Linux Developers Condemn Binary Drivers
- By Joab Jackson
- June 23, 2008
A group of developers has signed a statement
binary-only Linux modules, which it argues can wreak havoc on
Linux deployments, particularly because without the source code available, their
negative influence can be hard to trace.
The developers' collective decreed "any closed-source Linux kernel module
or driver to be harmful and undesirable. We have repeatedly found them to be
detrimental to Linux users, businesses and the greater Linux ecosystem."
The statement also urged Linux users to support only vendors that offer open
At last count, 141 Linux kernel developers had added their names to this list,
including such top contributors as David Woodhouse, Theodore Tso, Andrew Morton,
Greg Kroah-Hartman and Alan Cox.
Linux creator Linus Torvalds has not signed the petition.
A module is a chunk of code that can be loaded into an operating system kernel
to execute a particular function. Hardware drivers are considered modules. An
open source module is one in which the source code for the software is made
publicly available. The statement asserts that although most Linux modules are
now open source, a few are still offered only in their compiled form, called
a binary format.
Not providing the source code for modules can be problematic in a number of
ways, according to a Q&A
page posted by the Linux Foundation. Should the module malfunction, users must
rely on a single source for a fix. Linux integrators and resellers are at a
disadvantage because they cannot troubleshoot problems on their own.
Linux developers have long singled out graphics-card providers ATI, now owned
by Advanced Micro Devices, and Nvidia for not providing open source drivers
for their equipment, although ATI started to release open-source drivers last
Such drivers have historically been significant contributors to Linux bug
reports, according to an essay
posted by Linux Foundation technical advisory board chairman James Bottomley.
"The problem here is that these people quickly get frustrated with the
problems which they will ascribe to Linux in general, not the problem binary
driver in particular," Bottomley wrote.
Others have noted that such problems from binary modules can disrupt other
unrelated Linux functions and, without the source code available, developers
can be left scratching their heads about the root of the bug.
Joab Jackson is the chief technology editor of Government Computing News (GCN.com).