Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Debian Squeeze - free and non-free - Realtek Ethernet

With debian (6.0) squeeze release just days away, I have been following some of the news closely.

My interest is in free software that can be modified and distributed under reasonable terms, and much of what Debian does I like.

The removal of non-free firmware from the Kernel was announced a month ago.

Truly free firmware has been coming on leaps and bounds recently, particularly with the Broadcom commitment.

Michael Hurlston, Senior Vice President & General Manager, Broadcom's WLAN line of business
had this to say:

"There is no question: Linux has become a major platform for communications
devices and technologies"
The announcement means Broadcom are now a member of the Linux Foundation, and will work closely with developers to release driver code that can be used, modified, and distributed as appropriate.

But what about existing hardware?

Good question. If you already own a computer then it has a number of devices which are driven by firmware.

Will all those devices work with the stock Debian Kernel? Mostly.

There are some (mostly older) devices which have been superseded or where the company has gone out of business, that might cause a problem.

Thankfully hardware suppliers (like Broadcom) are willing to get involved properly with their current product range, and in some cases produce retrospective drivers also.

But what about Realtek Ethernet cards?

Here are some messages following my kernel update earlier:

update-initramfs: Generating /boot/initrd.img-2.6.32-5-amd64
W: Possible missing firmware /lib/firmware/rtl_nic/rtl8168d-2.fw for module r8169
W: Possible missing firmware /lib/firmware/rtl_nic/rtl8168d-1.fw for module r8169

If you have these messages appear during an update, then do not despair, it could mean nothing other than a warning.

What is worth doing, is installing discover and finding out exactly what is in your system:

apt-get install discover

Running discover should tell you a fair bit about your system:

The network card information should be in there for you to check. For me it shows that the card is in fact a Realtek, and gives me a best guess at the model number ( RTL8111 or RTL8168B )

Now I will reboot and ensure my networking initialises properly after the update.

And everything was fine.

If I was unfortunate enough to have older hardware, that did rely on non-free firmware, then I would have to take some more action.

Links and Further Reading:
Note: If you work in a large company / college and know for sure that all your computers include firmware Ethernet cards, that only have non-free firmware, then you should perhaps download the unofficial cd image mentioned in the final link above.

( There is an alternative to 'discover' in the package 'hwinfo', but all other alternatives I looked at gave me a 'non-free' feeling. )

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