After three days of deliberation and six months of testimony, a jury found Hans Reiser, creator of the ReiserFS file system for Linux, guilty of first-degree murder. There's no end of commentary about the trial itself, but now that the verdict is in, I thought I'd contemplate a related issue: What happens to an open source project when one of its main instigators suffers calamity?
As crass as it may sound in light of the trial's circumstances, I do think it's a serious issue to consider. I'm not just thinking of the case of ReiserFS, but any project where a good deal of the development was instigated by one person or a small core of developers. I've written before about how I feel one of open source's assets is people power: Sun wasn't buying MySQL, but the MySQL dev team, etc.
When an open source project loses one of its core people, it can be tough to pick up the pieces -- not just in terms of replacing that person's programming expertise or insight, but also to restore lost morale. Things like this also tend to affect smaller projects a lot more harshly, since the actual work and inspiration is concentrated into the hands of a smaller number of coders. A lot of these smaller projects fall apart when the main guy behind them loses interest or moves on to other things -- or realizes there's a much more professionally organized effort under way to solve the same problems.
On the plus side, the nature of an open source project does balance things out, if only in an opportunistic fashion. The fact that the source code is openly available means that it's all the easier for new blood to get bitten by the bug (no, not that kind of bug) and to involve themselves in the current development team or fork the project on their own.
So what's going to happen with ReiserFS? It's not clear, unfortunately, especially now that the company Reiser founded for his software work, Namesys (which provided paid support for ReiserFS), has essentially evaporated. My money's not on ReiserFS being more than an auxiliary choice for Linux at this point -- and that might have started as far back as 2006, when Novell decided to switch from using ReiserFS to ext3 as its default file system for SUSE. This wasn't predicated by Reiser's arrest, though, but rather due to perceived customer demand, and had been decided months before his legal troubles started.
Patches for the file system are still being submitted, as evinced by the traffic on the reiserfs-devel mailing list, and the folks at kernel.org have offered space to host the ReiserFS sources, giving it that much more of a lease on life. But without Reiser, I suspect ReiserFS itself is doomed -- or is at least due for a name change.
[Addendum: See my follow-up post for more on this topic.]