Linux and the saga of open source software

The initial incarnation of Linux was written by Linus Torvalds and posted to the Net in 1991. At the time, Torvalds was a student at the University of Helsinki. “Today, there may be as many as 120,000 programmers around the world working on Linux,” says open source proponent and computer book publisher Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly & Assoc. This vast army of people using Linux, identifying problems, and submitting patches is what accounts for the operating system’s impressive reliability. A much smaller group does the core development; in the case of the development team for the Linux kernel, a group of perhaps ten people is led by Torvalds himself.

Linux’s development process is strikingly different from the approach taken by commercial software developers, where the marketing department gathers requirements, translates them into specifications, and turns them over to engineering to build. The resulting product is then tested and shipped out to beta testers before being released to the general public.

According to Paul McNamara, vice president of strategic relationships at Red Hat Software, Linux development can be thought of as “natural selection.” There are currently some 435 projects working on different sections of the code. Development often proceeds on parallel paths, with any one of a number of groups working on different approaches to the same section of code. Since the code is freely available, everyone can look at the work being done by all the different groups and decide for themselves which effort is best. Linux programmers “vote with their feet,” says McNamara, moving to the project with the most promising approach. The best effort proceeds, while the others become “dead branches” on the evolutionary tree.

The momentum can “shift dramatically” sometimes, McNamara says, as happened recently with Linux’s C libraries. Several groups thought they could do a better job than the main development effort, known as libc, and began publishing their approaches on the Net. In a relatively short period of time, the Linux community as a whole–including the leader of the libc project–began to recognize that one of the competing efforts, known as glibc, was a better product. Eventually, the libc team withdrew, and glibc was incorporated in Red Hat Software’s 5.0 release of Linux, which was released in November 1997.

If you are part of the Linux kernel team, you are recognized as one of the world’s great programmers.”
–Paul McNamara, VP of strategic relationships, Red Hat Software

What motivates people to work on Linux? Linux programmers are “driven by their passion, by their love for coding,” says Patrick Dorsey, senior product manager for Solaris Software at Sun Microsystems. “You’ve got people out there in their bedrooms at two in the morning working on this stuff.”

They are also driven by their desire to have their talent recognized, says McNamara. “The currency in the development community is recognition, not dollars. And if you are part of the Linux kernel team, you are recognized as one of the world’s great programmers.” //

Dan Orzech is a Philadelphia-based writer specializing in technology. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and many computer industry publications. He can be reached at [email protected].

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