Kernel space: drivers that don't make the kernel scene

Linux supports most hardware "out of the box" without adding a driver. Most of the missing drivers are proprietary, from uncooperative manufacturers, but there are a few where the license is right but the actual code is still missing. Why?

Arjan van de Ven's kernel oops report always makes for interesting reading; it is a quick summary of what is making the most kernels crash over the past week. It thus points to where some of the most urgent bugs are to be found. Sometimes, though, this report can raise larger issues as well. Consider the June 16 report, which notes that quite a few kernel crashes were the result of a not-quite-ready wireless update shipped by Fedora. Ingo Molnar was quick to jump on this report with a process-related complaint:

i suspect Fedora has done this to enable more hardware, and/or to fix mainline wireless bugs? I wish we would do such new driver merging in mainline instead, so that we had a single point of testing and single point of effort. Same for Nouveau: Fedora carries it and i dont understand why such a major piece of work is not done in mainline and not _helped by_ mainline.

He then took the discussion further with this observation:

That's my main point: when we mess up and dont merge OSS driver code that was out there in time - and we messed up big time with wireless - we should admit the screwup and swallow the bitter pill.

This comment drew some unhappy responses from the networking developers, who feel that they have been unfairly targeted for criticism. Wireless drivers have been merged at the first real opportunity, they say, and trying to put them in earlier would have only made things worse. In fact, the author will submit that mistakes were made with wireless drivers, but those mistakes have little to do with delaying their inclusion into the mainline. What went wrong with wireless is this:

Early wireless developers did not really try to solve the wireless networking problem; they just wanted to get their adaptor to work. Wireless maintainer John Linville once told the author that, for years, these adaptors were treated as if they were Ethernet adaptors, which they certainly are not. When these developers did get around to dealing with issues specific to wireless networking, they created their own wireless stacks contained within their drivers. So no general wireless framework was created.

It's only in 2004 that Jeff Garzik started a project to create a generic wireless stack for Linux - and he started with a stack (HostAP) which, sometime later on, was seen as not being the best choice. So the work on HostAP - late to begin in the first place - was eventually abandoned.

The networking stack which was eventually developed - mac80211 - began its life as a proprietary code base created with no community review or oversight at all. Predictably, it had all kinds of problems which required well over a year of work to resolve. Until mac80211 was in reasonable shape, there was no real way to get drivers ready for inclusion.

The result of all this (and the occasional legal hassle as well) is that wireless networking on Linux lagged for years, and is only now reaching something close to a stable state. So it is not surprising that there has been a lot of code churn in this area, or that things occasionally break. But it is hard to see how trying to merge wireless drivers sooner would have helped the situation significantly.

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