Is Linus killing Linux?

As leader of the free world of open-source computing, the Linux buck stops at the keyboard of 31-year-old Linux inventor and perpetual guardian, Linus Torvalds. But some open-source proponents question how long one man can control the technology’s evolution.

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By  Colin Browne Published  March 12, 2001

The big question|~||~||~|As leader of the free world of open-source computing, the Linux buck stops at Linus Torvalds’ keyboard.

The 31-year-old Torvalds, a working-class hero to open-source developers worldwide, is the inventor and guardian of an operating system kernel that’s at the crux of a US$2 billion industry, one whose rapid rise is unnerving Microsoft executives.

Yet some solution providers, vendors and industry observers are beginning to question how long one man can steer the evolution of Linux—and whether Torvalds’ sole oversight of the kernel, now at version 2.4, is slowing its corporate adoption. While he’s not driven by profit motive, the engineer has significant power over the kernel: Linux is a registered trademark of Linus Torvalds himself. Windows, in contrast, is the trademark of Microsoft.

They note Torvalds lacks formal accountability for Linux and, as a full-time engineer at chip maker Transmeta, has considerable professional obligations outside his open-source activities. What’s more, industry titans such as IBM, Compaq Computer, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle are pouring billions of dollars into developing Linux products and want to exert more influence on the direction of the kernel, based on customer feedback.

“We need a full-time leader and a nonprofit organisation that can be funded by IBM, Compaq and Dell and the [Linux] distributors,” says Hal Davison, president of Davison Consulting.

Some Linux solution providers view the constantly evolving process of the posting of Linux libraries, patches and updates to the Internet as inefficient and cumbersome, Davison says. “VARs are reluctant because they don’t see a clear channel. They don’t see a Microsoft saying, ‘We’re going to be here forever.’”
||**||Facing pressure|~||~||~|Torvalds opposes the notion of corporate interests controlling the destiny of the Linux kernel. However, experts say he’ll face pressure from big OEMs and ISVs that are bankrolling the transformation of the technology into a lucrative industry.

The Linux market stands to double this year to $4 billion, according to Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown, a Wall Street investment firm. OEMs are hopeful but leery about Torvalds’ casual indifference to market needs and capitalist concerns.

IBM’s recent pledge to spend $1 billion to advance Linux commercially in 2001 comes with a no-strings-attached promise today, but observers say that won’t last if Linux doesn’t pick up steam in the form of revenue and profits. For example, at this week’s LinuxWorld conference in New York, IBM plans to unveil new Linux initiatives and clients, including Shell Oil.

“In the early stages of open source, it was more of a charitable affair and developers didn’t attach a fee,” says George Weiss, an analyst at Gartner.

“But the vendors are in it for financial success, and they’ll think twice about being charitable while answering to their stockholders. There’s going to be increased tension between the idealism of the open-source Linux community and the strong profit motives of these vendors.”

Publicly, blue-chip vendors recognise Torvalds as the lead Linux developer but note that they aren’t beholden to his final nod to carry out their product plans, as they are with Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Still, insiders say Torvalds’ casual e-mail sign-offs on the kernel carry tremendous weight in the commercial market and down the food chain from OEMs to ISVs, solution providers and customers.
||**||Torvalds still influential|~||~||~|For instance, when Torvalds declared Linux 2.4 finished last month, only Red Hat opted to ship an upgrade based on the “preproduction” Linux 2.4 kernel. Since then, Linux distributors have begun detailing their product deliverables based on the new kernel.

“[Torvalds’] decisions are not ones you’d quickly throw out the window,” says Bob Shimp, senior director of Database Marketing at Oracle, which contributed to Linux 2.4 development.

“When he’s ready to release the final version, that’s when distributors package it up. Having a little bit of control like that is a good thing. It all boils down to market forces. When Linus says it’s ready to go, that’s the release people tend to pick up and focus on.”

Despite Torvalds’ technical reign over Linux, IBM and Compaq have quickly become the industry’s de facto Linux leaders, and tensions over the kernel’s direction will heighten as market forces intensify, experts say.

“I don’t believe open source works well for commercial companies because they can’t control schedules,” says Michael Cusumano, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

“Software companies try to have regular development cycles. That’s how you build a rhythm for a company, its resellers and customers. With Linux, a new version will fall out of the sky every so often, and fairly frequently. But it’s hard to build a business around it.”

Eventually, Torvalds and his team will be forced to form an advisory body that gives large Linux vendors—and their shareholders and customers—an official vote in shaping the operating system, experts say. Yet advocates of that approach, including some sources at a Linux distributor, warn that such an advisory body could bureaucratise the open-source process.
||**||Skeptical about the Lone Ranger|~||~||~|“[Torvalds] is such a mythical figure that it’s almost taboo to bring up the idea of building an officially sanctioned group around him. Yet the kernel is very important to commercial entities,” says Ghazi Benothman, research associate at Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown.

“IT managers are skeptical about a lone ranger out there having control of the critical technology. Over time, I’d bet [Torvalds will] have too many other things going on to be such an important cog in the wheel and will create or help fashion an official group so he can be more of the strategic force.”

A recent report by the investment bank, ‘Open Source Infrastructure,’ says it is “unsettling [that] no single entity owns the various Linux technologies.”

In an e-mail interview, Torvalds said he’s not open to licensing the Linux trademark to commercial vendors or creating a formal body to oversee its development. “The guy who gets the job, gets the glory-and the blame. And it probably would be ‘the guy’ or ‘the group of people who trust each other’ [to maintain the Linux kernel] and not a company or a ‘Linux Lab,’” Torvalds said.

“I’m not saying there is no space for companies, rules or regulations in Linux. They obviously do their thing, and it just so happens that ‘their thing’ is not something I get all that involved in. As a technical guy, I have other issues.”

Executives at major Linux distributors-including Red Hat, Caldera, TurboLinux and SuSE say Torvalds is an enabler, not a bottleneck, and that customers will look to them for accountability. “The reality is that the core customer will not hold Linus Torvalds responsible, but Red Hat,” says Red Hat CEO Robert Young.
||**||Enter the blue giant|~||~||~|Wall Street analysts and Fortune 1000 technology buyers, however, remain unimpressed with the financial performance of leading Linux distributors, even as sales of Linux servers continue to mount.

Enter IBM. Big Blue, which now has 2,000 full-time employees devoted to Linux, is viewed as the premier force that could make Linux commercially successful, but it holds no official power to control the operating system kernel. So far, IBM has accepted its limited role and trusted the open-source leaders, says Dan Frye, director of IBM’s Linux Technology Centre. “It’s not going to be what IBM or Transmeta wants, all of the time. And we accept that,” Frye says.

“Linus is the leader, but not a dictator. He has changed his mind repeatedly in the past when the community convinces him to move in a different direction, and a good indication of that is [improving] SMP support in the kernel.”

Nevertheless, IBM and others are attempting to give Linux a more official status with the creation of standard Linux APIs and a new Linux lab, where ISVs can test Linux applications. The Open Source Development Lab is backed by 19 sponsor companies that have kicked in more than $24 million in funding. Ross Mauri, vice president of eServer Development at IBM, serves as the lab’s president and will oversee its board and directors.

Some sources say IBM is quietly mulling a Linux distribution of its own. IBM executives, though, deny that claim and say they recognise that such a move would defeat the whole purpose and value of Linux.
||**||Big corporate influence|~||~||~|“The idea of open source and not having a corporate entity behind it caused some people to have concerns. And now with IBM and IBM Global Services behind it, customers have a different sense of commitment and comfort,” says John Callies, vice president of Marketing for IBM’s eServer line.

“We are vehemently opposed to IBM having its own distribution because it would look like IBM is trying to make its own version of Linux.”

But OEMs are angling to exert more influence on the kernel’s development with each purchase order, others say. At LinuxWorld, Compaq unveiled support for major Linux ISV offerings on its ProLiant server arm plus provide technical support and funding for the open-source community.

Compaq views Torvalds and his crew as partners, says Rick Becker, director of business development for Compaq’s enterprise servers unit. “We work closely with Linus and his team; they’re very busy these days. We engage with him around extending the kernel and accelerating the adoption of Linux into the commercial space,” Becker says.

“I do think sometimes a single individual can be a bottleneck to an ongoing process, but that’s true in any OS. For me, the buck stops with my customers.”

The notion that Linux is the product of thousands of unpaid engineers scattered over the world-and not a core group of programmers under Torvalds’ direction-is a myth that big commercial vendors readily grasp, some solution providers say. “[Torvalds is] a working-class hero, and no one will step on that. But for the inner core of an organisation like ours, it’s a pain in the butt,” says Tom Adelstein, vice president of technology at Bynari, a Linux ISV.||**||

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