Nvidia startles Linux world with driver contribution

One of the Linux community's least favorite companies performs an abrupt about-face

Nvidia, one of the biggest GPU manufacturers in the world, made a series of code contributions to the open-source project Nouveau late last week, signaling a possible thawing of relations with the Linux community.

The company’s support for its Linux drivers has long been a subject of abuse in open-source circles. The fact that those drivers are also proprietary – meaning that they can’t be patched and improved by the community – has frustrated many in the past, notably Linux inventor and kernel maintainer Linus Torvalds:

The Nouveau project, which produces an open-source alternative to Nvidia’s proprietary driver, was the beneficiary of the company’s previous attempt at an olive branch, a documentation release, in September 2013.

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The new contributions focus on Nvidia’s Tegra line of GPUs for mobile devices, but embedded software engineer Alexandre Courbot said in a post to a mailing list that the code would be helpful for those working on drivers for other Nvidia hardware. He was careful to temper expectations, however.

“The scope of this work is strictly limited to Tegra,” Courbot said. “We do not have any plan to work on user-space support. So do not uninstall that proprietary driver just yet.”

Even if its scope is limited, the contribution is a crucial step forward in Nvidia’s relationship with the world of open source. Bryan Lunduke, a Linux expert and Network World contributor, says that Nvidia deserves praise.

“Change can be frightening and difficult. And, considering control over the drivers is a pretty critical piece of Nvidia's sales strategy, this is a major thing,” he says. “Have they open sourced everything they possibly could? No. But what they have done is fantastic, and worthy of one major high-five.”

No less an eminence than Linus Torvalds himself has praised the apparent turning over of a new leaf by Nvidia, saying “hey, this time I'm raising a thumb for Nvidia,” in a Google Plus post.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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