The five best things in Linux 2.6.27

In the latest Linux kernel, blogger Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols sees several outstanding new features.

Does anyone really know what will be better in Windows 7? I don't and I follow Windows almost as closely as I do Linux. With Linux, on the other hand, we know exactly what we're getting well in advance of its arrival. In this latest Linux kernel, I see several outstanding new features that have been coming down the road for some time.

After a brief hardware hiccup with Intel's e1000e gigabyte Ethernet firmware, Linux 2.6.27 was released on October 9th. It's a good, but not ground-breaking, kernel. Still, it has at least five significant improvements.

The first of these, in my opinion, is a new way of handling device firmware. In the best of all possible worlds, firmware should be compiled with each driver. Linux users know all too well that, despite the opening of some proprietary driver firmware by vendors like Atheros, the Wi-Fi chip OEM, too many devices still require proprietary firmware. In Linux 2.6.27, the firmware blobs (binary large object) now have a permanent home: the new directory, '/lib/firmware.'

This works for Linux in two ways. The first is that it will make it easier for all Linux distributors to handle proprietary drivers in a single common way. For users this translates into making it easier to use this kind of devices. For those users who don't want a thing to do with proprietary drivers, it also makes it easy for them to make sure that their PCs don't inadvertently use the closed software.

Number two on my list is that Linux 2.6.27 took another big step in supporting Webcams. The first major step came in the last Linux kernel, 2.6.26, which brought in USB Webcam support. Now, with the addition of the gspca (Generic Software Package for Camera Adapters) driver, new Linux distributions will have baked-in support for Webcams built around the very popular spca5x chip family.

Next up, and in the long-run this will probably be the most important change, Linux now supports direct access to flash-memory based storage devices, such as USB drives and the increasingly popular SSDs (Solid State Drives) . Linux does this with its new UBIFS (unsorted block images file system).

Older operating systems, and not just Linux, treat flash drives as if they were ordinary hard drives. That works but it's fails to take advantage of SSD's far faster read and write speeds. In Linux/Unix/Mac terms, ordinary drives are 'block devices.' Flash drives are MTDs (Memory Technology Devices). The key difference is that block devices, like your hard drive, divided storage space into relatively small, 512, 1,024, 2,048, etc. bytes. MTDs use 'eraseblocks' instead of sectors. These eraseblocks start at 128KB.

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