Top open source minds tout divisions as strength


Author: Jay Lyman

BURLINGAME, Calif. — What is often posed as a weakness of Linux and open source software and development — the lack of a single entity in charge of it — was presented yesterday as a unique strength in the industry by top Linux and open source developers Linus Torvalds, Andrew Morton, and Brian Behlendorf.

Some of the open source software world’s best-known figures were assembled together in a Linux summit keynote discussion moderated by Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) CEO Stuart Cohen, who referred to the lack of central authority in open source as a criticism compared to the software and development from a company such as Microsoft.

While Mitch Kapor, founder of the Open Source Applications Foundation, conceded that the lack of Linux and open source central authority is “one of the biggest unsolved challenges,” others on the panel disagreed.

“Microsoft is challenging the open source community for having no single point of failure,” said Behlendorf, Apache developer and now CTO of CollabNet.

He said the leading Linux distributions can all be relatively easily deployed on standard hardware and hinted that whether one or all emerge as dominant, the pieces are in place.

“One could say that is what Apple did with Mac OS X,” he said, making reference to the aggregation of different, successful components.

For his part, OSDL’s Torvalds said the disconnect or lack of coupling among top Linux and open source software projects is actually “one of the big strengths of open source.”

Torvalds told attendees that by focusing on their individual goals and endeavors without the distractions of a central power, open source projects would be stronger. Torvalds said while open source projects were limited largely to editors, compilers, and operating systems a decade ago, the individual open source pieces have all grown up and become more stable.

“If you look at how things have progressed, it’s covering more of the ecosystem, and in the long run, you won’t see the patchwork where you can distinguish the patches,” he said.

Linux kernel maintainer Morton added that the issue of oversight would not likely be solved by dictatorial management, but rather by aiming for well-defined standards of interoperability. Morton also said the different Linux distributors may someday act as managers of the overall software stack, but added it is not happening now because it is not profitable for the companies.

Patents of mass destruction

In response to a question from the audience, the panel also took up the issue of software patents, with general agreement that they were a problem for open source. Torvalds, who said proprietary software companies are also struggling with the implications of far-reaching patents, indicated the open source community has been aware of the issue for the last five years. While he referred to a number of efforts underway to fight software patents, Torvalds also expressed dismay that the issue keeps coming before European Union officials despite votes against patents, mainly because of special-interest lobbying.

Behlendorf indicated the issue had much to do with the novelty of open source and the change in paradigm for creating software.

It was Kapor, who co-authored a paper on the subject with Richard Stallman in 1990, who stressed the severity of the patent issue, foretelling a possible doomsday scenario in which patents would become weapons of mass destruction.

“There are tens of thousands of bad patents issued,” Kapor said. “It’s like having a stock of dangerous chemicals in storage. We might see the use of patent WMDs. That would be the last stand of Microsoft,” he added, predicting the software giant’s response to a more economically viable software development model in open source.

Moderator Cohen added that the community was glad to see IBM make its patent pledge last month and would have liked to have seen the same pledge from Sun Microsystems, which has not received the same approval for its patent move. Still, Cohen said he expects a number of different companies will follow suit in the near future.

Open source opportunities

The panel also discussed the motivations and rewards of the larger companies that are involved in open source software development, indicating that there is merit in cooperation that is still competitive.

Torvalds said one of the most interesting things he has witnessed as the big players have invested in Linux development is that despite the cooperation and common goals, companies have been able to “further their own agendas” through technical aspects.

“Right now, I’ve seen only good things come out of companies,” Torvalds said. “I’ve never seen any real issue of companies trying to position their code.”

Morton made the point that once they become productive in contributing to or improving Linux, developers lend their company loyalty to the kernel itself. As an example, he referenced the scalability issues in the 2.6 kernel, which were addressed head-on by developers who were more interested in the good of the kernel, as opposed to their own company objectives.

Behlendorf echoed the theme, telling the audience that while everyone brings their own incentives to the table, all participants benefit from the improvements that result.

“At the end of the day, one of the strengths [of collaborative development] is this amalgamation of direction,” he said.

The panel was asked about how a young person could break into a career in open source, prompting Torvalds to respond that in order to succeed at programming, someone has to love it.

“I think you want to do it anyway or you don’t do it at all,” he said. “I don’t think you should look at this as a career path. It’s a learning experience, and a damn good one.”

Torvalds said people tend to act and program differently when they know everyone will see their work.

“When you know other people will see your code, it also means you can’t take the shortcuts that I think occur in proprietary software,” he said.

Torvalds ended the session on the same note of strength through diversity, telling the audience that cooperation includes competition.

“It’s much more fun to compete,” he said. “Competing projects keep us honest. It’s a good idea to allow some differences, just to keep people moving.”


  • Open Source