into the main thread of this article.

GNU Radio has always been about enabling the development and experimentation of communications. It was designed around the flow graph and the block structure to piece radios together. We wanted developers and designers. As such, we spent little time working on grand applications and demonstrations of the project, save maybe for the original ATSC decoder. We have lots of examples, but most of them are about how to use GNU Radio, not about showing what GNU Radio can do. There's a subtle but important difference between the two.

Sora, on the other hand, came at things with the intent of building and showing off complex applications in software radio, ostensibly to prove that GPPs could handle complex waveforms. Their initial project enabled them to do 802.11 in real-time. They then moved to LTE. Their use of memory and look-up tables to replace computations and their initial focus on using SIMD programming for speed have made a very fast, solidly performing SDR system. But it is really only now that they are building Sora into a project for developers. At this SRIF talk, I heard about them building "bricks," which we would call "blocks," that will fit together and create a radio. 

Now, this is, obviously, my take on the history of the project from the presentations and papers that I have seen and read. 

So the way that I see it is that the projects came from different directions. We started with the development and programming model, but lack good applications to showcase our product. They have great apps, but are just now getting things together as a developers platform. This represents two different mindsets that I see in the computer and programming community as a whole. There are those who want to develop and those who want to use. In a very basic and non-nuanced sense, these attitudes are the distinction between Windows users and Linux users. Linux users don't mind getting their hands dirty and working a bit harder for the freedoms and power Linux gives them. Windows users are more interested in using computers. (I confess that such as simplified comparison makes me feel like a bad stand-up comic, but I hope the point is made without belaboring the subject).

From this perspective, those people who think GNU Radio is crap, when I get a chance to talk to them about their problems, tend to be from the application side of things. They try to use one of our examples out of the box and treat it as though it is meant to be a full-on application. Except that they are examples of how to do things. We have not yet built a real digital communications application as part of GNU Radio. Our benchmark scripts are meant for benchmarking and exploring how to do digital communications. They were never meant to be used as part of a deployed communications platform. If you look at it, we don't even use equalizers or channel coding, so they are fragile and hard to use. But we've never claimed any differently.

Still, our examples are there for the world to see, and I can't be surprised when people mistake the intentions. And so I similarly cannot be upset when I get the reactions from people who wanted to use GNU Radio to make an quick application based on OFDM or MIMO. We simply haven't provided them with the means to do so.

On the other hand, when someone comes to the project with a developers mindset and wants to do something complicated, they can spend the time to work with the code and see what kind of capabilities are offered. We have some great developers who have done some amazing things with GNU Radio, and so we know that it's not crap. But it's not shiny, either.

To conclude, I'm left with the difficult problem of trying to think if there is a way to solve this problem. There is definitely no single solution or magic bullet. I'd love to see evne more complete applications get published on CGRAN or sites like Github. And for some of those that are already published, some amount of care needs to be taken to ensure some quality control, by which I mean good documentation and a user interface to the products as well as easy maintanence as GNU Radio versions evolve. I'd also love more feedback and additions to our examples in GNU Radio, even to the extent that we can get more of what we would call applications (there's a reason we have an examples and apps directory in our new tree

structure). These ideas involve the buy-in of the community and a slight change in our ideas and understanding of how to construct and present applications to the world.