The importance of Open drivers and openness in general

by davidnielsen

An interesting question was asked on the Ubuntu Forums regarding openness and why some people were reacting the way they are on the issue of proprietary software. The example given was the driver Nvidia provides for their videocards. I wrote this as a response, instead of going into ideologically definitions of freedom I feel that new users might like to see the real world measurable advantages.

Looking at the proprietary closed source nvidia driver which is currently needed for supporting 3D acceleration and many other features supported by this range of hardware. I would like to specifically point to these 4 arguments.

1) Security

It’s several megabytes of code running in your kernel with access to all kinds of things. You can’t see what it’s doing and it has been subject to at least one major security issue. We can’t fix it, if Nvidia doesn’t find the problem worth the effort then we either have to remove the driver or leave users vulnerable to attack as a distribution.

2) Portability

The nvidia driver only runs on the platforms Nvidia deems they can support. This means e.g. that right now PS3 owners who wishes to run Linux on their machines (a fully supported feature from Sony btw. though not on the Slim models) are left without such things as 3D acceleration and video codec acceleration.

3) Stability

Looking over the top kerneloopses a clear trend is that kernels with the nvidia driver (and the ati proprietary driver) are high scoring components of these and related problems. Users can (and have) experience crashes in applications, problems for which the root cause is in code in these modules. Such problems we can’t fix since we aren’t privy to the code, we are depending on the vendor providing such support in a timely fashion. As a Linux distribution you might also encounter problems with users getting a poor experience and thus losing customers – meaning Nvidia in theory could hold distributions at ransom till an open alternative appears with the same functionality or we do as they tell us.

This scenario though due to the public backlash it would cause seems absurd. What isn’t though is that Nvidia has their own development schedule and if we want to develop our software stack we occasionally have to make changes that change APIs and thus breaks the nvidia driver (this has happened). This forces us to either break this piece of the functionality for users when we import the new underlying stack or hold it back till Nvidia decides to release a compatible version. This effectively lets nvidia dictate the development pace and release process of a large part of Linux.

4) Support for outdated/unavailable for sale hardware and saving the environment

Nvidia regularly moves older devices into a subset of their driver called legacy. This driver isn’t well maintained, on purpose to lessen their support burden and naturally to sell new videocards. We thus can’t support users existing hardware, therefor we (though in reality Nvidia) force them to upgrade their machines or stay on their existing platform. Preventing distributions from gaining users and thus also potential customers. It also lessens the applicability of the age old benefit Linux always was known for, running on an old clunker and give it new life.

E.g. I participate in a project that sends old hardware to Africa to use in schools. When the time comes that the machines that come in through the door contain Nvidia chips that aren’t supported we give poor African children machines that do less than they can, are less fun, will interest them less. Making school a less exciting break in what must otherwise be a pretty bleak day.

Yes, I did just manage to invoke starving African kids while making an argument on software. Please do not see this as an emotional argument but rather a matter of making education as appealing as we can to everyone and thereby encourage more people to get engaged. The positive effects of education are hard to deny and pretty much any effort being made to increase the likelihood that people will enter into such programs should be welcomed.

Every time you are forced to upgrade perfectly working hardware to get to a supported version of Linux (even Ubuntu’s Long Term Support releases are only supported for 3½ years on the desktop) you are left with spare hardware. Often this ends up getting thrown out, replacing it thus forces upon us amongst others the following problems:

- Needlessly depleting our natural resources more

- Needlessly imposing more waste which contains toxic chemicals.

- Wasting production capacity

- Wasting money

With Open Source drivers we have the means to take these problems into our own hands.

I hope this is helpful in providing arguments for open drivers. This is a complicated area where we need to convince vendors to work with us and we need to understand that we are asking them to change their culture. They are used to sharing coming only with the exchange of large sums of money in the form of licensing agreements. We cannot expect them to change overnight but we can inform users of the arguments for openness and then together do our best to work with vendors towards greater cooperation on terms that serve the user.

It’s not just a Linux issue, even Microsoft is faced with downsides of not having access to the driver code and being able to update them at will. A study showed that 30% of Vista crashes where caused by drivers from Nvidia. Vista was notoriously poorly received for many complex reasons, it’s is just one problem area.

This is not to pick on Nvidia specifically, I use them as an example as this is a situation that is fairly well documented and many people use this driver.