Novell hopes a new way of handling Linux hardware drivers will help solve a major problem for enterprise Linux users - getting hardware to work when it isn't yet supported in the current kernel.
The Partner Linux Driver Process allows vendors to provide drivers to users direct, independently of Novell's process of updating the kernel used in its Suse Linux distributions. Currently, administrators can find themselves in a position where support for particular hardware is available, but hasn't yet been built into the kernel.
Administrators have to either locally compile the driver to add it to their systems, a process that isn't always simple or predictable or wait for their Linux vendor to update the kernel to include the driver.
The new process, to be supported in Suse Linux Enterprise 10 this summer and available now in Suse Linux Enterprise Server 9 SP3, allows the Yast configuration tool to obtain the drivers directly.
"The add-on product contains an update URL where future driver updates are retrieved when kernel updates require updated drivers," Novell said in its FAQ on the process.
Novell said the new process should help address one of the issues preventing more enterprise adoption of Linux, the lack of straightforward and timely hardware support.
At the same time, the company said it continues to support the standard process of adding drivers into the kernel. "The best place for partners to develop kernel drivers is upstream in the kernel.org source tree, where kernel driver code benefits from thorough review and community involvement," the company said. "However, we recognise 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."
"The new process is simply another way for us to help customers run their businesses reliably and cost effectively," said Kurt Garloff, head Linux architect for Novell. "We will continue to support third parties delivering open source drivers to kernel.org 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."
Novell's partners said the plan was an important step forward. "Today's announcement is a big win for our mutual customers, allowing us to respond much more quickly, ensure consistency in supported solutions and provide even greater choice in Linux offerings from Novell and HP," said Steve Geary, HP vice president of research and development, Open Source and Linux Organisation.
Some technically-orientated Linux users lambasted the approach as technically messy, and worried that it might encourage hardware makers to continue releasing their drivers in binary, rather than source-code form.
Programmers writing on the developer website Slashdot noted that Novell's new way of handling drivers is not so different from the approach taken by Windows - which seemed to sum up both the arguments for and against the programme. While some argued that administrators should be happy to recompile their Linux kernel as needed, others said the approach was realistic.
"Corporate users aren't going to go compile their own kernel, compile their own drivers or download and install binary drivers with a shell script. It's completely absurd to expect them to do that," wrote one reader.
"Having a shitty, flaky, unfixable and unsupportable binary-only driver is better than having no driver at all," wrote another. "As someone who writes closed source device drivers, I sincerely welcome this."