2006-10-17

Interfaces and stability

These days there is much fuss around (not so) newly discovered bugs in nVidia drivers for Linux. Instead of being happy that a large software vendor has gone to trouble of providing drivers for a nonsignificant portion of their market share, users are whining about the "evil" nature of closed-source binary blobs being downloaded to kernel.


  1. The importance of the bug is exaggerated. I consider it a bad practice to install any kind of advanced graphic capabilities on servers. As for desktops.. well, a plethora of bugs in other "desktop programs" already exist, this one doesn't make any additional threats beyond the existing ones. And it's simple to fix - don't use the driver.

  2. I've found many complaints that nVidia's drivers are low-quality, unstable or just don't work. (Even today a friend complained to me.)


What is most fascinating is that users of these drivers are barking at the wrong tree (nVidia in this case): the real fault lies on the lack of official kernel APIs which are also ever-changing, to make the situation more difficult. And Linus is even proud of it, replying in the lines of "read the source".

IMHO, users are in this case a direct victim of such attitude. As I said, Linux is only a secondary platform to nVidia. They have no real financial incentive in keeping up with Linux kernel development. There is no point in constantly keeping behind myriad of Linux kernels with different patches and trying to make drivers work with every single one of them. Why? Because there's no stable kernel API.

Binary-only drivers (if written well, but that's beside the point here) work very well on Solaris, AIX and Win32. I don't know about AIX, but I know that Solaris and Win32 publish official driver development kits (DDK). Every 3rd party manufacturer can write a driver w/o relying on the "current state of flux" of the kernel and be reasonably certain that their investment in the platform is long-term. Something which is not the case with Linux.

I encourage users to stop buying the "binary blobs are evil"-nonsense and start asking the following question to Linux developers: "Why doesn't Linux have DDK?" If some DDK appears, Linux will maybe (just maybe) become a more attractive platform for hardware manufacturers. I believe it'd be easier to convince "big players" to write Linux drivers conforming to DDK than to convince them to publish HW specs. Until such time, users are "doomed" to reverse-engineered drivers, "black magic" (like ndiswrapper), buggy (like nVidia's), or simply no drivers at all.

And I fully understand reluctance of ATI and nVidia to open up specs. Opening up the HW spec can reveal much about internal implementation. And internals are what they are living of. Encourages competition. And in the end, it's the users who benefit of it. (Just imagine ATI copying every feature of nVidia with same performance and comparable price, and vice-versa. They would simply loose any incentive to further develop their chips. At least until a newcomer to the market appears.)

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1 comment:

Paulo Henrique Silva said...

"Why doesn't Linux have DDK?"

=> Documentation/stable-api-nonsense.txt (http://lxr.linux.no/source/Documentation/stable_api_nonsense.txt)

If we insist to compare Linux with "your_favorite_other_OS" we will certainly think that a stable API would be the right way, but the way that linux kernel has evolved proves that this is not the case to Linux. But, OK? This discussion can be very long... Nice post indeed.