April 27, 2018

Linux Kernel Maintainer Statistics

As part of preparing my last two talks at LCA on the kernel community, “Burning Down the Castle”and “Maintainers Don’t Scale”, I have looked into how the Kernel’s maintainer structure can be measured. One very interesting approach is looking at the pull request flows, for example done in the LWN article “How 4.4’s patches got to the mainline”. Note that in the linux kernel process, pull requests are only used to submit development from entire subsystems, not individual contributions. What I’m trying to work out here isn’t so much the overall patch flow, but focusing on how maintainers work, and how that’s different in different subsystems.


In my presentations I claimed that the kernel community is suffering from too steep hierarchies. And worse, the people in power don’t bother to apply the same rules to themselves as anyone else, especially around purported quality enforcement tools like code reviews.

For our purposes a contributor is someone who submits a patch to a mailing list, but needs a maintainer to apply it for them, to get the patch merged. A maintainer on the other hand can directly apply a patch to a subsystem tree, and will then send pull requests up the maintainer hierarchy until the patch lands in Linus’ tree. This is relatively easy to measure accurately in git: If the recorded patch author and committer match, it’s a maintainer self-commit, if they don’t match it’s a contributor commit.

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