What are the device drivers?
A device driver, or a software driver is a type of computer software, typically developed to make the hardware in your computer work. Typically this constitutes an interface for communicating with the device, through the specific computer bus or communications subsystem that the hardware is connected to, providing commands to and/or receiving data from the device, and on the other end, the requisite interfaces to the operating system and software applications. Often called a driver for short, it is a specialized hardware dependent computer program which is also operating system specific that enables another program, typically an operating system or applications software package or computer program running under the operating system kernel, to interact transparently with a hardware device, and usually provides the requisite interrupt handling necessary for any necessary asynchronous time-dependent hardware interfacing needs.
Device driver theory
The key design
goal of device drivers is abstraction. Every model of hardware (even within
the same class of device) is different. Newer models also are released by
manufacturers that provide more reliable or better performance and these
newer models are often controlled differently.
Computers and their operating systems cannot be expected to know how to control every device, both now and in the future. To solve this problem, operating systems essentially dictate how every type of device should be controlled. The function of the device driver is then to translate these OS mandated function calls into device specific calls. In theory a new device, which is controlled in a new manner, should function correctly if a suitable driver is available. This new driver will ensure that the device appears to operate as usual from the operating systems' point of view.
Depending on the specific computer architecture, drivers can be 8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit, and more recently, 64-bit. This corresponds directly to the architecture of the operating system for which those drivers were developed. For example, in 16-bit Windows 3.11, most drivers were 16-bits, while most drivers for 32-bit Windows XP are 32-bit. More recently, specific 64-bit Linux and Windows versions have required hardware vendors to provide newer 64-bit drivers for their devices.
Device driver development
Writing a device
driver is considered a challenge in most cases, as it requires an in-depth
understanding of how a given platform functions, both at the hardware and
the software level. Because many device drivers execute in kernel mode,
software bugs often have much more damaging effects to the system. This is
in contrast to most types of user-level software running under modern
operating systems, which can be stopped without greatly affecting the rest
of the system. Even drivers executing in user mode can crash a system if the
device being controlled is erroneously programmed. These factors make it
more difficult and dangerous to diagnose problems.
All of this means that the engineers most likely to write device drivers come from the companies that develop the hardware. This is because they have more complete access to information about the design of their hardware than most outsiders. Moreover, it was traditionally considered in the hardware manufacturer's interest to guarantee that their clients would be able to use their hardware in an optimum way. However, in recent years non-vendors too have written numerous device drivers, mainly for use under free operating systems. In such cases, co-operation on behalf of the vendor is still important, however, as reverse engineering is much more difficult with hardware than it is with software, meaning it may take a long time to learn to operate hardware that has an unknown interface.
In Windows, Microsoft is attempting to address the issues of system instability by poorly written device drivers by creating a new framework for driver development known as Windows Driver Foundation (WDF). This includes UMDF User Mode Driver Framework that encourages development of certain types of drivers - primarily those that implement a message-based protocol for communicating with their devices - as user mode drivers. If such drivers malfunction they will not cause system instability. The KMDF Kernel Mode Driver Framework model continues to allow development of kernel-mode device drivers, but attempts to provide standard implementations of functions that are well known to cause problems, including cancellation of I/O operations, power management, and plug and play device support.
Device driver applications
Because of the diversity of modern hardware and operating systems, many ways exist in which drivers can be used. Drivers are used for interfacing with:
Local buses of various sorts - in particular, for bus mastering on modern systems
Low-bandwidth I/O buses of various sorts (for pointing devices such as mice, keyboards, USB, etc.
Computer storage devices such as hard disk, CD-ROM and floppy disk buses (ATA, SATA, SCSI
Implementing support for different file systems Implementing support for image scanners and digital cameras
Choosing and installing the correct device drivers for given hardware is often a key component of computer system configuration.
Virtual device drivers
A particular variant of device drivers are virtual device drivers. They are used in virtualization environments, for example when an MS-DOS program is run on a Microsoft Windows computer or when a guest operating system is run inside e.g. VMware. Instead of enabling the guest operating system to dialog with hardware, virtual device drivers take the opposite role and emulate 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.