NVIDIA: Got Specifications?

Written by Michael Larabel in Display Drivers on 10 September 2007. Page 1 of 1. 14 Comments

This past week AMD raised the Linux graphics bar by not only announcing their new fglrx graphics driver, which delivers Radeon HD 2000 support, immense performance improvements, and AIGLX, but it was accompanied by an announcement that they will be delivering specifications to the X.Org development community. These two announcements came after intense work internally at AMD and over a long period of time, but literally overnight it changed the minds of many Linux users on how they judge this company with its once notorious binary blob. AMD has really set a precedence for showing that a semiconductor company once criticized to no end with their proprietary software can update their views to assist and embrace the open-source Linux community while remaining competitive as a company in a triopoloy market. They have also thus reaffirmed that Linux is a viable desktop operating system. But the ball has now landed in NVIDIA's court. NVIDIA can either play ball by pushing forward with a similar effort, and then all of the big three GPU manufacturers would be cradling an open-source strategy, or they may find themselves in trouble down the road.

It was just a week ago in the Phoronix Forums that the leading response to a poll was that AMD would be offering too little too late for the Linux community with their next-generation driver. Little did the readers know that AMD was just days away from these two landmark announcements and since then the overwhelming response on the Phoronix Forums, other discussion boards, and in the blogging world has been that this is a significant win not only for ATI Linux customers but the open-source community and alternative operating system world in general. Some users have been cautious based upon AMD's past shortcomings with concern over how watered-down the specifications may be or that this is just some publicity stunt, but the response as a whole has been very positive. However, their concerns are certainly justified based upon past events (ATI R200 Linux Redux) and we will find out in the coming days and months just how dedicated AMD is to working with the open-source community.

One of the common questions that has since come up is what will NVIDIA do in response to AMD's actions. NVIDIA does contribute to the open-source X.Org "nv" display driver, but it only contains 2D functionality and is very basic as far as the support goes. For the past several years this open-source code has also been intentionally obfuscated for "maintenance reasons". Currently, NVIDIA provides no documentation to the community but has said that it will neither support nor hinder the open-source 3D Nouveau driver project. It does, however, supply proprietary display drivers for not only Linux but also Solaris and FreeBSD. Previously their proprietary driver had taken the performance crown but with the new fglrx 8.41+ driver the competition is certainly much closer and down to a vicious battle.

So what will NVIDIA's next step be if they wish to join Intel and AMD with open-source community enablement? Logically, they could provide specifications and assist these developers in a similar fashion to what AMD is doing, open-source their proprietary display driver, develop a new open-source "nv" display driver with greater functionality, or cooperate with and support the Nouveau project. In our Q&A with the Nouveau developers, they saw it as unlikely that NVIDIA would release any driver source-code. The benefits of having NVIDIA release their GPU design specifications would be low since most of the reverse engineering is already completed by the Nouveau project. Though in areas surrounding features such as Scalable Link Interface and for hardware the Nouveau developers don't have access to, specifications would be an advantage. Likewise, specifications for future NVIDIA GPU generations would save on the need to do any reverse engineering.

If everything turns out as promised by AMD, as Linux reaches a point of critical mass it will be inevitable that NVIDIA revise their Linux software strategy if they wish to remain competitive in the open-source world. Whether it means NVIDIA provide specifications to open-source developers or begins aiding the Nouveau project, it would be too early to say. It is also important to note that while in recent months Dell and Google have been calling for improved Linux drivers, the fact of the matter is that the ball was rolling long before that. While there was an onslaught of information this past week, it took several months for AMD to come to their new open-source strategy and it took well over a year for their new proprietary driver.

Do you think NVIDIA will change their policies because of AMD? How do you think NVIDIA will respond? Tell us in the Phoronix Forums.

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About The Author
Michael Larabel

Michael Larabel is the principal author of Phoronix.com and founded the site in 2004 with a focus on enriching the Linux hardware experience. Michael has written more than 20,000 articles covering the state of Linux hardware support, Linux performance, graphics drivers, and other topics. Michael is also the lead developer of the Phoronix Test Suite, Phoromatic, and OpenBenchmarking.org automated benchmarking software. He can be followed via Twitter, LinkedIn, or contacted via MichaelLarabel.com.