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Via tiptoes toward openness

Apr 30, 2008 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — views

Board and chipmaker Via is gearing up toward releasing Linux driver source code and product documentation for its popular x86-compatible chipsets and peripherals. The company has launched a website where Ubuntu 8.04 and SUSE 10 binary graphics drivers can be downloaded, with source code and documentation to follow, it says.

In the graphics chip market, closed, binary-only Linux drivers have long been common, if not the norm, not only from Via and its S3 graphics processor subsidiary, but also from NVidia and ATI, the longtime discreet graphics chip market leaders. Industry lore maintains that no graphics chip maker can share too much design detail without risking patent attacks from all the others. If this is true, some kind of patent non-enforcement pact may ultimately be needed before Linux and other open source operating systems enjoy graphical parity with closed or close-able OSes like Windows, Mac OS X, and Unix.

Yet, earlier this month, at the Linux Foundation's annual Collaboration Summit in Austin, Tex., Via made a big splash by announcing it would open its devices to community developers. Today's announcement appears to be one small step toward following through on that commitment. The step involves launching a “beta” Linux driver site, here, where drivers for Ubuntu 8.04 (“Hardy Heron”) and SUSE 10 can be downloaded for Via's CN896, a digital media-oriented chipset that mates with Via's C7 and Eden processors.

Ironically, if Via ultimately does manage to open its driver code and documentation, the company will certainly not need a website to distribute its drivers, because every Linux distributor would gladly include open source drivers for such popular parts. Meanwhile, Ubuntu already offers fairly seamless support for installing binary drivers, and so will gladly include the new version-specific binary builds. Chris Kenyon, director of business development at Ubuntu maintainer Canonical, stated, “We look forward to working with VIA to ensure these drivers get built into Ubuntu by default.”

The binary quandary

Without source code or documentation, open source community developers can not fix bugs in the drivers, or port them to newer or patched versions of the Linux kernel. That may not pose a grave problem for casual desktop Linux users uninterested in building their own kernels for faster booting or lower memory utilization. But, binary-only drivers could limit the selection of Via parts by developers of Linux PCs and devices, or at least prompt them to inquire about a source license, which parts makers often offer under NDA (non-disclosure agreement).

Another problem with binary drivers is that they make kernel debugging more difficult, since part of the kernel (the binary driver) becomes off-limits to instrumentation. Thus, most Linux kernel developers are uninterested in helping solve problems involving binary drivers. Use binary drivers, and as a product designer, you'll get less free support from the Linux kernel development team.

Yet another strike against binary drivers is the fear that some illegality may be lurking inside the shroud of obscurity provided by binary object code. Should the illegality come to light, it could affect the product's longevity in the market, a primary concern for device designers, in particular.

Today, most of the functionality in Via graphics chipsets and peripherals is already supported by open source drivers. The seemingly all-encompassing “vesa” driver distributed by the Xorg and XFree86 projects duly supports basic operation. And, users interested in higher performance 2D graphics and MPEG-2 acceleration can patch in software from the UniChrome and OpenChrome projects, respectively. This usually involves a relatively simple (for a developer) recompile of the kernel and/or the X Window system. But, if you need 3D acceleration — say to do 3D animation, or even to use a 3D window manager like Beryl/Compiz — you'll probably want Via's binary drivers.

Via competitor Intel, meanwhile, has been a model open source citizen whose chipsets and peripheral chips almost always come with freely licensed open source drivers. An exception here is Intel's ubiquitous IWL 802.11 WiFi radios, though Intel is reportedly moving toward open drivers by building hard limits into future hardware designs, to prevent reprogramming around radio law established by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and other regulatory bodies.

The third horse in the x86-compatible processor race, AMD, recently promised better open source support for ATI graphics chips after purchasing ATI, following up with binary Ubuntu 7.10 drivers. Indeed, that last announcement may well have inspired Via to aggressively move to support Ubuntu's newest release.

Via's VP of corporate marketing, Richard Brown, stated, “Opening the VIA Linux Portal is an important step in our long term open source initiative and offering support for Ubuntu, one of the most widely known of the Linux distributions, is an ideal place to start.”

See Via's Linux portal for more details.

Henry Kingman

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