Why Linux is the most important software project in history

Here’s another post that for some people is obvious, but there are other (e.g. high level managers) that might not necessarily see the importance of Linux, in fact, I have been surprised by many open source developers who don’t seem to be familiar with how Linux works (they think it’s just something that works?). The fact of the matter is that Linux is light years ahead of any other software project, open or closed, I’ll try to explain why.

BTW. By “Linux”, I mean the kernel, not the ecosystem. Which is the name of the project.

Everywhere

First of all, Linux runs everywhere; desktops, smartphones, routers, web servers, supercomputers, TVs, refrigerators, tablets, even on the stock market (London, NY, Johannesburg, etc.).

Not only it runs anywhere, but in many areas it’s the undisputed #1. In smartphones, Android already has the most market share, and grabbing more and more. In supercomputers, Linux has 92% of the TOP500. On servers, it’s 64%.

There’s a lot of benefits to having a single kernel that runs on all kinds of hardware, I’ll mention two examples.

One is the improvements in power consumption that all the embedded people have been pushing for not only benefit laptops and desktops, but even servers. Also, features like dynamic power management that works really well on embedded influence the desktop and server hardware.

Another one is the VFS scalability patches. Nick Piggin found some issues with 64 CPUs machines that require some reorganization of VFS. The problem is that it’s tricky to test issues with these patches, however, since also have a real-time community (they have their own patches, but eventually will get merged), they could find issues on these patches more easily.

Here’s a nice interview with Jim Zemlin from Linux Foundation that explains where Linux comes from, where it is, how it might very well become the building block of all devices in the future.

Collaboration

There’s many open projects, but not many where everyone is involved and working together. The Linux Foundation issues a yearly report of how the kernel is being developed, and you can see competing companies working together, such as Red Hat (12.4%), Novell (7.0%), IBM (6.9%), Intel (5.8%), Oracle (2.3%), Renesas (1.4.%), SGI (1.3%), Fujitsu (1.2%), Nokia (1.0%), HP (1.0%), Google (0.8%), AMD (0.8%), etc.

This is true synergy, not the management bullshit kind; nobody alone (Microsoft) can compete with what everyone together can produce (Linux).

Communication

The traffic of the main mailing list (LKML) is astronomical; 250 messages per day, but that’s only one mailing list, there are around 200 subsystem lists. Many of these lists have a lot of traffic as well, one I’m subscribed to is linux-media, which has around 30 messages per day.

And there’s a reason why so many people can follow so much traffic without it becoming a total mess. All kernel mailing lists follow common guidelines; you don’t have to be subscribed!, don’t do reply-to munging, encourage cross-posting, cc the right people, trim unnecessary context, and don’t top post.

Also very important is to send patches through the mailing list. You don’t even have to think about it, just type ‘git send-email’ with a proper –cc-cmd, and Linux’s get_maintainer.pl script would find the right maintainers and contributors to cc, and the proper mailing lists to send the patch to. Again, no need to be subscribed. More next.

Patches

I have explained before why sending patches through the mailing list is superior to bugzilla. But it can be summarized as; you don’t need to be subscribed, you don’t need to login anywhere, you don’t need to search for the right component, etc.

As an example I put myself. I am paid by Nokia to work on GStreamer stuff, yet, even though I have a bugzilla account and everything, it’s easier for me to submit (and get merged) patches to Linux (mostly on my free time); it’s just one command. It’s not only easier for me to submit patches, but also to review them; just click reply. I’m not even going to mention closed source, which is horrible in this area.

It is also rewarding that usually that the response to patches is immediate, however, sometimes there are so many comments that patch series have 3, 5, 10, even 30 revisions before they are accepted. This is great for quality reasons, not only for for the project, the developers involved also learn a lot.

Using a mailing list also means that it’s easy to switch from reviewing a patch to a new discussion, based on the patch, thus helping communication.

Speed

It is not surprising that such a fine tuned process the results of producing stable releases each three months like clockwork, introducing major features, and from 5 to 6 patches per hour.

I can’t really explain how many things are going on in Linux, but Jonathan Corbet does in his Kernel Report.

Conclusion

So, Linux is an incredibly massive endeavor, easy and fun to work with, an unstoppable behemoth in the software industry, and IMO companies trying to stand in its way are going to realize their mistake in a painful way.

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15 thoughts on “Why Linux is the most important software project in history

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  3. Pingback: No project is more important than its users « Felipe Contreras

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