Chapter 1: An Introduction to Device Drivers

One of the many advantages of free operating systems, as typified by Linux, is that their internals are open for all to view. The operating system, once a dark and mysterious area whose code was restricted to a small number of programmers, can now be readily examined, understood, and modified by anybody with the requisite skills. Linux has helped to democratize operating systems. The Linux kernel remains a large and complex body of code, however, and would-be kernel hackers need an entry point where they can approach the code without being overwhelmed by complexity. Often, device drivers provide that gateway.

Device drivers take on a special role in the Linux kernel. They are distinct "black boxes" that make a particular piece of hardware respond to a well-defined internal programming interface; they hide completely the details of how the device works. User activities are performed by means of a set of standardized calls that are independent of the specific driver; mapping those calls to device-specific operations that act on real hardware is then the role of the device driver. This programming interface is such that drivers can be built separately from the rest of the kernel and "plugged in" at runtime when needed. This modularity makes Linux drivers easy to write, to the point that there are now hundreds of them available.

There are a number of reasons to be interested in the writing of Linux device drivers. The rate at which new hardware becomes available (and obsolete!) alone guarantees that driver writers will be busy for the foreseeable future. Individuals may need to know about drivers in order to gain access to a particular device that is of interest to them. Hardware vendors, by making a Linux driver available for their products, can add the large and growing Linux user base to their potential markets. And the open source nature of the Linux system means that if the driver writer wishes, the source to a driver can be quickly disseminated to millions of users.

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