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4/14/2010
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Linux Graybeards? Yes, But Also A Wisdom Circle

The annual Linux developer meet-up is underway in San Francisco, with code producers and maintainers looking at ways to improve the process and bring in new blood.

In addition Linux is playing a strong role in cloud computing. Linux is the operating system powering 90% of the virtual machines in the cloud, even when it's a strongly proprietary vendor supplying infrastructure as a service, said Sam Ramji, VP of product strategy at Sonoa Systems, during the panel, "Does Open Source Mean Open Cloud?"

The panel concluded that it does not, but cloud computing is encouraging the adoption of more open source code.

IBM's Dan Frye, VP of open systems development at IBM, reminded attendees in a keynote address that his firm invested $1 billion to get its product line to support Linux 10 years ago.

The firm struggled to contribute to Linux as well, judging it to be in its strategic interest to build up an x86 version of Linux that would offer an alternative to Windows and compete with Sun's Solaris.

Early in the process, IBM attempted to contribute large blocks of code for general Linux improvement but also in support of particular parts of its product line and was frustrated many times as they were rejected.

Attendee Matt Mackall, lead developer on the Mercurial open source project and a former member of the Linux Foundation's Technology Advisory Board, said he remembered IBM submitting a block of code for extended volume management of disk drives.

"A lot of people had to learn what it was," he recalled. "Linus didn't know what volume management was. For a long time it appeared to be going in, then it was rejected as 'just not salvageable'" for kernel development purposes, with Torvalds making the final decision, he recalled. (The Mercurial project produces a cross-platform software revision management tool for developers.)

Frye didn't mention the incident but said IBM contributed big chunks of code, a scheduler and file systems, that did not get in. He said IBM had to learn to work with the process, encourage IBM developers to participate as individuals in it and offer responses to questions as individuals, not "canned responses from the whole corporation," and contribute their own expertise where it served a purpose.

Since those early days, IBM hasn't attempted to make a large contribution to the kernel but has made many incremental small ones, a process that works much better.

Torvalds reviews new code additions as potentially carrying as much long-term liability as new value and rejects what does not fit into the kernel as an easily maintained module that avoids impinging on other systems.

In the long run, said Frye, it's in the interest of all vendors who back Linux to support such decision making because it produces a stronger operating system for future use.

"No one controls the open source process. If you try, you will make things worse," he concluded.

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