Graphics hardware and FOSS

Graphics hardware and FOSS

Free and open source software (FOSS) can be used with a variety of graphics hardware, largely via the X.Org project. There are varying levels of support, ranging from completely working drivers to unsupported hardware. Some manufacturers do not provide open source drivers or technical documentation suitable for independent developers to write accelerated 3D device drivers; support for products from these companies can be limited: they may provide only binary drivers (known as binary blobs) or lack of documentation may leave developers of open source drivers to reverse engineer their products or not support them at all. In the case of binary drivers there are also objections due to free software philosophy, software quality and security concerns.[1]

A widely known source for performance information is the site,[2] which collects 3D performance information—specifically glxgears frame rates—submitted by users. On the basis of what it concedes is an inadequate benchmark,[3] the site currently lists ATI's Radeon HD 4670 as recommended for "best 3D performance." Additionally, Phoronix routinely runs benchmarks comparing free driver performance.


Free software support

In general, the vesa driver supports most graphics cards without acceleration and with reduced display resolution.


Currently support for ATI hardware is provided by the radeon driver, with the majority of cards being supported by either the R300g or R600g Gallium 3D drivers. R300g supports the R300, R400, and R500 series of cards, while R600g supports the R600, R700, R800, and the R900 series.[4] Older Radeon cards such as the R100 and R200 series still use a classic Mesa driver. The radeon drivers provide 2D and Xv acceleration, with 3D support available for almost all supported cards. Full Modesetting support is also available.

Feature matrices are available for radeon from In addition, they also host the RadeonProgram, which aims to have a community maintained application compatibility database similar to the Wine project's AppDB.

ATI released programming specifications for a number of chipsets and features in 2007, 2008 and 2009.[5][6][7][8][9] AMD also does some active development and support for the radeon driver.[10] This is in direct contrast to AMD's main competitor in the graphics field NVIDIA, which does offer its own proprietary driver similar to AMD Catalyst, but does not provide any support or assistance to any free graphics initiatives.[11] AMD had just two engineers working full time on the free drivers, namely John Bridgman and Alex Deucher, although they decided to work to expand their free graphics team.[12] They recently hired two more developers, with one of the developers going to be working on the desktop graphics stack and the other one on embedded open-source priorities.[13] The developers in question have now been confirmed to be veteran graphics coders Michel Dänzer and Christian König.[14]

Recently, work on performance optimizations has greatly enhanced the 3D performance of the radeon driver, especially for users of R300g.[15] In some select cases, the R300g driver can even outperform a legacy Catalyst driver in terms of 3D performance.[16] Various options and tweaks can also be enabled to optimize the free driver's speed and offer more competitive performance.[17]


A screenshot of REnouveau, which is a program that collects data for most of nouveau's reverse engineering work

Nvidia, in the past, provided documentation for the older RIVA TNT series chipsets and maintained the open source (but partially obfuscated) 2D-only nv driver for X.Org.[18] However, this features neither 3D acceleration nor motion compensation.[19][20] On March 26, 2010, Nvidia announced that it would stop supporting new technologies and GPUs in nv, stating that

  • NVIDIA will continue to support the existing functionality and existing level of acceleration in the nv driver for existing GPUs, on existing, and (within reason) future, X server versions.
  • NVIDIA will not support the xf86-video-nv driver on Fermi or later GPUs.
  • NVIDIA will not support DisplayPort, on any GPU, in the xf86-video-nv driver.
—Andy Ritger, Message to the mailing list[21][22]

The nouveau driver project aims to reverse engineer NVIDIA's cards to produce 3D acceleration for X.Org utilizing Gallium 3D. While still at an early stage of development, several distributions of Linux, starting with Fedora,[23] have chosen to use nouveau as the default open-source driver for Nvidia cards.[24][25] Although much work is still needed to be done, the nouveau driver can already manage to offer competitive 3D performance on lower end NVIDIA graphics hardware, when compared to the official binary driver.[26][27]

Feature matrices are available for nouveau from


Intel has a long history of producing or commissioning open source drivers for its graphics chips, with the notable exception of their latest GMA 500 chip that severely lacks documentation.[10] The driver development is outsourced to Tungsten Graphics.

There are currently two versions of the Intel X.Org driver, the xorg-video-i810 driver which supports the i810 and a number of more recent chipsets[28] and the updated xorg-video-intel driver that supports the same hardware, with the recent versions 2.0 and 2.1 adding support for later chips, including the G33, Q33 and Q35.[29]

In addition, the xorg-video-intel driver (sometimes known as the "modesetting driver") does not use the video BIOS for switching video modes; as some BIOSes include only a limited range of modes, this provides more reliable access to those supported by Intel video cards.

Unlike the radeon and nouveau drivers, Intel does not intend to utilize the Gallium 3D framework for its graphics drivers.[30] Intel has also recently put work into optimizing their free Linux drivers to have closer performance to their Windows counterparts, especially on Sandy Bridge hardware where various performance optimizations have now allowed the free Intel driver to be able to outperform their proprietary Windows drivers at certain tasks.[31][32][33] Some of these performance enhancements can also benefit users of older hardware.[34]

Other vendors

Matrox provides open source drivers for their chipsets older than the G550; newer chipsets are only supported by a closed source driver.

PowerVR, a division of Imagination Technologies, which powers many smart mobile phones 3D acceleration. They do not provide any free driver nor documentation, and try to circumvent the GPL by providing a Linux kernel module that is only used to interface a user space graphics driver. Should a company decide to sue them, it is believable that they may be forced to release all source code under the GPL.[35]

SiS and VIA have both shown limited interest and communication regarding open source drivers; however, both have released source code which has later been integrated into X.Org by FOSS developers.[19] In July 2008, VIA opened up documentation for their products to improve its image within the Linux and open-source communities.[36] Although, so far VIA has failed to work with the open source community to provide documentation and a working DRM driver, leaving expectations for supporting the Linux operating system unfulfilled.[37] On January 06, 2011 it was announced that VIA was no longer interested in supporting free graphics initiatives.[38]

DisplayLink have announced an open source project called libdlo with the goal of bringing support for their USB graphics technology to Linux and other platforms. The code is available under the LGPL license.[39] It has not yet been integrated into an X.Org driver.

Often other non-hardware related vendors may also lend a hand to free graphics initiatives. Red Hat has some employees working full time on several free and open source software projects, such as two full-time employees working on the free software radeon (David Airlie and Jérôme Glisse[40]) and one full-time employee working on the free software nouveau graphic drivers.[citation needed] In addition, the Fedora Project runs a "Fedora Graphics Test Week" event before the launch of their new Linux distribution versions in order to provide rigorous testing to free graphics drivers.[41] Other companies that have provided development or support include Novell and VMware.

Problems with binary drivers

There are a number of objections to binary-only drivers. These may be philosophical, with some feeling that drivers distributed without source code are against the beliefs of the free software movement, or pragmatic copyright, security or reliability concerns. As part of a wider campaign against binary blobs, OpenBSD lead developer Theo de Raadt has pointed out that with a binary driver there is "no way to fix it when it breaks (and it will break)" and that once a product which relies on binary drivers is declared to be end-of-life by the manufacturer, it is effectively "broken forever."[42] The project has also asserted that binary drivers "hide bugs and workarounds for bugs,"[43] a comment that has been somewhat vindicated by flaws found in binary drivers, including in October 2006 an exploitable bug in NVIDIA's 3D drivers discovered by Rapid7.[44] It is speculated that this bug has existed since 2004, although NVIDIA have denied this, asserting that the issue was only communicated to them in July 2006 and that the 2004 bug was a bug in X.Org, not in NVIDIA's driver.[45] Another problem with binary drivers is that they often do not work with current versions of open source software, and almost never support development snapshots of open source software - e.g. it is usually not directly possible for a developer to use NVIDIA's or ATI's proprietary drivers with a development snapshot of an X server or a development snapshot of the Linux kernel.

In the Linux kernel development community, Linus Torvalds has made strong statements on the issue of binary-only modules, asserting: "I refuse to even consider tying my hands over some binary-only module", and continuing: "I want people to know that when they use binary-only modules, it's THEIR problem".[46] Another kernel developer, Greg Kroah-Hartman, has commented that a binary-only kernel module does not comply with the kernel's license—the GNU General Public License—it "just violates the GPL due to fun things like derivative works and linking and other stuff."[47]

Writer and computer scientist Peter Gutmann has expressed concerns that the digital rights management scheme in Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system may limit the availability of the documentation required to write open drivers as it "requires that the operational details of the device be kept confidential."[48]

Open hardware projects

Project VGA assembled PCB

The Project VGA aims to create a low budget, open source, VGA compatible video card. All information to create one is available, but at present there seems to be no development. Some data:[49]

  • PCI bus interface (32 bit, 33/66 MHz, 3,3/5V compatible)
  • Xilinx Spartan-3 S400 FPGA (aiming for ~100 MHz)
  • 16 MB SDRAM (aiming for ~166 MHz)
  • Onboard programmer with USB interface
  • Analog (HD15) VGA output connector.

The Open Graphics Project is another aim at creating an open hardware GPU. The Open Graphics Device v1 features dual DVI-I outputs and 100-pin IDC connector. On September 2010, the first 25 OGD1 boards were made available for grant application and purchase ($750).[50]

The Milkymist system-on-chip, targeted at embedded graphics instead of desktop computers, supports a VGA output, a limited vertex shader and a 2D texturing unit.[51]

See also


  1. ^ Linux Weekly News, Aug 14, 2006:, distributors, and proprietary modules
  2. ^ "3D Graphics hardware performance using Free Software drivers (X.Org DRI) [Free3D"].  090501
  3. ^ FAQ: "Is glxgears an accurate measure of 3D performance? No, it sucks in multiple ways."
  4. ^ The Direction Of ATI Radeon Graphics In Ubuntu 11.04 Phoronix, March 08, 2011 (Article by Michael Larabel)
  5. ^ Michael Larabel. "AMD Releases Open-Source R600/700 3D Code". Retrieved 2009-01-01. 
  6. ^ "LWN: AMD to open up graphics specs". Retrieved 2007-09-05. 
  7. ^ Michael Larabel. AMD: GPU Specifications Without NDAs!
  8. ^ David Airlie (2007-09-12). "AMD hand me specs on a CD". Retrieved 2007-09-14. 
  9. ^ Michael Larabel (2008-02-22). "AMD Releases 3D Programming Documentation". Retrieved 2008-03-12. 
  10. ^ a b An overview of graphic card manufacturers and how well they work with Ubuntu Ubuntu Gamer, January 10, 2011 (Article by Luke Benstead)
  11. ^ NVIDIA's Response To Recent Nouveau Work Phoronix, December 14, 2009 (Article by Michael Larabel)
  12. ^ AMD's Hiring Open-Source Graphics Developers Still Phoronix, May 12, 2011 (Article by Michael Larabel)
  13. ^ AMD Already Adds On Two Open-Source Developers Phoronix, May 14, 2011 (Article by Michael Larabel)
  14. ^ AMD's New Open-Source Employees Phoronix, July 5, 2011 (Article by Michael Larabel)
  15. ^ Further Testing Shows More Hope For ATI Gallium3D Phoronix, January 19, 2011 (Article by Michael Larabel)
  16. ^ The Major Open-Source ATI Improvements Over Two Years Phoronix, April 11, 2011 (Article by Michael Larabel)
  17. ^ A Fresh Look At The AMD Radeon Gallium3D Performance Phoronix, June 10, 2011 (Article by Michael Larabel)
  18. ^ nv driver page
  19. ^ a b David M. Airlie (2006-07-19). "Open Source Graphic Drivers—They Don't Kill Kittens" (PDF). Proceedings of the Linux Symposium Volume One. Ottawa, Canada. Retrieved 2007-01-28. 
  20. ^ The nv(4) man page
  21. ^ Andy Ritger (2010-03-26). "[ANNOUNCE] Deprecation of xf86-video-nv". Archived from the original on 2010-04-02. Retrieved 2010-04-02. 
  22. ^ Michael Larabel (2010-03-26). "NVIDIA Drops Their Open-Source Driver, Refers Users To VESA Driver". Archived from the original on 2010-04-02. Retrieved 2010-04-02. 
  23. ^ "Testing Out The Nouveau Driver On Fedora 11". 
  24. ^ nouveau : Open Source 3D acceleration for NVIDIA cards
  25. ^ Nouveau To Enter The Ubuntu 10.04 LTS Kernel Phoronix, November 23, 2009 (Article by Michael Larabel)
  26. ^ On Low-End GPUs, Nouveau Speeds Past The NVIDIA Driver Phoronix, March 19, 2011 (Article by Michael Larabel)
  27. ^ Nouveau's OpenGL Performance Approaches The NVIDIA Driver Phoronix, March 21, 2011 (Article by Michael Larabel)
  28. ^ "i810 man page". Archived from the original on 2007-02-04. Retrieved 2007-02-14. 
  29. ^ Eric Anholt. "X.Org mailing list: xf86-video-intel 2.1.0". Retrieved 2007-07-09. 
  30. ^ "Intel & The Shortcomings Of Gallium3D". Phoronix. 2010-04-13. Retrieved 2010-10-26. 
  31. ^ "More Performance Comes Out Of Intel Linux SNB". Phoronix. 2011-03-22. Retrieved 2011-03-23. 
  32. ^ "Intel Sandy Bridge Performance Goes Up Again". Phoronix. 2011-03-31. Retrieved 2011-03-31. 
  33. ^ "Intel SNB Linux Driver Can Out Run Windows Driver". Phoronix. 2011-05-23. Retrieved 2011-05-23. 
  34. ^ "A Historical Look At Intel Ironlake Graphics Performance". Phoronix. 2011-05-25. Retrieved 2011-05-25. 
  35. ^ Linux Weekly News, 23 Dec 2010: Re: Freescale Linux BSP review
  36. ^ Michael Larabel (2008-07-26). "VIA Publishes Three Programming Guides". Phoronix. Retrieved 2008-08-04. 
  37. ^ Michael Larabel (2009-11-21). "VIA's Linux TODO List... Maybe Look Forward To 2011?". Phoronix. Retrieved 2009-12-30. 
  38. ^ VIA's Open Linux Graphics Driver Has Been Defenestrated Phoronix, January 06, 2011 (Article by Michael Larabel)
  39. ^ "DisplayLink Releases Linux Source Code for its USB Graphics Processors" (Press release). DisplayLink. 2009-05-15. Retrieved 2009-05-15. 
  40. ^ AMD's Hiring Another Open-Source Driver Developer Phoronix, December 11, 2010 (Article by Michael Larabel)
  41. ^ It's Fedora Graphics Test Week Phoronix, February 22, 2011 (Article by Michael Larabel)
  42. ^ Theo de Raadt (2006-12-03). "Open Documentation for Hardware". Presentation slides from OpenCON 2006. Retrieved 2007-02-01. 
  43. ^ "3.9: "Blob!"". OpenBSD. Retrieved 2007-02-12. 
  44. ^ Rapid7 advisory: Buffer Overflow in NVIDIA Binary Graphics Driver For Linux.
  45. ^ Linux - How does the Rapid7 Advisory R7-0025 affect the NVIDIA Unix driver?
  46. ^ Linus Torvalds, kernel mailing list, Feb 7, 1999.
  47. ^ Myths, Lies, and Truths about the Linux kernel by Greg Kroah-Hartman
  48. ^ Peter Gutmann (2006-12-26). A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection. Retrieved 2007-01-28. 
  49. ^ "Home of Project VGA, the low budget, open source, VGA compatible video card".  090503
  50. ^ "Linux Fund: OGD1". Open Graphics Project. 2010-09-23. Retrieved 2011-11-04. 
  51. ^ Bourdeauducq, Sebastien (June, 2010). "A performance-driven SoC architecture for video synthesis". Retrieved 2010-11-05. 

External links

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