August 8, 2005

OSDL chief speaks about layoffs, Bitkeeper, and SCO

Author: Jay Lyman

Linux developers with the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) are getting back to full speed after last spring's interruption to kernel development from the BitKeeper affair, and the organization is shifting gears to focus on intellectual property and European growth, leaving behind the SCO suits against Linux users and providers, which are now "dead," OSDL CEO Stuart Cohen says.

Speaking during an interview at OSDL's Beaverton, Ore., offices, Cohen explained last month's layoffs of nine individuals across the organization's departments was necessary for the health and new focus of the organization, which portrays itself as a vendor-neutral guardian for Linux and employs the operating system's creator Linus Torvalds and core kernel developers. While some might argue the layoff of Linux developers was contrary to OSDL's mission, Cohen defended the layoffs as a requirement of business, which involves much more than software code.

"The acceleration of Linux is more than just the development of code," he said. "There are business issues, there's market issues, there's IT issues, there's government issues, there are price/performance issues -- there's a variety of things that go into it other than just the writing of the code, and unfortunately, we were in a position where we thought the right thing for us to do financially was to redirect some of those skills."

Cohen indicated the layoffs were reflective of a change in focus, which in 2004 was squarely on ISV activities, kernel development, copyright issues around the SCO suits, and growth in Asia. This year, OSDL is more focused on intellectual property (IP) rather than copyright, license proliferation and GPL 3.0, and European growth, Cohen said.

He said the layoffs -- which involved only "a couple" on the technical side and had more impact on business and marketing components of the organization -- were also aimed at maintaining the health of OSDL.

"The combination of all those things really led us to a point where for us to do the right things from a financial standpoint -- we have plenty of money in reserve, we have plenty of cash in the bank, we're growing our members, we're growing our top line revenue, and all of our revenue comes from member clients -- we really felt like we're a nonprofit organization so it's not like we can just go get a loan and generate great debt," Cohen said. "So we really felt the best thing to do was to let some people go and unfortunately it was across the board, but it was more in the sales and marketing side than on the engineering side, but the engineers are the ones who get all the attention."

Trying to git Linux back up to speed

Layoffs haven't been the only controversy affecting OSDL in recent months. Cohen responded to questions regarding the BitKeeper source code manager (SCM) conflict, which sucked two OSDL fellows, Torvalds and Samba creator Andrew "Tridge" Tridgell, into what might be considered the biggest bump so far along the road of Linux development. Cohen said that at last month's kernel summit, developers indicated they were back to the level of performance and productivity with the new git tool that they were used to with BitKeeper.

"It all starts with Larry," Cohen said, referring to BT author and founder Larry McVoy. "Everybody likes to think it's about the two developers, but it really starts with Larry, and he is the CEO of the company that develops the product, and that product was used by Linus and some number of the kernel developers -- not all of them, but some of them."

Cohen said developers have had "a desire for years and years and years" to come up with an enhanced open source SCM alternative, in keeping with the desire to use only open source products in developing the Linux kernel. Despite the matter coming to a head and bringing a heap of controversy on the continuing development of Linux, Cohen claimed the issue was now in the community's rear-view mirror.

"This opportunity came about to develop a SCM that was open source, Larry reacted, and in turn, it created a situation where Andrew wanted to be involved in the development of an open source SCM," he said. "Eventually, it led to Larry making his code available only for commercial use, and Linus as you know developing git, and that is where the kernel is being run now, and I would say everybody is back to current course and speed. There was probably a few months of aggravation and productivity hits for everybody across the Linux kernel project.

"It's pretty straightforward," Cohen continued. "People want to make it very emotional, you know, 'Larry did this, Andrew said that, Linus did this.' At the end of the day, it's all about a source control manager for the Linux kernel. The Linux kernel is run by Linus, it's his project. He uses the source code manager that works for him, the other kernel developers use a source code manager that works for them. Some want it to be open source. Some didn't like the fact that BitKeeper was commercial. It really wasn't our issue. But it did take a lot of conversations and a lot of emails, and as you can imagine it was emotionally charged, not only by those three, but probably tens -- probably not hundreds, but tens -- of others, everybody with their own opinion."

Around the world

Cohen said one of the biggest challenges for OSDL is the unique challenges and opportunities across various regions that are taking to Linux and open source. In the U.S., he said Linux growth is driven primarily by the price/performance measure of the operating system, with the government taking an "ambivalent" stance. In Europe, the government and its agencies have taken a more active role in including open source in policy, with additional support coming from social and cultural groups. As for Asia, and particularly China, India, and Japan, Cohen said they are focused on open source deployment not only for price/performance, but also as a key to economic development.

"They see it as a huge opportunity for economic development, for job creation for software, where countrymen and countrywomen develop the code in companies that are funded in part by the government and supported in part by the government, so they can develop software that their countrymen and countrywomen can use," he said.

Cohen said developing nations and regions are using Linux and open source software to provide a low-cost entry platform for those who have not previously had computers, and also for education.

OSDL claims the center

If open source software is doing so well, what do we need an organization like OSDL for? Cohen referred to the organization's "center of gravity for Linux and open source" moniker -- a jab at Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, who criticized Linux for its lack of a center of gravity as Cohen took the helm at OSDL -- as perhaps outdated and indicated the nonprofit's strength is its neutrality, which helps quell concerns that any big Linux vendor resembles Redmond.

"The open source community is all about collaboration and there's always this conspiracy theory that there's some company behind all the collaboration," he said. "One of the big roles OSDL plays is, if the collaboration is getting done or coming together -- the venue's getting created -- by a nonprofit, vendor-neutral organization, it's a little harder to spread the conspiracy theory. Also, the big vendors all took Unix from UC Berkeley and from AT&T and all not only made it self-serving for themselves, but they also all lost money. Everybody from Sun to HP to Intel to IBM to Mentor Graphics to Fujitsu, all with their own flavor -- they all lost money on the development of operating systems. So now, if they can find a way to take this code -- similar to what came from Berkeley and AT&T, now it comes from the Internet and the community -- if they can work with that code and keep it common, they get the hardware, software, and services benefit that comes from that. And if they spend a fraction of the cost with an organization like OSDL, instead of spending a ton of money and losing money developing your own operating system and eventually moving it, it's a great scenario, so that's why the big guys need us."

Cohen said government agencies also need OSDL to take full advantage of open source. "The open source community is a set of developers, and if you're a government agency, you want to deal with an organization that's more than just developing software," he said. "There are a lot of business issues involved, and people like dealing with a business partner. That's the way they're used to doing business. So in some ways, dealing with a nonprofit, vendor-neutral organization helps the EU, helps the Chinese government, the Japanese government, the government of Thailand, the groups in India feel like they're getting the partnership, they're getting the linkage with the community, they're getting to work with vendors without having to pick a single vendor."

Looking ahead, Cohen sees few roadblocks for Linux. As for the SCO suits against Linux vendors and users, which the OSDL CEO has called the best thing to accelerate Linux, Cohen said simply that he thinks the lawsuits are "dead."

"I think the case is dead," he said. "I wish the justice system would move a little bit faster, but for all practical purposes, it's dead," he said. "And if you talk to IBM or Red Hat or Novell or AutoZone or Daimler-Chrysler, they all feel like it's over."


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