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Realtek provides the source code for the r8168 driver which is based on the r8169 driver from the kernel tree if I may believe their source:

 * This driver is modified from r8169.c in Linux kernel 2.6.18

Both are GPL licensed, so source code may be exchanged with no legal issues. That's why I find it rather strange that Realtek maintains a separate driver with no changelogs or documentation.

What's the difference for the end user? Which driver is recommended?

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The r8168 driver is a classical vendor-provided out-of-tree driver, with all the benefits and problems that come with it.

The Linux r8169 driver comes with your distribution kernel, has much broader hardware support, but is possibly slower to adapt for new hardware. On the other hand, it’s supported by the kernel people, who have rejected r8168 on the grounds that r8169 also drives all hardware supported by r8168, and if not, it gets fixed. (We have hardware that needed r8168 once, but now works with off-the-shelf r8169 distro kernels, so this is true.)

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Is there any chance you could post a link to an LKML discussion about the r8168? I'm also curious which one even came first. – Det Jun 8 '14 at 0:42
@Det sorry I don't save such links for later recall, I'd have to look just the same as you need to. – mirabilos Jun 8 '14 at 18:50

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