1.1. Opening and Closing Devices

1.1.1. Device Naming

V4L2 drivers are implemented as kernel modules, loaded manually by the system administrator or automatically when a device is first opened. The driver modules plug into the "videodev" kernel module. It provides helper functions and a common application interface specified in this document.

Each driver thus loaded registers one or more device nodes with major number 81 and a minor number between 0 and 255. Assigning minor numbers to V4L2 devices is entirely up to the system administrator, this is primarily intended to solve conflicts between devices.[1] The module options to select minor numbers are named after the device special file with a "_nr" suffix. For example "video_nr" for /dev/video video capture devices. The number is an offset to the base minor number associated with the device type. [2] When the driver supports multiple devices of the same type more than one minor number can be assigned, separated by commas:

> insmod mydriver.o video_nr=0,1 radio_nr=0,1

In /etc/modules.conf this may be written as:

alias char-major-81-0 mydriver
alias char-major-81-1 mydriver
alias char-major-81-64 mydriver              1
options mydriver video_nr=0,1 radio_nr=0,1   2


When an application attempts to open a device special file with major number 81 and minor number 0, 1, or 64, load "mydriver" (and the "videodev" module it depends upon).


Register the first two video capture devices with minor number 0 and 1 (base number is 0), the first two radio device with minor number 64 and 65 (base 64).

When no minor number is given as module option the driver supplies a default. Chapter 4, Interfaces recommends the base minor numbers to be used for the various device types. Obviously minor numbers must be unique. When the number is already in use the offending device will not be registered.

By convention system administrators create various character device special files with these major and minor numbers in the /dev directory. The names recomended for the different V4L2 device types are listed in Chapter 4, Interfaces.

The creation of character special files (with mknod) is a privileged operation and devices cannot be opened by major and minor number. That means applications cannot reliable scan for loaded or installed drivers. The user must enter a device name, or the application can try the conventional device names.

Under the device filesystem (devfs) the minor number options are ignored. V4L2 drivers (or by proxy the "videodev" module) automatically create the required device files in the /dev/v4l directory using the conventional device names above.

1.1.2. Related Devices

Devices can support several related functions. For example video capturing, video overlay and VBI capturing are related because these functions share, amongst other, the same video input and tuner frequency. V4L and earlier versions of V4L2 used the same device name and minor number for video capturing and overlay, but different ones for VBI. Experience showed this approach has several problems[3], and to make things worse the V4L videodev module used to prohibit multiple opens of a device.

As a remedy the present version of the V4L2 API relaxed the concept of device types with specific names and minor numbers. For compatibility with old applications drivers must still register different minor numbers to assign a default function to the device. But if related functions are supported by the driver they must be available under all registered minor numbers. The desired function can be selected after opening the device as described in Chapter 4, Interfaces.

Imagine a driver supporting video capturing, video overlay, raw VBI capturing, and FM radio reception. It registers three devices with minor number 0, 64 and 224 (this numbering scheme is inherited from the V4L API). Regardless if /dev/video (81, 0) or /dev/vbi (81, 224) is opened the application can select any one of the video capturing, overlay or VBI capturing functions. Without programming (e. g. reading from the device with dd or cat) /dev/video captures video images, while /dev/vbi captures raw VBI data. /dev/radio (81, 64) is invariable a radio device, unrelated to the video functions. Being unrelated does not imply the devices can be used at the same time, however. The open() function may very well return an EBUSY error code.

Besides video input or output the hardware may also support audio sampling or playback. If so, these functions are implemented as OSS or ALSA PCM devices and eventually OSS or ALSA audio mixer. The V4L2 API makes no provisions yet to find these related devices. If you have an idea please write to the linux-media mailing list: https://linuxtv.org/lists.php.

1.1.3. Multiple Opens

In general, V4L2 devices can be opened more than once. When this is supported by the driver, users can for example start a "panel" application to change controls like brightness or audio volume, while another application captures video and audio. In other words, panel applications are comparable to an OSS or ALSA audio mixer application. When a device supports multiple functions like capturing and overlay simultaneously, multiple opens allow concurrent use of the device by forked processes or specialized applications.

Multiple opens are optional, although drivers should permit at least concurrent accesses without data exchange, i. e. panel applications. This implies open() can return an EBUSY error code when the device is already in use, as well as ioctl() functions initiating data exchange (namely the VIDIOC_S_FMT ioctl), and the read() and write() functions.

Mere opening a V4L2 device does not grant exclusive access.[4] Initiating data exchange however assigns the right to read or write the requested type of data, and to change related properties, to this file descriptor. Applications can request additional access privileges using the priority mechanism described in Section 1.3, “Application Priority”.

1.1.4. Shared Data Streams

V4L2 drivers should not support multiple applications reading or writing the same data stream on a device by copying buffers, time multiplexing or similar means. This is better handled by a proxy application in user space. When the driver supports stream sharing anyway it must be implemented transparently. The V4L2 API does not specify how conflicts are solved.

1.1.5. Functions

To open and close V4L2 devices applications use the open() and close() function, respectively. Devices are programmed using the ioctl() function as explained in the following sections.

[1] Access permissions are associated with character device special files, hence we must ensure device numbers cannot change with the module load order. To this end minor numbers are no longer automatically assigned by the "videodev" module as in V4L but requested by the driver. The defaults will suffice for most people unless two drivers compete for the same minor numbers.

[2] In earlier versions of the V4L2 API the module options where named after the device special file with a "unit_" prefix, expressing the minor number itself, not an offset. Rationale for this change is unknown. Lastly the naming and semantics are just a convention among driver writers, the point to note is that minor numbers are not supposed to be hardcoded into drivers.

[3] Given a device file name one cannot reliable find related devices. For once names are arbitrary and in a system with multiple devices, where only some support VBI capturing, a /dev/video2 is not necessarily related to /dev/vbi2. The V4L VIDIOCGUNIT ioctl would require a search for a device file with a particular major and minor number.

[4] Drivers could recognize the O_EXCL open flag. Presently this is not required, so applications cannot know if it really works.