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7.5. Loadable Device Drivers

Traditionally, device drivers have been included as part of the kernel. There are several reasons for this. First of all, nearly all device drivers require the special hardware access provided by being part of the kernel code. Such hardware access can't be obtained easily through a user program. Also, device drivers are much easier to implement as part of the kernel; such drivers would have complete access to the data structures and other routines in the kernel and could call them freely.

There are several problems with a conglomerate kernel containing all drivers in this way. First of all, it requires the system administrator to rebuild the kernel in order to selectively include device drivers, as we saw in the previous section. Also, this mechanism lends itself to sloppy programming on the part of the driver writers: there's nothing stopping a programmer from writing code that is not completely modular--code which, for example, directly accesses data private to other parts of the kernel. The cooperative nature of the Linux kernel development compounds this problem, and not all parts of the code are as neatly contained as they should be. This can make it more difficult to maintain and debug the code.

In an effort to move away from this paradigm, the Linux kernel supports loadable device drivers--device drivers that are added to or removed from memory at runtime, with a series of commands. Such drivers are still part of the kernel, but they are compiled separately and enabled only when loaded. Loadable device drivers, or modules, are generally loaded into memory using commands in one of the boot-time rc scripts.

Modules provide a cleaner interface for writing drivers. To some extent, they require the code to be somewhat modular and to follow a certain coding convention. (Note that this doesn't actually prevent a programmer from abusing the convention and writing nonmodular code. Once the module has been loaded, it is just as free to wreak havoc as if it were compiled directly into the kernel.) Using modules makes drivers easier to debug; you can simply unload a module, recompile it, and reload it without having to reboot the system or rebuild the kernel as a whole. Modules can be used for other parts of the kernel, such as filesystem types, in addition to device drivers.

Most device drivers, and a lot of other kernel functionality under Linux, are implemented as modules. One of the most popular is the floppy tape driver (or ftape driver), for tape drives that connect to the floppy controller, such as the Colorado Memory Jumbo 120/250 models. If you plan to use this driver on your system, it is good to know how to build, load, and unload modules. While nobody stops you from compiling this module statically into your kernel, a tape drive is something that you need only rarely (normally once a day or so), and its driver shouldn't occupy value RAM during the times it is not needed. See the Linux Ftape HOWTO for more about these devices and supported hardware.

The first thing you'll need is the modules package, which contains the commands used to load and unload modules from the kernel. On the FTP archive sites, this is usually found as modules.tar.gz in the directory where the kernel sources are kept. This package contains the sources to the commands insmod, modprobe, rmmod, and lsmod. Most Linux distributions include these commands (found in sbin). If you already have these commands installed, you probably don't need to get the modules package. However, it can't hurt to get the package and rebuild these commands, to be sure that you have the most up-to-date version.

To rebuild these commands, unpack modules.tar.gz (say, in a subdirectory of /usr/src). Follow the installation instructions contained there; usually all you have to do is execute make followed by make install (as root). The three commands will now be installed in /sbin and ready to use.

A module is simply a single object file containing all of the code for the driver. For example, the ftape module might be called ftape.o. On many systems, the modules themselves are stored in a directory tree below /lib/modules/kernelversion, where you can find different directories for the various types of modules. For example, the modules compiled for the 2.2.2 kernel would be below /lib/modules/2.2.2. You might already have a number of modules on your system; check the appropriate directory.

Modules can be either in the kernel source or external. The former is the case for those device drivers, filesystems, and other functionality that are used most often and that are maintained as part of the official kernel sources. Using these modules is very easy: during the make config, make menuconfig, or make xconfig step, type m to build a feature as a module. Repeat this for everything you want to compile as a module. Then, after the make zImage step, execute the commands make modules and make modules_install. This will compile the modules and install them in /lib/modules/kernelversion. It is a good idea (for reasons to be explained later in this section) to run the command depmod -a afterwards to correct module dependencies.

New modules that are not yet integrated into the official kernel sources, or those that are simply too esoteric to be put into the kernel sources (e.g., a device driver for some custom-built hardware that is not publicly available), can be available as stand-alone, external modules. Unpack the archive of this module, compile it according to the instructions that are hopefully included, and copy the resulting module file to the appropriate subdirectory of /lib/modules/kernelversion. Some modules might also have an install script, or allow you to issue the command make install to perform the last step.

Once you have a compiled module (either from the kernel sources or external), you can load it using the command:

insmod module
where module is the name of the module object file. For example:
insmod /lib/modules/2.2.2/char/ftape.o
installs the ftape driver if it is found in that file.

Once a module is installed, it may display some information to the console (as well as to the system logs), indicating that it is initialized. For example, the ftape driver might display the following:

ftape v1.14 29/10/94 (c) 1993, 1994 Bas Laarhoven (bas@vimec.nl)
  QIC-117 driver for QIC-40 and QIC-80 tape drives
[000] kernel-interface.c (init_module) - installing QIC-117 ftape\
[001] kernel-interface.c (init_module) - 3 tape_buffers @ 001B8000.
[002]  calibr.c (time_inb) - inb() duration: 1436 nsec.
[003]  calibr.c (calibrate) - TC for `udelay()' = 2944 nsec (at 2049\
[004]  calibr.c (calibrate) - TC for `fdc_wait()' = 2857 nsec (at 2049\
The exact messages printed depend on the module, of course. Each module should come with ample documentation describing just what it does and how to debug it if there are problems.

It is likely that insmod will tell you it could not load the module into the kernel because there were "symbols missing." This means that the module you want to load needs functionality from another part of the kernel that is neither compiled into the kernel nor contained in a module already loaded. You could now try to find out which module contains those functions, load that module first with insmod, and try again. You will eventually succeed with this method, but it can be cumbersome, and this would not be Linux if there weren't a better way.

You first need a module database in the file /lib/modules/kernelversion/modules.dep. You can create this database by calling:

depmod -a

This goes through all the modules you have and records whether they need any other modules. With this database in place, you can simply replace the insmod command with the modprobe command, which checks the module database and loads any other modules that might be needed before loading the requested module. For example, our modules.dep file contains--among others--the following line:

/lib/modules/2.0.35/misc/hisax.o:	/lib/modules/2.0.35/misc/isdn.o

This means that in order to load the hisax module (a device driver for a number of ISDN boards), the isdn module must be loaded. If we now load the hisax module with modprobe (this example is slightly simplified, because the hisax module needs additional parameters):

modprobe hisax

modprobe will detect the dependency and load the isdn module.

Some modules need so-called module parameters. For example, a device driver might need to be assigned an interrupt request line (IRQ). You can pass those parameters in the form parametername=parametervalue with both the insmod and the modprobe command. In the following example, several parametes are passed to the hisax module:

tigger # modprobe hisax type=3 protocol=2 io=0x280 irq=10 

The documentation for each module should tell you which parameters the module supports.

One caveat about modules if you use the Debian distribution: Debian uses a file /etc/modules where the modules are listed that should be loaded at boot time. If a module that you do not want keeps reappearing, check whether it is listed here.

You can list the drivers that are loaded with the command lsmod, as in:

rutabaga% lsmod 
Module:        #pages:		Used by
ftape             40
The memory usage of the module is displayed as well; under Linux, a page is 4 KB. The ftape driver here is using 160 KB of memory. If the other modules are dependent on this module, they are shown in the third column.

A module can be unloaded from memory using the rmmod command. For example:

rmmod ftape
The argument to rmmod is the name of the driver as it appears in the lsmod listing.

Once you have modules working to your satisfaction, you can include the appropriate insmod commands in one of the rc scripts executed at boot time. One of your rc scripts might already include a place where insmod commands can be added, depending on your distribution.

One feature of the current module support is that you must rebuild a module any time you upgrade your kernel to a new version or patch level. (Rebuilding your kernel, but keeping the same kernel version, doesn't require you to do this.) This is done to ensure that the module is compatible with the kernel version you're using. If you attempt to load a module with a newer or older kernel than it was compiled for, insmod will complain and not allow the module to be loaded. When rebuilding a module, you must be running the kernel under which it will be used. Therefore, when upgrading your kernel, upgrade and reboot the new kernel first, then rebuild your modules and load them. There is an option that allows you to keep your modules when switching kernels, but there are a number of problems associated with it, and we recommend against using it.

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