In computing, a device driver or software driver is a computer program allowing higher-level computer programs to interact with a hardware device.
A driver typically communicates with the device through the computer bus or communications subsystem to which the hardware connects. When a calling program invokes a routine in the driver, the driver issues commands to the device. Once the device sends data back to the driver, the driver may invoke routines in the original calling program. Drivers are hardware-dependent and operating-system-specific. They usually provide the interrupt handling required for any necessary asynchronous time-dependent hardware interface.
A device driver simplifies programming by acting as translator between a hardware device and the applications or operating systems that use it. Programmers can write the higher-level application code independently of whatever specific hardware device.
Device drivers can be abstracted into logical and physical layers. Logical layers process data for a class of devices such as Ethernet ports or disk drives. Physical layers communicate with specific device instances. For example, a serial port needs to handle standard communication protocols such as XON/XOFF that are common for all serial port hardware. This would be managed by a serial port logical layer. However, the physical layer needs to communicate with a particular serial port chip. 16550 UART hardware differs from PL-011. The physical layer addresses these chip-specific variations. Conventionally, OS requests go to the logical layer first. In turn, the logical layer calls upon the physical layer to implement OS requests in terms understandable by the hardware. Inversely, when a hardware device needs to respond to the OS, it uses the physical layer to speak to the logical layer.
In Linux environments, programmers can build device drivers either as parts of the kernel or separately as loadable modules. Makedev includes a list of the devices in Linux: ttyS (terminal), lp (parallel port), hd (disk), loop (loopback disk device), sound (these include mixer, sequencer, dsp, and audio)
The Microsoft Windows .sys files and Linux .ko modules contain loadable device drivers. The advantage of loadable device drivers is that they can be loaded only when necessary and then unloaded, thus saving kernel memory.
Writing a device driver requires an in-depth understanding of how the hardware and the software of a given platform function. Drivers operate in a highly privileged environment and can cause disaster if they get things wrong. In contrast, most user-level software on modern operating systems can be stopped without greatly affecting the rest of the system. Even drivers executing in user mode can crash a system if the device is erroneously programmed. These factors make it more difficult and dangerous to diagnose problems.
Thus the task of writing drivers usually falls to software engineers who work for hardware-development companies. This is because they have better information than most outsiders about the design of their hardware. Moreover, it was traditionally considered in the hardware manufacturer's interest to guarantee that their clients can use their hardware in an optimum way. Typically, the logical device driver (LDD) is written by the operating system vendor, while the physical device driver (PDD) is implemented by the device vendor. But in recent years non-vendors have written numerous device drivers, mainly for use with free and open source operating systems. In such cases, it is important that the hardware manufacturer provides information on how the device communicates. Although this information can instead be learned by reverse engineering, this is much more difficult with hardware than it is with software.
Microsoft has attempted to reduce system instability due to poorly written device drivers by creating a new framework for driver development, called Windows Driver Foundation (WDF). This includes User-Mode Driver Framework (UMDF) 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 do not cause system instability. The Kernel-Mode Driver Framework (KMDF) 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.
Apple has an open-source framework for developing drivers on Mac OS X called the I/O Kit.
Device drivers, particularly on modern Windows platforms, can run in kernel-mode (Ring 0 on x86 CPUs) or in user-mode (Ring 3 on x86 CPUs). The primary benefit of running a driver in user mode is improved stability, since a poorly written user mode device driver cannot crash the system by overwriting kernel memory. On the other hand, user/kernel-mode transitions usually impose a considerable performance overhead, thereby prohibiting user mode-drivers for low latency and high throughput requirements.
Kernel space can be accessed by user module only through the use of system calls. End user programs like the UNIX shell or other GUI based applications are part of the user space. These applications interact with hardware through kernel supported functions.
Virtual device drivers represent a particular variant of device drivers. They are used to emulate a hardware device, particularly in virtualization environments, for example when a DOS program is run on a Microsoft Windows computer or when a guest operating system is run on, for example, a Xen host. 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.
Virtual devices may also operate in a non-virtualized environment. For example a virtual network adapter is used with a virtual private network, while a virtual disk device is used with iSCSI. The best example for virtual device drivers can be "Daemon Tools"
A device on the PCI or USB bus is identified by two ID's which consist of 4 numbers and/or letters A to F. The vendor ID identifies the vendor of the device. The device ID identifies a specific device from that manufacturer/vendor.
A PCI device has often an ID pair for the main chip of the device, and also a subsystem ID pair which identifies the vendor, which may be different from the chip manufacturer.