Manage Linux Hardware with udev

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In the olden days Linux administrators had a static
/dev directory. It was inflexible and obese, containing 99%
irrelevant entries, and we liked it that way. We didn’t mind hassling with
makedev and struggling with major and minor numbers to enter the
devices we actually wanted, or manually deleting the 1,000 useless
/dev entries, because Real System Administrators love doing things
the hard way. It makes us feel close to our hardware. The best part of the
job is spending years acquiring and hoarding arcane bits of knowledge,
which are then passed on to eager, fresh-faced noobs with the magical
incantation, “RTFM, luser.”

Then came devfs, which attempted to replace this increasingly
arthritic system with something that was less complex, more efficient, and
which was a bit more based in reality. The creator of devfs, Richard
Gooch, had this radical idea that the /dev directory should contain
only devices actually present on the system, and aim for better performance
and simplified device management.

Then descended the unbearded prophet Greg Kroah-Hartman from his
mountaintop lair with yet another dev filesystem, called thereforth
udev. Since kernel 2.6.13, devfs is no longer included in the
mainline kernel.

Endless debates rage about devfs vs. udev, which you can read about in
Resources. Chances are you still have
/etc/devfs/ on your system, and a few devices that depend on it. A
famous example is NVidia drivers. So when you see this directory, don’t
think you can go on a mad housecleaning spree and get rid of it.

udev handles the task of detecting hardware and creating nodes for it
in /dev, and also managing device permissions. It works in concert
with the Linux Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) and the hotplug
subsystem. In effect, all devices, even internal drives and expansion
cards, are treated as removable hotplug devices. “Oh no,” you say, “this is
not good, because removable devices receive different kernel names every
time you plug them in.”

No problem, for udev lets you create fixed device names so you can make
static entries in /etc/fstab, and don’t have to play hunt-the-widget
every time you reboot. In fact your Linux distribution probably comes with
a nice pre-fab configuration that assigns static names to certain devices,
like hard drives and PCI network cards.

It’s a nice flexible, highly adaptable system, and when it’s configured
correctly by your distribution maintainer your computing life is easy and

I’m Sorry, Dave, I Can’t Allow You to Do That

The downside to all this udev goodness is it’s still just a youth, so
when you need to make some manual tweaks you have to figure out weirdo
command syntax and how to uncover the device information you need. It’s
simple when you know how. Well, maybe not even then. But let’s take a look
under the hood anyway.

We still have a /dev directory. This is no longer a static
directory, but rather is populated at boot with entries generated by udev

udev’s rules are stored in configuration files in
/etc/udev. Different distributions mangle this in different
ways. Fedora and Ubuntu are sensible. There is /etc/udev/udev.conf,
which contains program options, then all rules files are kept in
/etc/udev/rules.d/ like they’re supposed to. Debian Etch, for
gosh-knows-why, puts all the rules files in the top-level directory, and
then has to symlink them all to /etc/udev/rules.d. udev rules must
go in /etc/udev/rules.d.

The /sys directory is a cousin to /proc, only it’s
well-organized rather than a chaotic mess. It exports kernel information
into a human-browseable and program-parseable structure. Just like
/proc uses the /proc filesystem, the /sys directory uses
sysfs. You can see this with the mount command:

 # mount proc on /proc type proc (rw) /sys on /sys type
sysfs (rw) udev on /dev type tmpfs (rw) 

Notice how /dev uses tmpfs, which means wipeout on

/sys is chock full o’ symlinks, as you can see with the find
/sys -type l
command. You can browse /sys just like any other
directory. Whether you’ll understand the contents is another question, but
it doesn’t hurt to get familiar with its structure.

Because sysfs is a virtual filesystem like /proc, it
doesn’t occupy any physical disk space. The Konqueror file browser on my
system says it occupies 129.4 megabytes, but du tells a different

 $ du -sh /sys 0 /sys 

Writing udev Rules

Current releases of udev come
with bales of man pages, and several different useful commands. On Debian
systems, find them all with dpkg:

 $ dpkg -L udev 

On Fedora, use the rpm command:

 $ rpm -ql udev 

You’ll see there are different command sets for each distribution, and
a pox on both of them for sowing useless confusion, so we’ll look at the
important commands they have in common.

The first step for writing or modifying udev rules is to make sure that
your kernel sees the device you want to make the rule for. (If the kernel
doesn’t see it, you need to find out if your device is supported in Linux
at all, then how to enable that support.) First try running the
udevinfo command. This example dumps all devices in the udev

 $ udevinfo -e 

You may query individual devices, if you know the device path, as this
example for an SATA partition shows:

 $ udevinfo -a -p /block/sda/sda1 

How do you know the device path? From udevinfo. You already know
the node name for some of your devices, and can query it this way:

 $ udevinfo -q all -n sda 

Both of these commands spit out a lot of information. Just for fun, you
can run lspci and match up the disk/by-path/pci values from

 0000:00:0f.0 RAID bus controller: VIA Technologies, Inc.  VIA
VT6420 SATA RAID Controller (rev 80)S: disk/by-path/pci-0000:00:0f.0-scsi-0:0:0:0-part1 

The output of udevinfo is pretty cryptic, so this is one way to
match it up to devices with names you recognize. For USB devices compare
with the output of lsusb. SCSI devices compare to lsscsi.

Come back next
to learn how to nail down USB network cards, straighten out device
permissions, and manage multiple storage drives painlessly with udev.


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