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OLS: Open source graphics drivers

An Ottawa Linux Symposium talk called Open source graphic drivers - they don't kill kittens caught your editor's attention. The relative safety of kittens in the presence of these drivers had, until now, been something which, your editor thought, could be taken for granted. Sure enough, young felines need not worry too much - especially since open source graphic drivers have a distressing tendency to not exist for a fair number of cards. That situation may be changing, however.

Speaker David Airlie started with a review of the current state of free graphics drivers. Intel chipsets are relatively well supported, thanks to an enlightened position being taken by that company. ATI is a "former leading light" in the free software world, but is no longer cooperating. Even so, the free R200 driver is feature-complete and, at this point, faster than the binary-only fglrx driver. The reverse-engineered R300/R400 driver is getting closer to being ready; there is no hope for the R500 chipset at this point. Nvidia has a 2D driver in which is "written in hex" and a well-supported, binary 3D driver. Said driver "still sucks," of course.

David took the time to point out that, once you load a 1MB binary blob into your kernel, you are no longer running a free operating system. There is no way to know what that code is doing, no way to fix it, and no way to support systems which have that code loaded. Support going into the future tends to be problematic; the vendors drop support for old cards sooner than many users would like, and are not always quick to add support for the newer chipsets.

Why do vendors refuse to support the free software community? David noted, with amusement, that both ATI and Nvidia withdrew support at about the same time that they got Xbox contracts. Let's hope, he says, that Intel never works an Xbox deal. More seriously, there is the usual talk of patent problems, third-party software which cannot be freed, and so on. These problems tend to evaporate when enough money is applied to the situation, however.

So what do things look like in the future? For Intel chipsets, says David, the future is "mostly excellent." Intel is friendly, and driver support tends to be available about the same time that new chipsets are released. For now, this is a group which seems to get it.

On the ATI front, the R300 reverse engineering effort continues. Support for the 9800 series cards has been stabilized - an effort which, at one point, required almost six months of a developer's time to find a single bit in one register which was causing the card to lock up. The R500 series is harder - though it does not differ all that greatly from previous offerings. David actually has a 2D driver which he wrote, and which he has submitted to ATI for permission to distribute. ATI has sat on the driver for some months with no response. Until such a time as ATI gives permission, David (due to NDA constraints) is unable to release his code.

On the Nvidia side, the best hope is the Nouveau project, which has set out to create a reverse-engineered 3D Nvidia driver. There about five or six people currently working on the project, which also looks to add some nice 2D features (EXA acceleration, dual head support). The Nouveau developers have no code to show at this point, being heavily involved in the reverse engineering work. Progress is being made, but this is a large project, bigger than the ATI R300 effort. For those who are interested in contributing to the community, Nouveau looks like a project which could use some more help.

Linux needs free drivers for graphics adapters. The challenges involved in freeing this part of our systems are daunting - there is a great deal of work yet to be done. The overall tone of the talk was optimistic, however. Developers are on the task, progress is being made, and the goal is, slowly, getting closer. The kittens will have their revenge in the end.

Comments (44 posted)

Free Software Sets the Computing Agenda

July 19, 2006

This article was contributed by Glyn Moody

The news that the European Commission is to fine Microsoft - €280.5 million has naturally provoked plenty of headlines, both in the technical and non-technical press. But big as that number might seem, it is in truth a gnat-bite as far as the Microsoft behemoth is concerned: last year its net income was $12 billion, and it holds cash and short-term investments worth over $39 billion. Against this background, the EU's fine is a little more than an accountancy rounding error.

What is interesting about the whole affair is that the sticking point seems to be an apparently minor requirement to provide technical information that would allow third parties to interoperate better with networks running Microsoft Windows. But as a press release from the Free Software Foundation Europe rightly points out, this obstinacy is not over some general principle, whatever Microsoft might claim, but is actually highly specific, and has one aim above all: to thwart Samba's rise in the enterprise.

Thus Microsoft's brinkmanship with the European Commission is driven almost entirely by its need to react to free software. It turns out that this is by no means the only sphere where Microsoft has ceased to be master of its own destiny, and finds itself constantly responding to open source initiatives, and playing catch-up with free software projects.

A good example is to be found in the world of high-performance computing (HPC). GNU/Linux was first used for computing clusters back in 1994, when the Beowulf project began. Since then, free software has established itself as the pre-eminent HPC solution. In June 2006, the TOP500 listing of the most powerful supercomputers in the world showed that well over 70% of them ran some variant of GNU/Linux; precisely two systems out of 500 used some form of Windows. The same month, Microsoft finally launched its official HPC solution, the Windows Computer Cluster Server 2003 – fully 12 years after the first free software solution was made available for this sector.

While the crushing lead that free software has over Windows in the HPC area is little known outside specialist circles, most people in computing are familiar with the fact that the Apache Web server has maintained a commanding lead over Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) for the past few years.

Microsoft, too, is obviously acutely aware of this, and recently has been making sustained efforts to reduce the embarrassingly large lead Apache holds, and with some success. For example, the Netcraft survey for June 2006 showed that Microsoft IIS gained 4.5 million Web servers, while Apache lost 429,000, giving Microsoft a whopping 4.25% gain for the month, and cutting the gap between them to 31.5%, a drop of 16.7% in just three months. Closer examination reveals exactly why this is happening. As Netcraft's analysis explains:

Apache's loss of hostnames is due to decreases for Linux at a number of hosting companies. In addition to Go Daddy [which moved over 1.6 million hostnames from Apache to IIS], six hosts reduced their use of Linux by 40K or more, including leading UK provider PIPEX Communications, Lycos and Zipa.

This is unlikely to be coincidence. After a year of steady market share, the graph for IIS has been rising sharply since March 2006, which suggests a concerted effort by Microsoft to court hosting companies in order to swing them away from Apache on GNU/Linux towards IIS running on Windows. Once again, then, this shows Microsoft being forced to react to free software's successes. Despite these efforts, the market still seems to be moving away from Microsoft: the Netcraft survey for July 2006 shows a gain of 1.8% for Apache, mostly made of up incremental gains at a dozen hosting companies.

Perhaps the best-known example of Microsoft being compelled to revise its strategy thanks to free software is in the world of Web browsers. Development work on Microsoft's browser had effectively came to a halt after the release of Internet Explorer 6 in August 2001. Microsoft's refusal to provide any significant updates to IE 6, despite its mounting security problems, was one of the prime reasons why the Firefox project was started. Firefox's steady rise in popularity, and the corresponding drop in Internet Explorer's market share, eventually compelled Bill Gates to announce a reversal of Microsoft's previous decision not to produce a standalone browser before Vista appeared.

With betas available of both IE 7 and Firefox 2.0, the emerging consensus seems to be that Microsoft has largely caught up with the free software world as far as browser technology is concerned, but the price that it has paid for its lengthy refusal to satisfy the needs of users is a serious loss of market share. Latest figures from show that Firefox holds some 15.8% of the browser market in the US, and a massive 39% in Germany.

Even though the appearance of IE 7 is likely to staunch the flow of users away from IE to Firefox, the latter has established itself as a serious rival, one that Microsoft will need to track continually to prevent more of its users defecting. In itself, this is not a huge problem for Microsoft. The appearance of Firefox has essentially made Microsoft more responsive to users, and more amenable to following open standards. It does not, though, imply any loss of revenues.

The situation for office suites is quite different. Microsoft Office is one of the main cash cows for the whole company: any loss of market share here will have serious financial repercussions. This makes Microsoft's decision to sponsor a project to create tools to build "a technical bridge" between the Microsoft Office Open XML Formats and the OpenDocument Format all the more surprising, since potentially it could lead to a costly leak of Office users to other office suites supporting ODF.

It shows once more the world's leading software company being forced to backtrack in response to developments in the open source world. Microsoft's position initially was that no one was using ODF, and so there was no point supporting it. But the announcements by Massachusetts and, particularly, the Belgian and Danish governments in favor of ODF - with administrations in France, Germany and elsewhere considering the move - meant that Microsoft was forced to cede to the growing pressure for some kind of ODF support in Office. The fact that Google has joined the ODF Alliance - whose members now number 260 - and will be supporting the ODF standard with its online word processor Writely means that Microsoft's scope for independent action is even more circumscribed.

Taken on their own, each of these instances of Microsoft emulating or accommodating free software might seem fairly minor. Put together, they represent a consistent pattern of loss of control that is unprecedented in the company's recent history. From being on the fringes, ignored or at best derided by traditional software companies, open source has gradually moved to the centre, to the point where today it is free software - and not Microsoft - that is setting the agenda for computing at practically every level.

Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.

Comments (29 posted)

Page editor: Rebecca Sobol

Inside this week's Weekly Edition

  • Security: The /proc vulnerability; New vulnerabilities in libpng, rssh, vixie-cron, zope, ...
  • Kernel: The 2006 Kernel Summit; Small kernels for embedded Linux.
  • Distributions: Debian server compromise; SUSE Linux Enterprise 10, DzongkhaLinux, dyne:bolic 2.1; Debian 'Etch' release update; FC6 Test2 Freeze Slip
  • Development: The Rosegarden MIDI Sequencer, new versions of BEAST/BSE, netjack, Linux-HA, HampusDB, FreeImage, Wireshark, BlockSSHD, WSMT, smbind, jack_capture, GNOME, GARNOME, LyX, TuxGuitar, eGroupWare, KOffice, Open Movie Editor, GNU CLISP, Urwid, SDCC.
  • Press: Free software compared to the movie Brazil, software from the biological perspective, Google joins ODF, Resurrection of RidgeRun, Linux in health care, Linux powered robot, New EU Patent War, GPL and source distribution, Ubuntu package management, cross-platform NFS, LAMP security, Firefox 2 preview, OO.o extensions, LGPL changes.
  • Announcements: Microsoft and XenSource partner, VMware results, FSG unites Linux printing, OpenWengo Code Camp, Health Care Open Source Conf, Ohio LinuxFest, Siggraph 2006, WebGUI Users Conf, DMCA wiki discussion, GPLv3 videos, KDE audio interviews.
  • Letters: CVE-2006-2451 update, Yeah, a letter to the editor, Open letter to nVidia: Please open source the legacy nVidia video drivers.
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