path: root/Documentation/stable_api_nonsense.txt
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authorLinus Torvalds <torvalds@ppc970.osdl.org>2005-04-16 15:20:36 -0700
committerLinus Torvalds <torvalds@ppc970.osdl.org>2005-04-16 15:20:36 -0700
commit1da177e4c3f41524e886b7f1b8a0c1fc7321cac2 (patch)
tree0bba044c4ce775e45a88a51686b5d9f90697ea9d /Documentation/stable_api_nonsense.txt
Initial git repository build. I'm not bothering with the full history, even though we have it. We can create a separate "historical" git archive of that later if we want to, and in the meantime it's about 3.2GB when imported into git - space that would just make the early git days unnecessarily complicated, when we don't have a lot of good infrastructure for it. Let it rip!
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+The Linux Kernel Driver Interface
+(all of your questions answered and then some)
+Greg Kroah-Hartman <greg@kroah.com>
+This is being written to try to explain why Linux does not have a binary
+kernel interface, nor does it have a stable kernel interface. Please
+realize that this article describes the _in kernel_ interfaces, not the
+kernel to userspace interfaces. The kernel to userspace interface is
+the one that application programs use, the syscall interface. That
+interface is _very_ stable over time, and will not break. I have old
+programs that were built on a pre 0.9something kernel that still work
+just fine on the latest 2.6 kernel release. This interface is the one
+that users and application programmers can count on being stable.
+Executive Summary
+You think you want a stable kernel interface, but you really do not, and
+you don't even know it. What you want is a stable running driver, and
+you get that only if your driver is in the main kernel tree. You also
+get lots of other good benefits if your driver is in the main kernel
+tree, all of which has made Linux into such a strong, stable, and mature
+operating system which is the reason you are using it in the first
+It's only the odd person who wants to write a kernel driver that needs
+to worry about the in-kernel interfaces changing. For the majority of
+the world, they neither see this interface, nor do they care about it at
+First off, I'm not going to address _any_ legal issues about closed
+source, hidden source, binary blobs, source wrappers, or any other term
+that describes kernel drivers that do not have their source code
+released under the GPL. Please consult a lawyer if you have any legal
+questions, I'm a programmer and hence, I'm just going to be describing
+the technical issues here (not to make light of the legal issues, they
+are real, and you do need to be aware of them at all times.)
+So, there are two main topics here, binary kernel interfaces and stable
+kernel source interfaces. They both depend on each other, but we will
+discuss the binary stuff first to get it out of the way.
+Binary Kernel Interface
+Assuming that we had a stable kernel source interface for the kernel, a
+binary interface would naturally happen too, right? Wrong. Please
+consider the following facts about the Linux kernel:
+ - Depending on the version of the C compiler you use, different kernel
+ data structures will contain different alignment of structures, and
+ possibly include different functions in different ways (putting
+ functions inline or not.) The individual function organization
+ isn't that important, but the different data structure padding is
+ very important.
+ - Depending on what kernel build options you select, a wide range of
+ different things can be assumed by the kernel:
+ - different structures can contain different fields
+ - Some functions may not be implemented at all, (i.e. some locks
+ compile away to nothing for non-SMP builds.)
+ - Parameter passing of variables from function to function can be
+ done in different ways (the CONFIG_REGPARM option controls
+ this.)
+ - Memory within the kernel can be aligned in different ways,
+ depending on the build options.
+ - Linux runs on a wide range of different processor architectures.
+ There is no way that binary drivers from one architecture will run
+ on another architecture properly.
+Now a number of these issues can be addressed by simply compiling your
+module for the exact specific kernel configuration, using the same exact
+C compiler that the kernel was built with. This is sufficient if you
+want to provide a module for a specific release version of a specific
+Linux distribution. But multiply that single build by the number of
+different Linux distributions and the number of different supported
+releases of the Linux distribution and you quickly have a nightmare of
+different build options on different releases. Also realize that each
+Linux distribution release contains a number of different kernels, all
+tuned to different hardware types (different processor types and
+different options), so for even a single release you will need to create
+multiple versions of your module.
+Trust me, you will go insane over time if you try to support this kind
+of release, I learned this the hard way a long time ago...
+Stable Kernel Source Interfaces
+This is a much more "volatile" topic if you talk to people who try to
+keep a Linux kernel driver that is not in the main kernel tree up to
+date over time.
+Linux kernel development is continuous and at a rapid pace, never
+stopping to slow down. As such, the kernel developers find bugs in
+current interfaces, or figure out a better way to do things. If they do
+that, they then fix the current interfaces to work better. When they do
+so, function names may change, structures may grow or shrink, and
+function parameters may be reworked. If this happens, all of the
+instances of where this interface is used within the kernel are fixed up
+at the same time, ensuring that everything continues to work properly.
+As a specific examples of this, the in-kernel USB interfaces have
+undergone at least three different reworks over the lifetime of this
+subsystem. These reworks were done to address a number of different
+ - A change from a synchronous model of data streams to an asynchronous
+ one. This reduced the complexity of a number of drivers and
+ increased the throughput of all USB drivers such that we are now
+ running almost all USB devices at their maximum speed possible.
+ - A change was made in the way data packets were allocated from the
+ USB core by USB drivers so that all drivers now needed to provide
+ more information to the USB core to fix a number of documented
+ deadlocks.
+This is in stark contrast to a number of closed source operating systems
+which have had to maintain their older USB interfaces over time. This
+provides the ability for new developers to accidentally use the old
+interfaces and do things in improper ways, causing the stability of the
+operating system to suffer.
+In both of these instances, all developers agreed that these were
+important changes that needed to be made, and they were made, with
+relatively little pain. If Linux had to ensure that it preserve a
+stable source interface, a new interface would have been created, and
+the older, broken one would have had to be maintained over time, leading
+to extra work for the USB developers. Since all Linux USB developers do
+their work on their own time, asking programmers to do extra work for no
+gain, for free, is not a possibility.
+Security issues are also a very important for Linux. When a
+security issue is found, it is fixed in a very short amount of time. A
+number of times this has caused internal kernel interfaces to be
+reworked to prevent the security problem from occurring. When this
+happens, all drivers that use the interfaces were also fixed at the
+same time, ensuring that the security problem was fixed and could not
+come back at some future time accidentally. If the internal interfaces
+were not allowed to change, fixing this kind of security problem and
+insuring that it could not happen again would not be possible.
+Kernel interfaces are cleaned up over time. If there is no one using a
+current interface, it is deleted. This ensures that the kernel remains
+as small as possible, and that all potential interfaces are tested as
+well as they can be (unused interfaces are pretty much impossible to
+test for validity.)
+What to do
+So, if you have a Linux kernel driver that is not in the main kernel
+tree, what are you, a developer, supposed to do? Releasing a binary
+driver for every different kernel version for every distribution is a
+nightmare, and trying to keep up with an ever changing kernel interface
+is also a rough job.
+Simple, get your kernel driver into the main kernel tree (remember we
+are talking about GPL released drivers here, if your code doesn't fall
+under this category, good luck, you are on your own here, you leech
+<insert link to leech comment from Andrew and Linus here>.) If your
+driver is in the tree, and a kernel interface changes, it will be fixed
+up by the person who did the kernel change in the first place. This
+ensures that your driver is always buildable, and works over time, with
+very little effort on your part.
+The very good side effects of having your driver in the main kernel tree
+ - The quality of the driver will rise as the maintenance costs (to the
+ original developer) will decrease.
+ - Other developers will add features to your driver.
+ - Other people will find and fix bugs in your driver.
+ - Other people will find tuning opportunities in your driver.
+ - Other people will update the driver for you when external interface
+ changes require it.
+ - The driver automatically gets shipped in all Linux distributions
+ without having to ask the distros to add it.
+As Linux supports a larger number of different devices "out of the box"
+than any other operating system, and it supports these devices on more
+different processor architectures than any other operating system, this
+proven type of development model must be doing something right :)
+Thanks to Randy Dunlap, Andrew Morton, David Brownell, Hanna Linder,
+Robert Love, and Nishanth Aravamudan for their review and comments on
+early drafts of this paper.

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