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The main purpose of device drivers is to provide abstraction by acting as a translator between a hardware device and the applications or operating systems that use it. Programmers can write higher-level application code independently of whatever specific hardware the end-user is using.For example, a high-level application for interacting with a serial port may simply have two functions for "send data" and "receive data". At a lower level, a device driver implementing these functions would communicate to the particular serial port controller installed on a user's computer. The commands needed to control a 16550 UART are much different from the commands needed to control an FTDI serial port converter, but each hardware-specific device driver abstracts these details into the same (or similar) software interface.
Writing a device driver requires an in-depth understanding of how the hardware and the software works for a given platform function. Because drivers require low-level access to hardware functions in order to operate, drivers typically operate in a highly privileged environment and can cause system operational issues if something goes wrong. In contrast, most user-level software on modern operating systems can be stopped without greatly affecting the rest of the system. Even drivers executing in user mode can crash a system if the device is erroneously programmed. These factors make it more difficult and dangerous to diagnose problems.
The task of writing drivers thus usually falls to software engineers or computer engineers who work for hardware-development companies. This is because they have better information than most outsiders about the design of their hardware. Moreover, it was traditionally considered in the hardware manufacturer's interest to guarantee that their clients can use their hardware in an optimum way. Typically, the Logical Device Driver (LDD) is written by the operating system vendor, while the Physical Device Driver (PDD) is implemented by the device vendor. However, in recent years, non-vendors have written numerous device drivers for proprietary devices, mainly for use with free and open source operating systems. In such cases, it is important that the hardware manufacturer provide information on how the device communicates. Although this information can instead be learned by reverse engineering, this is much more difficult with hardware than it is with software.
In Linux environments, programmers can build device drivers as parts of the kernel, separately as loadable modules, or as user-mode drivers (for certain types of devices where kernel interfaces exist, such as for USB devices). Makedev includes a list of the devices in Linux, including ttyS (terminal), lp (parallel port), hd (disk), loop, and sound (these include mixer, sequencer, dsp, and audio).
Microsoft Windows .sys files and Linux .ko files can contain loadable device drivers. The advantage of loadable device drivers is that they can be loaded only when necessary and then unloaded, thus saving kernel memory.
Device drivers, particularly on modern[update] Microsoft Windows platforms, can run in kernel-mode (Ring 0 on x86 CPUs) or in user-mode (Ring 3 on x86 CPUs). The primary benefit of running a driver in user mode is improved stability, since a poorly written user-mode device driver cannot crash the system by overwriting kernel memory. On the other hand, user/kernel-mode transitions usually impose a considerable performance overhead, thus making kernel-mode drivers preferred for low-latency networking.
Virtual device drivers represent a particular variant of device drivers. They are used to emulate a hardware device, particularly in virtualization environments, for example when a DOS program is run on a Microsoft Windows computer or when a guest operating system is run on, for example, a Xen host. Instead of enabling the guest operating system to dialog with hardware, virtual device drivers take the opposite role and emulates a piece of hardware, so that the guest operating system and its drivers running inside a virtual machine can have the illusion of accessing real hardware. Attempts by the guest operating system to access the hardware are routed to the virtual device driver in the host operating system as e.g., function calls. The virtual device driver can also send simulated processor-level events like interrupts into the virtual machine.
Virtual devices may also operate in a non-virtualized environment. For example, a virtual network adapter is used with a virtual private network, while a virtual disk device is used with iSCSI. A good example for virtual device drivers can be Daemon Tools.
Devices often have a large number of diverse and customized device drivers running in their operating system (OS) kernel and often contain various bugs and vulnerabilities, making them a target for exploits. Bring Your Own Vulnerable Driver (BYOVD) uses signed, old drivers that contain flaws that allow hackers to insert malicious code into the kernel.
There is a lack of effective kernel vulnerability detection tools, especially for closed-source OSes such as Microsoft Windows where the source code of the device drivers is mostly not public (open source) and the drivers often also have many privileges.
A group of security researchers considers the lack of isolation as one of the main factors undermining kernel security, and published a isolation framework to protect operating system kernels, primarily the monolithic Linux kernel which, according to them, gets ~80,000 commits/year to its drivers.
Having discussed char and block drivers, we are now ready to move on to the world of networking. Network interfaces are the third standard class of Linux devices, and this chapter describes how they interact with the rest of the kernel.
But the most important difference between the two is that block drivers operate only in response to requests from the kernel, whereas network drivers receive packets asynchronously from the outside. Thus, while a block driver is asked to send a buffer toward the kernel, the network device asks to push incoming packets toward the kernel. The kernel interface for network drivers is designed for this different mode of operation.
Network drivers also have to be prepared to support a number of administrative tasks, such as setting addresses, modifying transmission parameters, and maintaining traffic and error statistics. The API for network drivers reflects this need and, therefore, looks somewhat different from the interfaces we have seen so far.
The first, and most important, design decision was that the sample interfaces should remain independent of real hardware, just like most of the sample code used in this book. This constraint led to something that resembles the loopback interface. snull is not a loopback interface; however, it simulates conversations with real remote hosts in order to better demonstrate the task of writing a network driver. The Linux loopback driver is actually quite simple; it can be found in drivers/net/loopback.c.
We start looking at the structure of network drivers by dissecting the snull source. Keeping the source code for several drivers handy might help you follow the discussion and to see how real-world Linux network drivers operate. As a place to start, we suggest loopback.c, plip.c, and e100.c, in order of increasing complexity. All these files live in drivers/net, within the kernel source tree.
This function allocates a network device using eth%d for the name argument. It provides its own initialization function (ether_setup) that sets several net_device fields with appropriate values for Ethernet devices. Thus, there is no driver-supplied initialization function for alloc_etherdev; the driver should simply do its required initialization directly after a successful allocation. Writers of drivers for other types of devices may want to take advantage of one of the other helper functions, such as alloc_fcdev (defined in ) for fiber-channel devices, alloc_fddidev () for FDDI devices, or alloc_trdev () for token ring devices.
We look now at one more struct net_device field, priv. Its role is similar to that of the private_data pointer that we used for char drivers. Unlike fops->private_data, this priv pointer is allocated along with the net_device structure. Direct access to the priv field is also discouraged, for performance and flexibility reasons. When a driver needs to get access to the private data pointer, it should use the netdev_priv function. Thus, the snull driver is full of declarations such as:
An initialization function. If this pointer is set, the function is called by register_netdev to complete the initialization of the net_device structure. Most modern network drivers do not use this function any longer; instead, initialization is performed before registering the interface. 2b1af7f3a8