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Feature: Open Source

Free ATI drivers for Christmas?

By Bruce Byfield on August 31, 2007 (4:00:00 PM)

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Fully-functional video drivers -- ones capable of handling 3-D acceleration -- remain one of the weak points of free software. The Free Software Foundation has declared them a high-priority project. Meanwhile, some distributions and even more users have resorted to using the proprietary drivers offered as free downloads by card manufacturers. One of the main projects attempting to provide complete, free drivers is focusing on developing the Avivo driver for the R500 and R600 cards from AMD/ATI, so-called after a specification first introduced in this line of cards. According to Jerome Glisse, who coordinates the development of the driver, progress is being made in the project, and "maybe by the end of this year, we might have some 3-D acceleration."

The community of graphics experts in free software is a small one. Like many in the community, Glisse got his start in the now-defunct R300 project, which was designed to study 3-D acceleration in ATI cards. Although the project never produced stable drivers, many of those involved in the project have gone on to related work in Mesa, the free software implementation of the OpenGL specification for delivering 3-D graphics, or DRI (Direct Rendering Infrastructure), or the Nouveau project, which is developing free drivers for Nvidia cards. Glisse himself chose to continue giving attention to ATI largely because "I didn't think there were many people working on this card."

Glisse and the three or four other people in the project (the number varies at any given time, Glisse says) began working on the Avivo driver at the start of 2007. However, serious work only began a couple of months ago, and the first official release of the driver is still in the future.

As might be expected, much of the work involves reverse-engineering the fglrx driver, the GNU/Linux binary released by ATI, and drawing on information learned in the R300 project. "What chipmakers often do," Glisse explains, "is reuse things from previous releases. So you can find things for the Avivo in the R300. The differences between them are very slight. It looks like we could save a lot of time."

Currently, the Avivo driver is in an extremely basic state, unsuitable for general use. "The driver is actually only capable of setting the mode," Glisse says. More specifically, the project's developers have learned to program hardware specifications such as DAC (digital to analog converter), LVDS (low-voltage differential signaling), and TMDS (transition minimized differential signaling) that allow a computer to communicate with a video card. This, as Glisse says, "is the basic you need to get something on the screen."

Of course, to make the driver actually useful, more is needed. Glisse is reasonably confident that the project knows enough to work in the near future upon card initialization with such functions as suspend and display, under- and over-clocking cards, and accessing on-board RAM.

Much of the remaining work, Glisse hopes, can be ported directly from work done by the R300 project, including XAA acceleration needed for the blit function for 2-D display under the X Window System. Speaking for the project, he also says that its members know enough to make "an educated guess" that the "3-D engine is very much like the one which the R400 [driver] supports. The major differences lie in the fragment shader [the function that calculates display on a pixel-by-pixel basis], and I believe that some freely available documents from AMD give a quite insightful description of this part of the graphical processing unit."

However, Glisse adds, "I am personally a bit reluctant to do that work" immediately. Glisse suggests that upcoming changes to Mesa's and DRI's architectures makes the use of OpenGL to achieve 2-D and 3-D acceleration directly within Xorg, making the work on individual drivers redundant. For this reason, he considers porting the 2-D and 3-D acceleration in its current form a "partial waste" and would prefer to focus on the card initialization features first.

Eventually, Glisse would like to see the Avivo project's work ported to other Unix-based systems, such as the BSDs and Solaris, although he worries whether their implementation of Direct Rendering Manager, which is needed for 3D acceleration, is sufficiently advanced.

In addition, although AMD acquired ATI more than a year ago and has shown no sign yet of wanting to encourage free drivers, Glisse has not yet ruled out the possibility that corporate involvement in the Avivo project might simplify its members' work methods.

"They know that we exist, because I've talked with a few people," he says. "And AMD may be wanting open source drivers."

If it does, he believes that Avivo and related projects may play an important role. "If you really want open source drivers, then you have to go outside the company. If you don't, you won't get the support of the community and everything that goes with it. I believe that AMD right now is trying to change how it works, because if you look at what it's doing on motherboards and other things like that, it's really starting to work with the community. So we're hoping that AMD will change its mind and decide that the best thing to do is work with the community. I hope it's sooner than later."

Meanwhile, while hoping for the best, the Avivo project continues preparing for the worst by inching towards the goal of traditional drivers on its own efforts. More people could help, Glisse says, but they need to be people with experience in graphic drivers and a willingness to make a long-term effort. "I think it's one of the few places left in open source where there is still plenty of room for new people."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Linux.com.

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on Free ATI drivers for Christmas?

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Free ATI drivers for Christmas?

Posted by: tykeal on August 31, 2007 08:24 PM
Whichever company (nVidia or ATI) get fully functional OSS drivers first will get my continued business. At present I'm using nVidia because the *cough* proprietary drivers *cough* are more stable than ATI's ever are.

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Re: Free ATI drivers for Christmas?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.66.124.44] on September 02, 2007 12:08 AM
In that case, maybe you should consider signing the pledge to support Open Source Drivers for ATI and Nvidia:
http://www.pledgebank.com/open3d

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*sigh*

Posted by: Michael Shigorin on August 31, 2007 09:32 PM
>> some distributions and even more users have resorted to using the proprietary drivers << [CR]

Hm, weird taste of that phrase. Like, "some so-called authors have resorted to obtaining Linux.com article fees". [CR]

What's wrong with you and me operating on Earth without full source code of yours and mine genome? There are limits to everything, and it's no plain coincidence. Not that I particularly like N/A drivers being proprietary.

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Re: *sigh*

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 201.43.41.1] on September 01, 2007 03:07 AM
It's not wrong, it's just that many people have resorted to using free software (i.e. Linux, Firefox, Apache, OpenSSL) because proprietary software is inherently bad - note the use of the word "bad" instead of "evil" like the FSF/GNU evangelists say. Want some proof? Ok: Windows. What's so bad about Windows? It's not about it being completely broken, it is about I being unable to fix it. I am forced to hope for Microsoft's good will, I become dependent on Microsoft. That's why I chose Linux and BSD. That's why I choose open hardware - again, note the use of the expression "open hardware" instead of "hardware with free drivers". That is because what really matters is the hardware documentation, the vendor driver's source code is useless, I don't need it. With the documentation I can create my own, stable, usable and, most importantly, free (as in freedom) drivers. Furthermore, if vendors were to provide and maintain free drivers for every operating system out there they would become crazy. They'd rather just release the goddamn programming documentation.

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Re: *sigh*

Posted by: nanday on September 04, 2007 06:36 PM
How awful, to hear free software sentiments expressed on a site that covers the topic. I don't know what the world is coming to.

And, for the record, not only have I never called myself an author -- plain "writer" is good enough for me -- but, at the end of thirty days, when the rights to stories revert to me, I make them available under a CC Attributions license for reprinting and translation. So, apart from being a non-sequitur, your personal attack misses me by miles.

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Free ATI drivers for Christmas?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 87.81.205.1] on September 01, 2007 11:07 AM
Is this just far too little too late? Or will this help people make the switch to linux? I tried moving to linux, but couldnt get my ATI Radeon x800 to work. I used ATI's binary driver and made my own rpm out of it, but whenever I tried to install it, the screen would go black.

Linux is such a good prospect, we need more manufacturers supporting it.

Thanks for this great advice.

Dave
Senior Manager
ThisIsMyEmpire.com

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Re: Free ATI drivers for Christmas?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.66.124.44] on September 02, 2007 12:12 AM
the x800 has very good open source drivers, including Hardware 3D support, you should try a distribution with recent Mesa/DRI/Xorg (Ubuntu Feisty Fawn and the like)

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Free ATI drivers for Christmas?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 62.42.232.230] on September 01, 2007 11:28 AM
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OpenGraphicsProject

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 213.112.91.123] on September 01, 2007 01:29 PM
The OpenGraphicsProject sounds interesting. I hope cards soon become available for sale.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Graphics_Project
http://www.opengraphics.org/
http://www.traversaltech.com/

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Intel has open-source drivers

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 89.136.169.37] on September 01, 2007 02:11 PM
And before you say that Intel onboard video accelerators suck, check out the 965 chipset. Intel video cards are present in a lot more computers that ATI or nvidia, so open-source drivers are so very welcome. And one more thing: Intel will enter the discrete (ie. not onboard) video accelerator market soon. And it will have open-source drivers with 3D support that will work out of the box with any Linux distribution.
http://www.intellinuxgraphics.org/

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Re: Intel has open-source drivers

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.1.39.138] on September 03, 2007 02:02 AM
actually, no, Intel won't be entering the discrete graphics card market. Project Larrabee is a Terraflop processor ( http://www.xbitlabs.com/news/cpu/display/20070627133943.html ). Applications to 3D rendering would be similar to elder OpenGL cards like the Wildcat or Oxygen.

While Intel has opened the source code to their current driver set, it should be noted that the Graphics Accelerators (GA) themselves lack hardware typically found in other GPU's ( mobile : http://www.techarp.com/showarticle.aspx?artno=98&pgno=3 / desktop : http://www.techarp.com/showarticle.aspx?artno=88&pgno=19 ). The result is that the card's depend on software rendering in order to do the same task as a normal GPU. The combination of software and hardware rendering places the Intel cards on the more scathing criticism from professional game developers.

One of the reasons why Intel GA's are so prevalent is due to the heavy use in business and mobile sectors, where nobody ever quote, "got fired for buying Intel." Same people never quote, "Got fired for buying Microsoft" either. The fact is, the market that Intel's GA's cater to isn't interested in buying Linux. They are interested in the status quo, nothing changing.

It should also be noticed that Intel does NOT have a policy on whether or not future integrated graphics will have open source drivers. Personally, given Intel's creation of HDCP, EFI, as well as the lack of any assistance to the OpenBios/LinuxBios projects, or assistance to the Intel Azalia Spec audio driver project, I think Intel is still better classified as Open Source Hostile.

By the same token, Intel has no policy if any future discrete graphics cards would have Open Sourced drivers.

Something to think about before you promote Intel's products.

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Re: Intel has open-source drivers

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 201.43.39.61] on September 04, 2007 02:50 AM
The hardware documentation is completely closed thou. I'd rather go ATI which at least provides some of the documentation.

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Re: Intel has open-source drivers

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.1.39.138] on September 04, 2007 08:35 AM
guy by the name of Zerias wrote about Intel's GPU projects some time ago. Post is here : http://zerias.blogspot.com/2006/12/firefly-mmo-flop-in-progres-or-intel.html

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Free ATI drivers for Christmas?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 219.142.149.183] on September 03, 2007 07:28 PM
Novell gets all the bashing and Intel and IBM are linux friendly? The above post on intel says it all.

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Si quieres vender o cambiar algo por otra cosa mayor o mejor, anúncialo en:
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Free ATI drivers for Christmas?

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please qive more information. what does it mean?

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Free ATI drivers for Christmas?

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