Nvidia’s Excellent Linux Adventure

Well, spring appears to be springing early here in the Linux blogosphere’s Northern reaches, so summer can’t be far behind.

Sunny personalities and flower lovers across the land are surely rejoicing, but for Linux Girl, it’s one more reason to hit the blogosphere’s Broken Windows Lounge early. Penguins and heat do not go together, after all.

Luckily, there’s been plenty of good news on hand lately to counterbalance the impending seasonal meltdown, and perhaps most notable of all is Nvidia’s latest big move.

‘Shaping the Future of Linux’

“Membership in The Linux Foundation will accelerate our collaboration with the organizations and individuals instrumental in shaping the future of Linux, enabling a great experience for users and developers of Linux,” said Scott Pritchett, Nvidia’s vice president of Linux platform software, in the announcement earlier this month.

Yes, you heard that right. For those who missed it, Nvidia — longstanding author of numerous headaches for Linux users around the world — has now joined The Linux Foundation.

No word yet on whether that means open drivers are on the way, of course. Either way, though, it can’t be anything other than good news, and bloggers on Slashdot and beyond have lost no time before speculating as to what it could mean down the road.

‘What’s the Meaning of Joining?’

“Does that mean Nvidia gonna open source the driver for the graphic cards using Nvidia chips? Does that mean that the Linux commodities finally got tweak the Nvidia drivers to the point that they can get to squeeze the last drop of performance out of Nvidia graphic chips?” wondered Taco Cowboy on Slashdot, for example.

“If yes, welcome to the Linux Foundation,” Taco Cowboy added. “If no, then what’s the meaning of joining?”

Down at the Broken Windows Lounge, there was plenty more to be heard.

‘The Last Remaining Annoyance’

“A good share of the problems I have had with GNU/Linux have been about Nvidia’s drivers,” offered blogger Robert Pogson, for example.

“If their joining the Linux Foundation means an end to that, I say Hallelujah! If it’s just about making sure their Tegra line works with Linux, that’s OK as well,” he added.

Similarly, “I really hope this move means they will at least release the specs on their video chipsets, since Nvidia drivers are the last remaining annoyance on any of my computers,” agreed consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack. “Everything else works and updates fine but not Nvidia, and that needs to change.”

‘This Comes at a Cost’

Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, thought that happy prospect unlikely, however.

“Nvidia here is probably not interested in joining open source efforts at drivers for their devices, but rather looking at how they can help power more devices in more types of computers,” Travers suggested.

Of course, “this comes at a cost, and it will be interesting to see whether they continue with their closed source drivers or start to help open source efforts,” he added.

‘This Is a Good Sign’

The big issue, in Travers’ opinion, “is that Linux is far bigger than x86 — if Nvidia is serious about going after the Linux market, it means ensuring that their drivers work on other chip architectures, including ARM and Power/PowerPC.”

That, in turn, “is very hard, and involves a great deal of QA for each chip architecture supported,” he pointed out. “So the choice between continuing their cross-platform x86 work and porting to other chip architectures or letting the open source community help becomes a lot harder.”

In short, “I think this is a good sign,” Travers concluded. “I just wouldn’t expect too much right away.”

‘All They Did Was Give Some Money’

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet was even less optimistic.

“The whole thing just shows how hypocritical and frankly more than a little nuts the Linux community is,” hairyfeet opined.

“What is the one argument that gets trotted out any time anybody points out every other major OS on the planet has a driver ABI, like BSD, Solaris, OSX, OS/2, and Windows?” hairyfeet pointed out. “Why, it’s ‘ZOMG people might make binary blobs! We can’t have that, better to make a lousy product whose drivers break often, ZOMG!'”

At the same time, “what is the No. 1 driver and GPU most likely to be found on a Linux unit? Why, that would be… Nvidia, whose drivers are binary blobs!” he added. “Facepalm.

“All they did was give some money to an org,” hairyfeet said. “They did not: 1. Agree to open source their hardware; 2. Agree to open source their code; or 3. Agree to change their current ‘binary blob-only’ business model in ANY way.”

‘LOL Buy Nvidia’

In fact, “why should ANY company support Linux after the way AMD got treated?” hairyfeet asked.

“What did the community say? ‘Why, if you’ll just open your hardware and software we’ll support you!'” he recounted. “So AMD not only does EXACTLY what the community asks, and gives away everything they are legally allowed (protected path and DHCP aren’t their property to give) — which I would argue hurt their business because it gives Nvidia the ability to drop support and thus force users to upgrade if they want the latest kernels, which AMD now can’t — but they even went so far as to hire developers out of their own pockets to help the open source guys to make the drivers better.

“So what does the community say on every forum to this very day? ‘LOL buy Nvidia,'” he pointed out.

TINSTAAFL, and any company will simply look at AMD’s lack of any gains or adoption of any real note by the Linux community as a perfect sign that supporting Linux IS stupid and a waste of limited funds,” hairyfeet concluded.

‘Follow the Moola’

In the view of Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site, Nvidia’s move was just business.

“Today’s Latin phrase is “sequere pecuniam”: follow the moola,” Hudson began. “It’s pretty much the same story, whether it’s today with the Linux Foundation and Nvidia and Sony, the Mozilla Foundation with Google and Microsoft, or the Apache Foundation with Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google.”

Money talks, as the saying goes, “and what it’s telling me is that Nvidia isn’t joining the Linux Foundation as a prelude to open-sourcing their hardware and software any more than Sony did,” she explained.

Rather, “this is about getting an equal voice with the kernel developers for Nvidia’s CUDA solution — parallel computing using GPUs,” she suggested.

‘It Is What It Is’

The No. 2 supercomputer in the world is powered by Nvidia Tesla GPUs, Hudson pointed out.

“Now consider the rise of remote GPGPU, or general-purpose computing on graphics processing units — think, ‘rendering and computation in the cloud,'” she explained. “Real-time remote gaming, web page rendering, and massive simulations running on GPGPUs running Linux.

“This is a market where each individual ‘sale’ can represent thousands of high-end GPUs worth millions,” she added. “For Nvidia, paying to get better access to the kernel devs is a reasonable quid pro qua. It’s just good business.”

Any “trickle-down” benefits for regular Linux users, however, will be entirely incidental, Hudson warned.

“We’re just too small a market, and it’s not like users really have a choice — your laptop comes with whatever the manufacturer stuffed in it, and for desktops, experience has shown that users overwhelmingly prefer a binary blob that mostly works to an open-source driver that mostly doesn’t,” she added. “In the end, “in rerum natura” — it’s in the nature of things, or, as we say nowadays, ‘it is what it is.'”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter.

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