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6/23/2008
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Linux Developers: It's Time To Open Source All Device Drivers

Linux kernel developers issued a statement saying binary drivers can't be viewed as an acceptable alternative to open source drivers.

The developers of the Linux kernel are trying to push against hardware manufacturers that don't want an open source code driver associated with their products.

About 98% of the makers of portable disk drives, graphics adapter cards, mobile wireless cards, and other hardware devices supply an open source code driver for the Linux kernel. But there are still a few holdouts.

Normally, pressure is applied by major system manufacturers -- such as IBM, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard -- that want their systems to work with as many components as possible. These manufacturers, with Dell joining their ranks, insist that open source drivers accompany the devices they build into products. The alternative is a device driver that's kept proprietary; it's been compiled into ones and zeros, so it's difficult for any programmer, other than the one who originated it, to read and understand it. Some companies believe open source drivers too easily reveal trade secrets or at least proprietary advantage.

Intel used to be one of them. "Six or seven years ago, Intel kept everything closed. Now it's the poster child of open sourcing everything," said Don Kohn, chief operating officer of the Linux Foundation, an industry group formed to support the development of Linux. Oracle, IBM, HP, and Intel pay dues to the foundation, and it employs Linus Torvalds, Linux's lead developer.

Intel now hires developers for the purpose of producing open source drivers for the graphics processors in its chipsets. ATI, a graphics card producer, has announced that it, too, is moving to open source drivers since its acquisition by AMD. A third major player in the graphics processing market, however, Nvidia, has thus far stuck with binary drivers, said Kohn.

To encourage more Intel-like conversions, Linux kernel developers issued a statement today saying binary drivers cannot be viewed as an acceptable alternative to open source drivers. "We consider any closed-source Linux kernel module or driver to be harmful and undesirable. We have repeatedly found them to be detrimental to Linux users," it said.

Windows includes binary-only drivers and thus retains an edge over Linux in the number of devices it can run out of the box. Linux developer Greg Kroah-Hartman, in charge of USB and other driver subsystems, says Linux supports more devices than Windows, but not all of the drivers are included in every distribution. Kroah-Hartman was one of the signers of the statement.

The Linux kernel is issued under the GPLv2 license and can't include proprietary code mixed in with open source. Some Linux distributors, particularly Ubuntu, download and add in binary drivers for the convenience of their end-user customers. The more devices Linux works with out of the box, the easier it is for individuals to install.

The 135 kernel developers who urged a halt to proprietary drivers represent the bulk of active kernel maintainers. They included Andrew Morton, Torvalds' right-hand man; Alan Cox, a key maintainer of kernels that have entered the mainstream; and Kroah-Hartman, who leads USB device driver implementation for the Linux kernel. He has offered to supply open source developers to any company that doesn't wish to produce its own open source driver.

James Bottomley, an open source consultant at Hansen Partnerships and kernel developer who maintains the SCSI storage subsystem area, said some companies are reluctant to release the documentation that would allow outsiders to develop open source drivers.

"Releasing documentation [at a proprietary company] is one of the most difficult things for them to do," he said, adding that the advocates of doing so may go through a year of getting approvals and sign-offs on specific documents, then be torpedoed by the legal department saying, so why increase our exposure?

So a small percentage of graphic card, wireless card, USB device, and portable disk drive makers still refuse to offer an open source code device driver. Bottomley said they should expect less tolerance and more sustained pressure from Linux developers for them to do so.

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