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Linux Developers Condemn Binary Drivers

A group of developers has signed a statement condemning 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 source drivers.

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 fall.

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.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the chief technology editor of Government Computing News (GCN.com).

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