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Sunday, June 17, 2007

3d Graphics Drivers and Open Source

I am constantly frustrated with the lack of open source drivers for my 3d graphics cards. My main workstation includes a GeForce 7800 GS which can be leveraged properly with only the proprietary nvidia driver. I am frustrated about this because of the implicit maintenance chores associated with this type of driver.

I am definitely not an open source zealot who will not use software just because it is proprietary (RMS for instance).

To really understand my grievance here, I'll relate a small tale of woe.

Like many other technical people, it is my ordained duty to help maintain the computers of my friends and family. For a variety of reasons and almost without exception, Windows XP is the operating system of choice. Almost without fail however, I am called in every 8 to twelve months to resolve the latest in a string of maintenance problems that my friends and family are experiencing. Typically, they will have downloaded some malevolent piece of software that is running amok on their computer. The only solution that I truly trust in this situation is to wipe the system drive and start over again.

Naturally, I have introduced my family and friends to Linux (openSUSE in my case) as a viable migration option for improved flexibility and security (I know this is debatable, but at least it's a smaller target).

Generally, their experiences with the GNOME user interface are not painful. Also, with Helix Banshee, they are able to enjoy their MP3 music collection out of the box.

For out of the box desktop usabilty, openSUSE is an exceptional migration candidate with only one glaring dilemma. Graphics drivers.

Unless an Intel Graphics adapter is being used, it is necessary to install those darned proprietary drivers to enable 3d support. The process and rationale behind this is mysteriously magical for my parents and friends. The necessity to reinstall the driver upon every single kernel security update is ridiculous, irritating, and impossible for these people to do on their own. I can't be making house calls every month to half a dozen people just to re-install the driver for them.

Nevertheless, there are a couple bright lights on the horizon.

The Intel adapters (with open source 3d drivers) have experienced dramatic performance improvements in the past several years, and can now be considered a completely viable option for a SOHO Linux workstation. Moreover, the rumors and rumblings about a discrete Intel Graphics solution are very promosing.

The Open Graphics Project also provides a light in the dark. The open specifications, drivers and hardware (Verilog) designs, should provide a very solid foundation for open 3d support in the operating system of your choice. Even OpenBSD may finally be able to introduce 3d.

Until the future is now, keep on swimming.


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