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3/25/2004
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Torvalds: Open Source Keeps People Honest

The "father" of Linux talks with InformationWeek about data-center Linux, trust, and SCO Group's lawsuits.

Linus Torvalds, the "father" of Linux, is an expert in, and exponent of, open-source development. InformationWeek recently exchanged E-mail with him.

InformationWeek: Can you give us a quick update on your work at the Open Source Development Labs? Where do things stand in the effort to develop "data-center Linux"?

Torvalds: My work personally is very simple: My sole responsibility is literally to "maintain the Linux kernel." We were very careful indeed to make it clear that different OSDL projects do not actually in any way impact my maintenance, and as such I'm totally independent of other OSDL projects, like the data-center Linux project. Same goes for Andrew [Morton, who maintains the Linux kernel].

(Aside: OSDL doesn't do just the big "data center" kind of things. Sure, "data-center Linux" is one project, but so is "carrier-grade Linux" and also "desktop Linux").

That was to make sure that people can still see me and Andrew as "neutral" developers, and there wouldn't be any worries about the agendas of big companies involved with OSDL.

That said, obviously a lot of the OSDL projects are useful to me (and would be useful to me regardless of whether I worked there or not, since the results are public). So the testing farm with scalability testing, compile statistics, etc., [does] end up influencing me simply by existing. And these things are obviously literally part of the data-center work.

InformationWeek: Linux and Apache are examples of open-source platforms that have become firmly established in business IT environments. What do you see as the next wave of open-source platforms to earn the trust and widespread use of IT professionals?

Torvalds: I think it's pretty clear that the open-source projects are "building out" on top of existing infrastructure. Right now the databases are obviously starting to come of age, and much of the usage there builds on top of successes of open source in the kernel and Web space.

But on a different note, I think it's interesting how a lot of the infrastructure is building up in other areas, too, especially the desktop. So while things like MySQL are obviously setting up in a big way, I'm still interested in the desktop.

InformationWeek: JBoss and MySQL are the names of open-source platforms and of companies that help develop and then, for a fee, support those platforms. So you see any potential problems with this model? For example, how open is a team of developers whose leadership and key contributors are all inside one for-profit company? Don't open source projects that go this route begin to look less open and more like commercial software companies?

Torvalds: I have to admit that that is one particular set of problems I personally have always tried very hard to avoid, but on the other hand, I also suspect that, especially in markets that are pretty focused on commercial needs anyway (and things like databases certainly would fit that), it may just be inevitable and possibly the best model to keep in touch with the needs of your customers.

And the open-source aspect is still rather important in one major way: It keeps people honest. With an open-source license, if you start doing the nasty things that commercial software companies are so well-known for (looking out for No. 1 rather than trying to really help the customer), somebody else just comes along and captures the market.

And that is one really important part of open source: no technical barriers to market entry, and the fact that you can trust the process, even if you might not implicitly trust the developer. So, while I personally have always opted for trying to be in a position where people really have no reason to distrust my motivation and actions, in the end I actually think that the real trust comes from the fact that it doesn't matter if people trust me (or any other open source developer) or not.

Because if we are shown to not be trustworthy, somebody else can always replace us--so you don't have to be able to trust us.

(I harp on trust, because I think that's pretty much the most important ingredient in any relationship, whether it is commercial or social. The trust that you won't be back-stabbed is something we're all looking for, isn't it?)

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