Novell pioneers faster way to deliver Linux drivers:

Novell Inc. has come up with a faster way to deliver Linux hardware drivers, and driver updates, to Linux users.

With the new driver process, users can get drivers independently of kernel updates, and vendors can more easily develop and deliver device drivers for Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise products. In addition, the new Linux process enables hardware and software vendors to provide their products' Linux drivers and driver updates to customers directly, while still being integrated with SUSE's YaST operating system setup and configuration tool.

The new process is simply another way for us to help customers run their businesses reliably and cost effectively," Kurt Garloff, head Linux architect for Novell, said in a statement.

"Working with the open-source community and our hardware and software partners, and welcoming the participation of other Linux distributors, we are allowing customers to efficiently obtain needed drivers independent of our SUSE Linux Enterprise release cycles," Garloff explained. "We will continue to support third parties delivering open source drivers to for release directly with our Linux products, but this new process fills the driver gap between releases that can be critical to customer and partner success."

What this changes

Specifically, as described in the Novell developer wiki, "Before the introduction of the Partner Linux Driver Process, only Novell could provide supported drivers for SUSE Linux Enterprise based products. Customers who needed updated drivers for drivers not supported by Novell were basically on their own."

Adding insult to injury, "Sometimes Linux kernel updates break drivers precompiled for previous kernels versions, crashing the system or corrupting data," the wiki continues. "The drivers, at a minimum, must be recompiled against the new kernel version which could require changes in driver source code to successfully recompile. Such recompilation and adjustments to source code usually required audacious and skilled system administrators."

To take that burden off system administrators, Novell's new process provides a clean and integrated infrastructure for partners to provide drivers for new hardware, independent of the SUSE Linux release cycles. At the same time, the company has also defined a process whereby partners can provide their customers with driver updates corresponding to kernel updates.

The bottom line is that users can receive support for hardware and kernel driver updates directly from vendors, as either the kernel or updated firmware or software becomes available for devices.

In a way, similar to how Windows customers can obtain device updates, SUSE customers will be able to update their drivers by either accessing them online, or with a vendor-supplied CD or other media. Instead of Windows Update, the user will use YaST to obtain the latest update.

Additionally, hardware vendors will be kept informed of the latest SUSE developments via Novell's PartnerNet for Technology Partners program, so that they can improve their drivers as necessary.

These drivers are then linked to a specific Linux kernel version via kABI (Kernel Application Binary Interface) metadata. This linkage enables the system to know what driver version works with the current kernel version. Since the kABI is a moving target, Novell will track it and inform hardware vendors, as needed, when they need to update a driver for an upcoming change to the kABI.

Depending on a vendor's technology partner level, Novell may offer to take the driver code into a build service so the driver is already rebuilt within Novell during the kernel security embargo. The driver update will usually become available at the same time as the kernel security update.

Novell does not intend for this new model to replace the existing kernel driver model. In its FAQ, the Linux distributor states, "The best place for partners to develop kernel drivers is upstream in the source tree, where kernel driver code benefits from thorough review and community involvement. Novell promotes having all Linux device drivers be a part of the official source tree. However, we recognize that some drivers are not there yet or have been integrated only after a kernel release has happened. For this case, we offer a way to get a supportable and certifiable driver anyway using the Driver Process described here."

At times, some vendors who needed kernel-level drivers have had trouble working with the kernel development community. Because of this, some Linux drivers have been delayed.

While Novell is introducing this as part of its commercial SUSE lines, it's also open-source, and it's already available in OpenSUSE 10.1.

The company is also providing and explaining the inner workings of the approach to the community and other Linux vendors, for the betterment of all Linux users and their support.

Novell has always worked out a partnership with Dell. The PC giant's DKMS (Dynamic Kernel Module Support) already supports the approach.

Novell's hardware partners are very pleased with this new driver service.

Reza Rooholamini, Dell's director of Enterprise Solutions Engineering, stated, our "customers can now update to the latest drivers for our hardware, without the cost and resource related to rebuilding kernel drivers or waiting for kernel patches."

"The new device driver service in Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 and SUSE Linux Enterprise 10 is designed to make it easier for IBM's extensive network of worldwide business partners and customers to seamlessly integrate software and hardware in Linux environments," added Scott Handy, IBM VP of Worldwide Linux and Open Source in a statement.

Kenichi Hori, chief manager of the NEC OSS Promotion Center, summed it up: "Novell's Linux driver process is a practical approach that enhances the maintainability of Linux systems. NEC welcomes the announcement as it will be beneficial for both customers and driver suppliers."

This new Linux driver process will be included with SUSE Linux Enterprise 10 when it ships this summer, and is available now for SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 SP3. The YaST mechanism to accept drivers from this new process is already in OpenSUSE 10.1