Nvidia gives a major boost to Nouveau open source driver for Linux

(Image credit: Future)

Nvidia has extended a helping hand to the developers working on Nouveau, the open source Linux driver for Nvidia graphics cards, in a move that comes rather out of the blue.

To be precise, Nvidia has released further GPU hardware documents to aid the project which has had its fair share of thorny issues, shall we say.

Nvidia contacted Phoronix in an emailed statement which reads: “Nvidia has released public, freely available (MIT licensed) documentation of portions of its GPU hardware interface. This is a work in progress; not all interfaces have been published.”

The documents largely pertain to Pascal, Maxwell, and Kepler GPUs, the three generations previous to Turing (Volta is also covered). Sadly, the latest Turing graphics cards aren’t covered here, because they are simply too new, and work on compiling their open source documentation is still a work in progress, apparently.

The good news is that this is a substantial helping of useful info on everything from memory clocking to power states, and will definitely assist the Nouveau folks with honing their open source Nvidia driver to a greater extent.

Although as Phoronix observes, unfortunately it won’t provide a solution for one of the biggest current stumbling blocks, where Maxwell graphics cards (GeForce 900 series) have been affected by Nvidia’s signed firmware restrictions, and an inability to reprogram the GPU to operate at stock clocks rather than lower boot clock speeds.

Still, progress is definitely being made here, and perhaps this is a sign that Nvidia will be more willing to cooperate on the open source front going forward.

Open and closed cases

Why would you want open source drivers anyway, you might ask? Aside from wanting to support the general concept of free and open software – and distros that build themselves around these offerings – some folks may have more niche needs where Nvidia’s proprietary driver for Linux isn’t always the best choice.

For example, those running old Nvidia graphics cards – pre-Kepler, or indeed much further back – may well find that Nouveau provides a smoother experience than Nvidia’s own GPU driver (because as time progresses, Nvidia neglects and ceases support for older cards, perhaps just assuming that everyone has moved on).

For most Linux folks, though, Nvidia’s proprietary driver will be best, as Nouveau is still in a fairly rough state, generally speaking, particularly for anything beyond simple desktop computing.

However, extra hardware documentation like what Nvidia has just provided should go a long way to remedying that situation, and Nouveau will hopefully become a more viable choice across a wider range of scenarios in the future.

Darren is a freelancer writing news and features for TechRadar (and occasionally T3) across a broad range of computing topics including CPUs, GPUs, various other hardware, VPNs, antivirus and more. He has written about tech for the best part of three decades, and writes books in his spare time (his debut novel - 'I Know What You Did Last Supper' - was published by Hachette UK in 2013).