AMD nurtures open-source graphics

Overcoming ATI's earlier objections, AMD is actively cooperating on open-source software to support its graphics chips.

Advanced Micro Devices has become the second of the three major graphics chip companies to decide it's a good idea to cooperate with Linux programmers and users.

On Thursday, AMD joined Intel in actively supporting development of an open-source driver, software that makes it easier for Linux to take advantage of higher-end 3D features of the ATI graphics chips. ATI already supplies proprietary graphics drivers for Linux, but that approach comes with engineering and support problems, and the company decided it's time to fund work to create an open-source option as well.

"What we see more recently is there is increased interest in using our products on the desktop, not necessarily in the professional workstation market, but as a general desktop," said Ben Bar-Haim, vice president of software for AMD's graphics products group. "We felt we need to be in that business and allow the community to write good open-source software."

AMD is funding Suse Linux programmers at Novell to create the driver, sharing hardware details and providing engineering help, said John Bridgman, program manager and engineering leader for the project. An early incarnation of the driver should be available Monday, and AMD will help programmers gradually expand it with features such as 2D and 3D graphics acceleration.

Supporting the open-source driver work represents a dramatic change for ATI and AMD. Historically, ATI has been cool at best on the idea of an open-source Linux driver. But proprietary drivers aren't just unpalatable to open-source purists; they also pose practical problems for software updates and other support issues. The proprietary driver issue has received new attention with work to endow Linux with fancy graphical interfaces with 3D features.

Intel began work on open-source graphics drivers for Linux in 2006. However, Nvidia, which like ATI chiefly sells standalone or "discrete" graphics chips, is still firmly in the proprietary camp; company representatives weren't immediately available for comment on ATI's move.

The open-source driver, even when mature, won't be a full replacement for the proprietary driver. In areas with intellectual property concerns such as copy protection and digital rights management, AMD won't share details with the open-source programmers, reserving support for those features only for the proprietary driver. AMD is contractually required to keep engineering details for technology such as Blu-ray and HD DVD display secret, Bar-Haim said.

But AMD concluded that a half-full glass was better than none at all.

"The big problem we had in the past is that the message we received is we need to open up everything in the hardware to enable driver development," Bridgman said. "The realization was that modern graphics chips are fast enough that we can empower the community to write drivers which fully meet their needs without having to expose the big intellectual property issues."

Part of the change stemmed from new thinking after AMD acquired ATI in 2006. "There's no question that with the AMD acquisition, we are looking at the broader needs of the market," Bar-Heim said.

The initial driver will support AMD's ATI Radeon X1000 and HD 2000 graphics chips, the company said, and AMD will release new details to help open-source work as new products come to market.

AMD will still develop the proprietary graphics driver as well, and a new version due next week will significantly improve performance and expand support to the HD 2000 graphics chips, AMD said. An update in October will add support for one 3D desktop graphics technology, AIGLX, and AMD plans another version geared for professional workstation users in the fourth quarter.

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