back to article 'It's really hard to find maintainers...' Linus Torvalds ponders the future of Linux

Linux creator Linus Torvalds spoke about the challenge of finding future maintainers for the open-source kernel, at the Open Source Summit and Embedded Linux conference under way this week online. Torvalds does not do keynote talks these days, but he was willing to sit down with VMware's chief open source officer Dirk Hohndel …

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          1. baud Bronze badge

            Re: I wonder why?

            Redhat is already on the big blue side, so not too far from the dark side

            1. MarkSitkowski

              Re: I wonder why?

              We stopped updating after CentOS 6.9 out of fear of systemd. Can't see any improvements worth having in any of the subsequent releases, so I guess we'll stick with it, or try BSD, sometime.

              1. jake Silver badge

                Re: I wonder why?

                As a BSD fan from before 1BSD, I heartily approve ... IF your systems can easily be shifted over, and your staff has a good handle on the differences between Linux and BSD.

                If you are heavily invested in Linux, check into Slackware.

              2. ghp

                Re: I wonder why?

                You should give Devuan a try.

            2. jake Silver badge

              Re: I wonder why?

              More under the big blue wing than on the big blue side ...

        1. Archtech Silver badge

          Re: I wonder why?

          Really brilliant engineers are rarely good managers. The two feature sets don't have much overlap.

          It could be worse - you might have to work for Dave Cutler. I bet Linus has never punched a hole in a wall.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I wonder why?

        Linus' potty mouth notwithstanding, let's not forget that some of this shit is hard

        Yes, of course it's hard, so some appreciation for those who do it is in order. Linus's problem isn't the potty mouth, but the attitude.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: I wonder why?

          Says the AC from the safety of his armchair, where he'll never contribute to much of anything because it's hard and he might get frowned at.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I wonder why?

        Linus' potty mouth

        I suppose it's better than Linus' pottering mouth...

      3. AndyJF

        Re: I wonder why?

        "[*] - I'm one of those developers who actually enjoys working on the 'boring' stuff. It's a dirty job, but

        someone's gotta do it ..."

        That's job security, right there ;)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I wonder why?

      Whilst I agree that most people will turn away for fear of being treated like shit, on the other hand though, for the more thick skinned amongst us, kernel development is just obscure.

      As a somewhat aged techie myself, I can understand where his anger comes from and why younger techies might see it as just raw aggression.

      Id love to be able to develop at the kernel level, but the resources to learn are scarce and generally impenetrable.

      I've written code for over 20 years in various different languages but wouldn't know where to begin with kernel hacking.

      1. John H Woods Silver badge

        re: where to begin

        And that is what the greybeards need to spend their remaining working years doing - creating the in-depth documentation, examples, etc that are needed for new talent to get into this field.

        1. WolfFan Silver badge

          Re: re: where to begin

          For those old enough... remember, Linux kernel hackers are Klingons. Klingon programmers do not comment their code; if it was hard to write, it should be hard to understand. Klingon programmers don’t do documentation, same reason. Klingon programmers don’t do defensive programing, they do offensive programming, and always win. Klingon programs don’t take prisoners. Qapla!

          1. Law

            Re: re: where to begin

            GLORY TO YOU, AND YOUR HOUSE!!

          2. James O'Shea

            Re: re: where to begin

            I see that there are at least 4 Cardassians reading El Reg. Cardassians have no sense of honor and less sense of humor.

            1. Louis Schreurs Bronze badge

              Re: re: where to begin

              Klingons and humour aren't easily found in the same room either.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: re: where to begin

          It isn't enough, sadly.

          I take your point. In-depth documentation should exist, as should sample code. When I retired, I left behind the specifications, documentation and example pseudocode which I estimated would keep the development team going for a good 8 months, surely time to recruit a replacement? I believe I was massively over-optimistic.

          But the problem is this. Once upon a time I started programming, working on a machine code program on a 16 bit microprocessor that took up under 2kW. I could comprehend the minimal documentation and understand the entire thing. At the time I could also dismantle and completely refurbish a typical British single or twin motorcycle engine right down to the gearbox. Easy.

          Now consider new bug looking at a program doing something extremely complicated in C, with all kinds of hooks and relationships with other things. How do you get your head around it in order to make a start? Working on a tiny bit is all very well, but moving to the next stage is hard because now you have to understand how it fits in and you need to absorb ever more documentation. It's an enormous uphill and unsurprising that people want to be in at the beginning of something where the initial complexity is manageable.

          When I look under the bonnet of my simple, normally aspirated car these days, I'm confronted with complex hardware I never had to worry about before - catalytic converter, EGR, the brake system being a large complicated valve block with connections to the computer, fuel vapour recovery, another computer and hydraulic system connected to the gearbox. It's obvious why it takes so many people to design and engine when once upon a time Ernest Turner or Joe Craig would nip in the design office after a liquid lunch and knock out a crankshaft or cylinder head.

          tl;dr the problem is not the documentation. It is (as Alan Turing identified in the early 1950s before his tragic death) the proper structuring of the bureaucracy that manages everything. The question has to be whether Torvalds has created a self sustaining and managing bureaucratic framework to hold the whole thing together.

          1. jtaylor

            Re: re: where to begin

            "The question has to be whether Torvalds has created a self sustaining and managing bureaucratic framework to hold the whole thing together."

            Indeed. This is called "succession planning." Many fine organizations have fallen at this hurdle. Linux will need someone with excellent organizational and interpersonal skills to make it through; this is not a problem that can be solved with code.

            1. jake Silver badge

              Re: re: where to begin

              This has been addressed. Look up "what happens if Linus gets hit by a bus".

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: re: where to begin

                I did that. The reply at the top was from Reddit in 2006 and said

                " I assume the bus would receive a profanity laden email laying out how badly it fucked up"

                However, being a little more serious, has LT ever gone away on holiday for a month or two to see how things work in his absence?

      2. BinkyTheMagicPaperclip

        Re: I wonder why?

        Set up your kernel debugger (preferably on a pair of VMs if you can), choose the area you want to change, read the code, start making modifications, repeat until bug free. If you've been coding for 20 years you'd definitely be up to the task.

        There's plenty of people to ask about kernel hacking, and if you need to do architecture specific functions, processor documentation is usually pretty decent. It's when you need to prod specific chipsets and add-on card that specifications are less available.

        I'm shortly about to start some kernel mods for an open source OS to add functionality to an older system, and once I get the hang of that, something more complex. I know which bit of code it's running (because the module is named, and relates directly to a source code file), so the first task is a breakpoint. Then step through till it gets to the 'your system is too old' part. At that point improve the error message/check the logic to ensure it's rejecting the system using the correct method.

        If I understand that bit I then know what new functionality is required, which means reading the documentation for kernel support functions and processor datasheets, all of which is actively available, plus some coding in C and assembly. I'm not expecting it to be easy, but I at least know what I need to do.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: I wonder why?

          >If you've been coding for 20 years you'd definitely be up to the task.

          Depends on what they've been coding...

          > but I at least know what I need to do.

          I would only believe that if you have completed the fundamentals and advanced OS design modules at university and achieved at least a B grade in both modules.

          I had - got A's in these modules and a 1st overall - yet desgning and implementing a commercial fail-safe distributed OS for real certainly twisted my mind - I have no desire to spend the next 20 years going back into kernel space, so have respect for those who are prepared to take on the challenge.

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: I wonder why?

            Nah. You need a good fundamental grasp of C and how the compiler works, and a willingness to learn something new. Most Linux (BSD, Minix, etc.) kernel hackers aren't actually designing an OS, they are just massaging code that already exists.

          2. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

            Re: I wonder why?

            yet desgning and implementing a commercial fail-safe distributed OS for real certainly twisted my mind - I have no desire to spend the next 20 years going back into kernel space, so have respect for those who are prepared to take on the challenge. ...... Anonymous Coward

            That is certainly respect well earned, AC, for it is the kernel space which drivers and renders the physical environment a result of mega metadata base manipulation/reorganisation which leads and paints the Greater Bigger Pictures with engaging tales and exciting news for IT Services and Mass Multi Media Moguls to present and realise.

            And as complicated as that may seem to be, it is extremely easily done whenever one has enlightened enlightening scripts to follow as one does whenever blessed with comprehensive instruction books akin to Ye Olde OEM Workshop Manuals.

            Surely though, such has always been the way of quickly and radically fundamentally changing things for humans on Earth? Anything else would suggest there is no intelligent order to guarantee future events with everything then being dressed up for chaos and displayed in mayhem and delivered by Ignorati rather Illuminati.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: I wonder why?

          Just ***** ****** write it yourself ******* ******

          L

      3. Kabukiwookie Silver badge

        Re: I wonder why?

        Normally I am fairly composed and thick-skinned, but if had people with the same attitude as Mr Lennart 'wontfix' Poettering in my team, I'd be a potty mouth as well

      4. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        Re: I wonder why?

        Dude, it's just code. I had to write what may have been the first ACPI memory detection routine. While working for AMD on what might have been an AMD-specific problem when the relevant maintainer lived in Portland (Intel's HQ). On that old assembler that used to ship with the kernel. When I barely dared to call myself a proper programmer.

        The point is, I have no idea if that code ever hit the trunk. That wasn't the issue. I needed to enable our customers, and that's what I did. If the code was worthy, Linus would have allowed it. If not, well, fine.

        Same as yours.

      5. jake Silver badge
        Pint

        Re: I wonder why?

        "I've written code for over 20 years in various different languages but wouldn't know where to begin with kernel hacking."

        If one of those languages is C, join the LKML and read along for a while (like usenet, I recommend following along for at least a month, maybe two, before joining in). When you see a place where you can contribute (and you will), just do it. "Doing it wrong" is rarely fatal ... besides, if you were perfect and had nothing left to learn, life would be excruciatingly boring.

        Relax, have a homebrew, and start reading ...

      6. Terry Wrist

        Re: I wonder why?

        The problem with kernel hacking is that the reference code for the hardware is written by verilog idiots that have no idea about software engineering. Furthermore, when they make a mistake, it's always a case of meh, we'll fix it in the software.

        1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

          Re: I wonder why?

          Not idiots, really. More like, "savants". Trust me, if you wrote some verilog for them to look at, they would be giggling about it for weeks.

          While I was doing software microprocessor validation at IBM, I started saying, "You don't want to be in the same county as an FPU I designed or that they programmed." The skills are just that different.

    2. Lee D Silver badge

      Re: I wonder why?

      No problem.

      You be nice to everyone and then take responsibility for when your sign-off appears on a 0-day, root-level compromise of the entire world's back-end systems.

      Or when it BUG()s in the middle of a driver code because the driver author was too lazy to use the proper path to print debug information (hint: BUG instantly crashes the kernel, with no hope of recovery - no production driver should EVER contain the macro BUG for anything). Which was literally one of those patches commented as such. Yes, that one-line debug script would literally instantly stop millions of machines at a random time if it had hit mainstream deployment, which means data loss on an epic scale, not to mention loss of service.

      Sorry, but if you can't handle criticism of such idiocy - however delivered - when you're in charge of even a small part of the world's most widely-deployed and widest-scope OS, then that's the least of your problems.

      Especially when - in every case listed - such stupendously ridiculous code was pushed through several levels of review and maintainers and ended up nearly being pulled into the kernel before it was noticed how ridiculous some of it was (e.g. including their untested code in every single kernel config by default because they didn't know how to make a patch, and nobody bothered to check, etc.)

      1. Someone Else Silver badge

        Re: I wonder why?

        There is a polite way to fire someone....

        1. Mike Pellatt

          Re: I wonder why?

          And there's a way to do it that will be a learning point so they don't f**k up and find themselves being fired again. I'd much rather that outcome for someone I have to "let go" (no, I wouldn't use that phrase).

          "Too polite" is a thing, too.

    3. Claptrap314 Silver badge

      Re: I wonder why?

      You really, REALLY don't have a clue, do you?

      There are actually LOTS of people out there that would LOVE to be maintainers--the problem is that almost all of them would run the kernel into the ground in no more than two releases. Often this is because of incompetence. Sometimes, it is because of a narrow focus on a particular issue to the detriment of others. Some of it is a straight up **** the end user attitude by various companies. (You know I'm talking about.) And some of it is full-on prima-donnaism. (Again, it should be pretty obvious who at least one of these currently is.)

      The only way to maintain the viability of Linux is to keep this binary excrement out of the kernel. On good days, the task is Herculean. On bad ones, I'm sure it feels Sisyphean. He cannot do it alone, and so he has to trust the maintainers to some extent.

      And when he finds out that some of them have been negligent? Sure, he can fire them. But that means either that he has to take on the work himself, or somehow replace them.

      Oh, yeah--tell me again how much money he has to attract new talent?

      So, he uses public shaming. Yeah, I know. Every study ever done says that's the wrong way to fix things. Except--the real world is a whole lot messier than some academic study.

      And--he has user to protect.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: I wonder why?

        "So, he uses public shaming as a method of last resort."

        FTFY..

        1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

          Re: I wonder why?

          Thanks. Now, if I could just fix that typo I just spotted...

    4. jake Silver badge

      Re: I wonder why?

      As a guy who has been contributing to the kernel on and off for over a quarter century[0], I think I'm allowed to comment. Essentially, the vast majority of the folks bitching about Linus getting sweary HAVE NOT been subject to the swearing. In other words, they are upset on behalf of other folks[0].

      We only see (saw?) the swearing after a developer ignored input from Linus, and (usually) several other people, over some boneheaded personal mission from gawd/ess that has absolutely no place in kernel code. Usually there is behind-the-scenes email before the gripe goes public. It is always the developer in question who takes it public in the LKML And most of the time, after getting yelled at, said developer has actually (finally) admitted their error, (finally) fixed it, and the rest of us mutter "about time, bone head!" and life continues. The public swearing is (was?) always a last resort. I do not recall anyone bitching about private, out of band swearing.

      And no, it has never made me feel intimidated about contributing to the kernel. Why not? Simple. Because when it is pointed out that I make a mistake, I fix it without bitching about it, that's why. It's really not a big deal. Unless the developer in question chooses to make it a big deal, that is. In other words, said prima donna / drama queen doesn't play well with others, and insists on doing it his/her way. Frankly I'm surprised that Linus has been as tolerant as he has been all these years ... If it was my name attached to the project, I'd have really lit into a few of the idiots ...

      And you commentards who haven't actually spent any time contributing to the kernel, your opinions on the subject are completely worthless. Come back after you've walked a few miles in our moccasins and I might find your commentardary on the subject worth listening to.

      [0] My, doesn't time fly when you're having fun!

      [1] Which is a cardinal sin as far as I'm concerned ... As an adult, I don't need or want anybody else being upset on my behalf, thank you very much.

      1. LucreLout Silver badge

        Re: I wonder why?

        Essentially, the vast majority of the folks bitching about Linus getting sweary HAVE NOT been subject to the swearing. In other words, they are upset on behalf of other folks

        So your considered view on all those middle class folks at the BLM racist rallies is what exactly? They're not black so they shouldn't comment? Really?

        In other words, said prima donna / drama queen doesn't play well with others, and insists on doing it his/her way.

        Are you talking about the developer or Linus here? Its really hard to tell.

        And you commentards who haven't actually spent any time contributing to the kernel, your opinions on the subject are completely worthless.

        I look forward to near deafening silence on the subjects of taxation, economics, finance etc from the vast majority of commentards then, whose closest experience of any of them is user level rather than developer level (working in the City).

        Sorry, you just don't get to gatekeep what people talk about or whose opinions have a value. Pull your head out of your arse and stop trying to copy Linus - you don't have the talent and I for one wouldn't put up with it even if you did.

        I'm honestly not sure you've thought your post through very much before writing it. Try to expand your line of reasoning into other aspects of your life and see if it still works for you. It won't.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: I wonder why?

          Care to try again without the hyperbole, Mr/s Lout? It's unbecoming.

          I'm not going to expand this to other aspects of my life for the simple reason that it doesn't apply elsewhere. It only applies to the meritocracy known as the Linux kernel developers.

          1. LucreLout Silver badge

            Re: I wonder why?

            Care to try again without the hyperbole, Mr/s Lout? It's unbecoming.

            I'll take that as agreement that you've not though through your position here and that you don't actually have an answer. Which rather begs the question then, why post?

          2. jake Silver badge

            Re: I wonder why?

            Under a minute for the downvote! Awesome! :-)

            (Don't wear out your F5 key. You might need it for something important someday.)

            1. LucreLout Silver badge

              Re: I wonder why?

              Under a minute for the downvote! Awesome! :-)

              You should see how fast mine arrive!

              I write decidedly subsecond software for a living and I'm not sure I could write something that reacts that fast.

            2. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: I wonder why?

              Unspoken rule: don't talk about downvotes. It just shows that you have low self-esteem, which is relevant for a teenager, but unbecoming of you of all people.

              1. Kabukiwookie Silver badge

                Re: I wonder why?

                 It just shows that you have low self-esteem

                Is that also why you're posting as anonymous coward?

              2. jake Silver badge

                Re: I wonder why?

                Nah. I was just sharing a laugh. I find the concept of thumbs, as implemented here on ElReg, to be bloody useless ... except sometimes they can add a little amusement when they tip you off that somebody who takes commentardary entirely too seriously has been furiously hitting refresh, just waiting for your next comment to downvote.

                Want another laugh? Seems some brilliant person has written a macro that'll downvote your old posts serially. I just watched my downvote total go up by about 50 in the space of about a minute. There is absolutely no way that someone can do that manually with the ElReg interface.

                Even funnier, they are downvoting my old, original posts from over ten years ago ... posts that were made before ElReg had even implemented the concept of thumbs. I'm laughing ... how on Earth does this person expect to benefit from this utterly pointless exercise? Shirley it's not going to out itself as the serial downvoter, expecting great applause from the peanut gallery ...

                So I've pissed off somebody, about something, somewhere, and yet they can't be arsed to tell me why ... but they will expend time and energy to write code to downvote old posts of mine? That's just plain sad, that is. Poor thing.

                Edit: Chalk up another 50ish downvotes in my old posts in about a minute. One wonders how hard the poor dear was pounding on its keybr0ad as it launched its cute little macro.

                1. Kabukiwookie Silver badge

                  Re: I wonder why?

                  So I've pissed off somebody, about something, somewhere, and yet they can't be arsed to tell me why ... but they will expend time and energy to write code to downvote old posts of mine? That's just plain sad, that is. Poor thing.

                  There seem to be quite a lot of downvoters who downvote because something that was said hurt their feelings and possibly impacted their cosy pre-established world view, not because the post itself doesn't have merit.

                2. Louis Schreurs Bronze badge

                  Re: I wonder why?

                  Whenever I see your handle I'll vote it up systematically. Not able to write macros that 'll vote you up 50x per minute. Sorry.

                  I appreciate your comments.

        2. Tom Graham

          Re: I wonder why?

          "So your considered view on all those middle class folks at the BLM racist rallies is what exactly? They're not black so they shouldn't comment? Really?"

          That might be helpful, yes.

          1. TheMeerkat Bronze badge

            Re: I wonder why?

            We don’t care if Black Lives Matter thugs shout at each other or not.

            What we cate is how they behave towards the rest of us (I.e. whether it is OK to vandalise statures and generally break the law)

            The same with Linus. It is not for me to comment on the Linus’s swearing at kernel developers, but I can comment on whether the new version of kernel fits whatever needs I have or not.

            1. Kabukiwookie Silver badge

              Re: I wonder why?

              Bullshit. If anyone with a slacker discipline than Linus would take over from him the kernel would be thoroughly fscked within a few releases.

              As a gate keeper he should be strict and kick out people that don't adhere to the scrict coding rules that he demands from contributors.

              If he wasn't so strict and giant security holes would be the result of that you'd be probably one of the first to point the shitty finger of blame at him for not doing a good job.

              Don't like how Linus manages the people contributing to his project, branch off and maintain your own code base.

              Good luck with that.

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