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Devices, Drivers, and all that

Up to now, we've been talking quite a bit about network interfaces and general TCP/IP issues, but didn't really cover exactly what happens when ``the networking code'' in the kernel accesses a piece of hardware. For this, we have to talk a little about the concept of interfaces and drivers.

First, of course, there's the hardware itself, for example an Ethernet board: this is a slice of Epoxy, cluttered with lots of tiny chips with silly numbers on them, sitting in a slot of your PC. This is what we generally call a device.

For you to be able to use the Ethernet board, special functions have to be present in your kernel that understand the particular way this device is accessed. These are the so-called device drivers. For example, has device drivers for several brands of Ethernet boards that are very similar in function. They are known as the ``Becker Series Drivers'', named after their author, Donald Becker. A different example is the D-Link driver that handles a D-Link pocket adaptor attached to a parallel port.

But, what do we mean when we say a driver ``handles'' a device? Let's go back to that Ethernet board we examined above. The driver has to be able to communicate with the peripheral's on-board logic somehow: it has to send commands and data to the board, while the board should deliver any data received to the driver.

Figure: The relationship between drivers, interfaces, and the hardware.

In PCs, this communication takes place through an area of I/O-memory that is mapped to on-board registers and the like. All commands and data the kernel sends to the board have to go through these registers. I/O memory is generally described by giving its starting or base address. Typical base addresses for Ethernet boards are 0x300, or 0x360.

Usually, you don't have to worry about any hardware issues such as the base address, because the kernel makes an attempt at boot time to detect a board's location. This is called autoprobing, which means that the kernel reads several memory locations and compares the data read with what it should see if a certain Ethernet board was installed. However, there may be Ethernet boards it cannot detect automatically; this is sometimes the case with cheap Ethernet cards that are not-quite clones of standard boards from other manufacturers. Also, the kernel will attempt to detect only one Ethernet device when booting. If you're using more than one board, you have to tell the kernel about this board explicitly.

Another such parameter that you might have to tell the kernel about is the interrupt request channel. Hardware components usually interrupt the kernel when they need care taken of them, e.g. when data has arrived, or a special condition occurs. In a PC, interrupts may occur on one of 15 interrupt channels numbered 0, 1, and 3 through 15. The interrupt number assigned to a hardware component is called its interrupt request number, or IRQ.gif

As described in chapter-gif, the kernel accesses a device through a so-called interface. Interfaces offer an abstract set of functions that is the same across all types of hardware, such as sending or receiving a datagram.

Interfaces are identified by means of names. These are names defined internally in the kernel, and are not device files in the /dev directory. Typical names are eth0, eth1, etc, for Ethernet interfaces. The assignment of interfaces to devices usually depends on the order in which devices are configured; for instance the first Ethernet board installed will become eth0, the next will be eth1, and so on. One exception from this rule are SLIP interfaces, which are assigned dynamically; that is, whenever a SLIP connection is established, an interface is assigned to the serial port.

The picture given in figure-gif tries to show the relationship between the hardware, device drivers and interfaces.

When booting, the kernel displays what devices it detects, and what interfaces it installs. The following is an excerpt of a typical boot screen:

This shows that the kernel has been compiled with TCP/IP enabled, and drivers for SLIP, CSLIP, and PPP included. The third line from below says that a D-Link pocket adaptor was detected, and installed as interface dl0. If you have a different type of Ethernet card, the kernel will usually print a line starting with eth0, followed by the type of card detected. If you have an Ethernet card installed but don't see any such message, this means that the kernel is unable to detect your board properly. This is dealt with in a later section.

Next: Kernel Configuration Up: Configuring the Networking Hardware Previous: Configuring the Networking Hardware

Andrew Anderson
Thu Mar 7 23:22:06 EST 1996