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Don't go binary for your Linux desktop drivers

Binary drivers only hurt those who are looking for device support for their Linux desktop, says one of the co-authors of the "Linux Administration Handbook." Find why it's better to better to purchase devices that specifically market their Linux support and why this author doesn't play favorites with distros.

Binary drivers only hurt those who are looking for device support for their Linux desktop, says Trent Hein, one of the co-authors of the Linux Administration Handbook, 2nd Edition (Prentice Hall). Hardware manufacturers usually discontinue binary driver support long before users have finished using the device.

More on Linux desktop driver support issues:
Linux desktop driver woes: Laying blame, lobbying, coping

Configuring hardware in 'Beginning SUSE Linux'

In this interview, Hein discusses why it's better to buy devices from manufacturers that specifically market Linux support, what factors are causing driver support issues and why he doesn't have a favorite distro.

Linux desktop driver support is a problem for users. Does the latest version of the Linux Administration Handbook offer some new advice and/or success stories for users that can give them hope?

Trent Hein: In the Linux Administration Handbook, 2nd Edition, we present the realities of running Linux in today's enterprise IT environment. It's true that desktop driver support is an issue in some organizations.

In our book, we provide details of how to find and integrate drivers for newly acquired devices, using both the hotplug and the traditional methods for doing so. Unfortunately, if no one has written a driver for a particular device, it may be most efficient to choose an alternate device, rather than writing the driver from scratch yourself.

What advice can you offer to Linux users about finding device drivers and compatible hardware?

Hein: It's always better to purchase devices that specifically market their Linux support, rather than purchasing a device that doesn't highlight their Linux compatibility, and then trying to locate a backwater, hacked-together driver for it. This rewards those Linux-savvy hardware manufacturers and offers incentives to them to produce more great hardware with Linux support.

What are, in your opinion, the biggest causes of Linux desktop driver support problems? What can IT managers do about them?

Hein: In the enterprise, the biggest cause of driver support problems is lack of standardization and purchasing discipline. Regardless of what operating system you're running in your organization, it's critical that you select and test devices that will work reliably for users and are compatible with other components.

In the case of Linux, this includes selecting hardware that's specifically compatible with Linux. In Linux Administration Handbook, 2nd Edition, we discuss not only the technical aspects of a Linux environment, but the political aspects, as well.

Do you think the business desktop should be standardized on SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 (SLED10)?

Hein: SLED10 is certainly a fantastic, full-featured operating system. There are many other fantastic, full-featured Linux distributions. We cover SLED10 and many others in Linux Administration Handbook. Having used them all for many years, I don't have a favorite. They're all great.

Would standardization of the desktop help the driver situation?

Hein: I don't think specifically running SLED10 will help address the challenges that organizations have with drivers. As I explained before, this is more an issue with hardware manufacturers than it is with any particular distribution.

What kind of remedies do binary drivers offer?

Hein: Hardware manufacturers sometimes lean toward the binary driver approach under the guise that it somehow protects their intellectual property better, and hence they'll be more willing to distribute them. The reality is that this philosophy hurts the Linux open source community and produces a set of drivers that cannot be easily adapted to the rapidly evolving Linux operating system.

Usually, the hardware manufacturers drop support for their binary driver versions long before you've finished using their devices. Don't be fooled -- the binary driver approach does more harm than good.

Do you think driver support is dependent upon widespread Linux adoption?

Hein: Linux adoption has already exceeded many projections. The Linux community is large and speaks with a loud voice, and has made it clear that there is strong demand for Linux support. An increasing number of hardware manufacturers have heard this message and are providing out-of-the-box Linux compatibility. This situation is only going to improve in the next couple of years. In other words, that train has already left the station.

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