Originally Published: Tuesday, 18 January 2000 Author: Scott Nipp
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Hardware Simplicity

Hardware support has always been one of the biggest concerns for the Linux platform. Although Linux supports an incredibly wide variety of hardware platforms, specific hardware device support can sometimes be sketchy at best. Linux does support a wider range of hardware platforms than any other major operating system to date; however, finding a Linux driver for your video card or PCMCIA network adapter can be difficult. I have experienced both the good and the bad of this, and would like to share a few of my experiences....

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Hardware support has always been one of the biggest concerns for the Linux platform. Although Linux supports an incredibly wide variety of hardware platforms, specific hardware device support can sometimes be sketchy at best. Linux does support a wider range of hardware platforms than any other major operating system to date; however, finding a Linux driver for your video card or PCMCIA network adapter can be difficult. I have experienced both the good and the bad of this, and would like to share a few of my experiences.

Video card support under Linux is constantly improving, and now many video card manufacturers are developing Linux drivers for their products, or at least working with Open Source projects to help develop these drivers. The nice thing is that I have never personally seen a video card that would not work to at least display to the monitor in character mode; however, the X server is the bone of contention here. Several months ago I upgraded the video card in my home system and got a very rude surprise. The video card, a 3Dfx Banshee-based card by Creative Labs, did not have any support under Linux at the time. This meant that I could not run X, which obviously means no windowing environment. Needless to say, I was more than a little disappointed. Thankfully, support for this card showed up very shortly afterwards, and has now been incorporated in the default XFree86 release. This is a good example of the downside of the hardware support issue.

Processor support under Linux is phenomenal to say the least. The number of different processor architectures that Linux supports is amazing. I recently upgraded from an AMD K6-233 to a much faster AND K2-III 400. This upgrade also required a system board upgrade. The amazing part about this process is that as far as Linux was concerned this was a simple drop in replacement. The system booted-up without modification and ran flawlessly from the first boot. This new motherboard did offer some additional functionality like hardware monitoring and USB. The only thing required regarding this particular motherboard was a kernel reconfiguration and compile to setup the kernel for these additional features. Compared to the video card upgrade the processor upgrade was much more time consuming to install the hardware, but much less time consuming for the Linux configuration.

Many other typical hardware devices are supported under Linux, and could be in the future for you in the form of an upgrade. The difficulty, which you will experience while performing these upgrades, depends entirely on your level of skill, and just what piece of hardware you are installing. Sound card upgrades are fairly similar to the processor upgrade in that you should not really need anything other than a kernel recompile. Other devices such as hard drives, CD-ROMs, and memory should require absolutely nothing in terms of Linux modifications. Some other devices like tape drives and SCSI adapters also should require not much more than a kernel recompile if even that depending on your distribution and the default kernel. All in all, hardware upgrades on Linux systems is fairly straightforward.

In comparison to a Windows system, which my home system dual-boots between Windows 98SE and Mandrake 6.1, Linux is easier in some respects and more difficult in others. The video card upgrade under Windows was initially much more successful due to a lack of Linux support for my particular card, but in the end was only marginally easier once support was included in the XFree86 distribution. The sound card upgrade was very simple under Windows, and exceedingly frustrating under Linux. The installation on the Windows side was simply to load the drivers and software from the CD shipped with the card, but under Linux I had to recompile the kernel, and then use beta drivers which for months produced extremely poor sound quality. The processor swap however is where Linux excelled. Under Windows, the system had to be rebooted several times while it went through and detected the hardware, and loaded drivers. I even had to force one or two drivers to load by hand. The Linux side however was flawless. The only change I needed to make was a kernel recompile and software configuration to activate the hardware monitoring features. At this point in time, Windows seems to still be a little easier to install new hardware under, but under certain conditions Linux can indeed be easier in this area.

Hardware support has been growing rapidly for Linux over the past few years. Today, many manufacturers are even beginning to develop Linux drivers for their products. This support from the hardware vendors makes life easier for all of us who run Linux by giving us more freedom to choose hardware based on cost and performance rather than the level of Linux support. The trend of hardware support for Linux only seems to have accelerated recently, and we may soon witness some hardware vendors shipping not only Windows drivers with their products, but Linux drivers as well.

Scott Nipp is a Technical Solutions Consultant at Sprint Paranet. He spends his time there fighting the good fight, advocating Linux to his managers and customers.





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