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By Stuart Cohen Imagine the birth of Linux -- thousands of renegade hackers coding in the dark in their parents' basement to create the open-source operating system. You would have to ask yourself: Are the world's biggest companies wise to build the future of computing on this basis?
Thing is, it didn't happen like that, though the urban legend continues to this day, and I get asked about it all the time. My job is to run the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) where the original creator of Linux -- Linus Torvalds -- works. The myth of the hacker is just that, a myth. Let me explain:
A "SMALL POLL". As most followers of the story know, the Linux operating system that runs in all kinds of computers and devices today -- from IBM (IBM
) mainframes and Motorola (MOT
) cell phones to TiVo (TIVO
) boxes -- didn't start out as a commercial venture. It was merely an idea on Torvalds' keyboard when he was a Finnish university student way back in 1991. His original e-mail solicitation for help was quite humble:
From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
Summary: small poll for my new operating system
Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT
Organization: University of Helsinki
Hello everybody out there using minix -
I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I'd like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things). I've currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to work. This implies that I'll get something practical within a few months, and I'd like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won't promise I'll implement them :-) Linus (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PS. Yes - it's free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs. It is NOT protable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that's all I have :-(.
CORPORATE PEDIGREE. Fourteen years later, the combination of the right idea, the right leadership, and the Internet have made Linux perhaps the most successful open-source software project ever. To this day, Linux benefits from the contributions of computer hobbyists, corporate developers, and everyone in between.
Hackers of all stripes and motivations can, thanks to the Internet, download the Linux kernel, modify and customize it any way they like, and "give" their changes back to the Linux development community. One of the greatest strengths of the open-source software process is this "give back" mechanism by which the software continuously improves.
But the romantic notion that Linux is the product of a freewheeling, loosely affiliated band of thousands of independent hackers collectively turning their backs on the status quo is no longer an accurate description of the Linux community -- and hasn't been the case for many years. Looking at the top 25 contributors to the Linux kernel today, you'll discover that more than 90% of them are on the corporate payroll full-time for companies such as HP (HPQ
), IBM, Intel (INTC
), Novell (NOVL
), Oracle, Red Hat (RHAT
) and Veritas (VRTS
), among many others.
And the process they follow to build Linux looks almost exactly like the software-development steps that their employers follow for any other enterprise software project -- with key differences.
DEVELOPMENT NEVER SLEEPS. A large number of Linux developers contribute code to a group of what's called sub-system maintainers, who review, improve, and approve it for inclusion in the base Linux kernel (the heart of the operating system). Linux looks a lot like how companies should make enterprise software. Specialists work on subsystems, and the code works its way through a series of reviews until the project leader approves the end result and releases it.
The biggest difference with Linux, as opposed to a proprietary operating system, is that the development process is open. At virtually every stage of development, the code is available for review by those who have an interest. It's like a global faculty peer review that follows the traditional tenets of the scientific method.
Bound tightly by the reach and power of the Internet, this team of developers reaches around the globe -- the sun literally never sets on Linux development. Often, technical issues are identified, addressed, and solved in a single day. To its great credit, the Linux development community takes full advantage of its inherent strengths: The culture of collaboration, the global talent pool, and the "speed-of-light" nature of the network that connects them.
NO AMATEUR. The community also has formal procedures in place to carefully track individual contributions, in order to protect intellectual-property rights. In May, 2004, the community adopted a new policy whereby contributions to the Linux kernel may only be made by individuals who acknowledge their right to make the contribution under an appropriate software license. Called the Developer's Certificate of Origin (DCO), it ensures that attribution is given to developers of original contributions and derivative works and helps create an audit trail if questions ever arise. In essence, the DCO asks all Linux developers to "sign their work."
So forget the counterculture myth of the renegade Linux programmer. Sure, it represents a new way to create software, but the actual process looks a lot like how enterprise software has been made for decades. Linux creator Torvalds has also turned to a much more experienced community of developers to help him, many of whom already work for the world's largest IT companies.
Take Torvalds' key lieutenant overseeing the Linux kernel, Andrew Morton. He's no amateur hacker. Morton worked for 10 years as a development manager at Nortel Networks (NT
) building carrier-grade global telecommunications software. Carrier-grade systems must meet service availability requirements in the range of five 9's -- 99.999% uptime. So he knows all about business hardening of enterprise software.
Make no mistake, Linux is in professional hands. Stuart Cohen is the CEO of the Open Source Development Labs