Introduction to I2C and SMBus

I²C (pronounce: I squared C and written I2C in the kernel documentation) is a protocol developed by Philips. It is a two-wire protocol with variable speed (typically up to 400 kHz, high speed modes up to 5 MHz). It provides an inexpensive bus for connecting many types of devices with infrequent or low bandwidth communications needs. I2C is widely used with embedded systems. Some systems use variants that don’t meet branding requirements, and so are not advertised as being I2C but come under different names, e.g. TWI (Two Wire Interface), IIC.

The latest official I2C specification is the “I²C-bus specification and user manual” (UM10204) published by NXP Semiconductors, version 7 as of this writing.

SMBus (System Management Bus) is based on the I2C protocol, and is mostly a subset of I2C protocols and signaling. Many I2C devices will work on an SMBus, but some SMBus protocols add semantics beyond what is required to achieve I2C branding. Modern PC mainboards rely on SMBus. The most common devices connected through SMBus are RAM modules configured using I2C EEPROMs, and hardware monitoring chips.

Because the SMBus is mostly a subset of the generalized I2C bus, we can use its protocols on many I2C systems. However, there are systems that don’t meet both SMBus and I2C electrical constraints; and others which can’t implement all the common SMBus protocol semantics or messages.


The I2C bus connects one or more controller chips and one or more target chips.

Simple I2C bus with one controller and 3 targets

Simple I2C bus

A controller chip is a node that starts communications with targets. In the Linux kernel implementation it is also called an “adapter” or “bus”. Controller drivers are usually in the drivers/i2c/busses/ subdirectory.

An algorithm contains general code that can be used to implement a whole class of I2C controllers. Each specific controller driver either depends on an algorithm driver in the drivers/i2c/algos/ subdirectory, or includes its own implementation.

A target chip is a node that responds to communications when addressed by a controller. In the Linux kernel implementation it is also called a “client”. While targets are usually separate external chips, Linux can also act as a target (needs hardware support) and respond to another controller on the bus. This is then called a local target. In contrast, an external chip is called a remote target.

Target drivers are kept in a directory specific to the feature they provide, for example drivers/gpio/ for GPIO expanders and drivers/media/i2c/ for video-related chips.

For the example configuration in the figure above, you will need one driver for the I2C controller, and drivers for your I2C targets. Usually one driver for each target.


As mentioned above, the Linux I2C implementation historically uses the terms “adapter” for controller and “client” for target. A number of data structures have these synonyms in their name. So, when discussing implementation details, you should be aware of these terms as well. The official wording is preferred, though.

Outdated terminology

In earlier I2C specifications, controller was named “master” and target was named “slave”. These terms have been obsoleted with v7 of the specification and their use is also discouraged by the Linux Kernel Code of Conduct. You may still find them in references to documentation which has not been updated. The general attitude, however, is to use the inclusive terms: controller and target. Work to replace the old terminology in the Linux Kernel is on-going.