OSDL mounts PR effort to counter Linux uncertainty

With questions emerging about how Linux was developed and whether it illegally contains code from System V Unix, the nonprofit Open Source Development Lab (OSDL) is going on the offensive: It’s launching a media campaign to explain in detail how the Linux kernel is developed by a global community of developers.

In an announcement Wednesday, the Beaverton, Ore.-based OSDL said it’s going to fight the fear, uncertain and doubt that’s being mixed in with facts as part of a new “Linux kernel awareness initiative.”

One vocal critic of the Linux kernel development process has been Darl McBride, CEO and president of Unix vendor The SCO Group Inc., which sued IBM Corp. in March for more than US$3 billion, alleging that the company illegally contributed some of SCO’s System V Unix code to the Linux project without permission. In several speeches and interviews, McBride has maintained that the Linux development process is too unstructured, leaving opportunities for developers to wrongly borrow code from proprietary software such as Unix.

The OSDL strongly disagrees with that view.

“Not only is he out of touch, but he’s also exploiting the ‘out-of-touchness’ of other people,” said Andrew Morton, who watches over the upcoming Linux kernel 2.6 as the “kernel maintainer” for the OSDL. “This is something the OSDL people want to address.”

The problem, Morton said, is that while many IT people are familiar with how commercial software is developed and reaches end users, “the means by which Linux software appears seems to be vaguely magical. We’re trying to remove some of the mysteries surrounding that.”

Linux, created in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, has since been developed by thousands of software developers from around the world sharing ideas and expertise as they work to clean up and improve the code. Under the Linux development process, developers are self-organized into specific subsystems defined by their interests and technical expertise, such as I/O, storage or networking, according to the OSDL. Each subsystem has a domain expert developer, called the subsystem maintainer, who oversees the work of others. Subsystem maintainers review the code submitted to them and orchestrate broader peer review to ensure the code’s quality.

All Linux code, both the current version and that submitted for future inclusion, is also available online for public examination, according to the OSDL, which means it is scrutinized by thousands of interested parties in what amounts to a massive code review. Only when a subsystem maintainer accepts software code is it passed along to one of the two developers at the top of the Linux hierarchy: Torvalds or Morton.

Torvalds maintains the “development kernel,” where new features and bug fixes are tested, while Morton maintains the “production kernel,” which is the version released for public use. Torvalds is the final arbiter of what is included in Linux.

“In terms of the SCO claims, they have no technical merit,” Morton said. “Down at the level we operate at, we just don’t take them seriously. They haven’t been able to show anything anyway.

“We don’t have a formal review process to look for a piece of code and analyze it for whether it is from somewhere else,” Morton said. “The kernel community is a fairly tight-knit team. We all know each other. We know who individual sponsors are and what their backgrounds are. If someone we never heard of would suddenly pop up with thousands of lines of code that didn’t look like it was written for Linux, it would stand out like a sore thumb. That has never occurred.

“Generally, contributions come from people whom we know, or who are working in the corporate environment and have a track record of contributing code,” he said.

Allegations that some of the code in Linux came from Unix is wrong, Morton said. “Code which has come from a different operating system environment, it just has that written all over it. It just doesn’t have the normal Linux idioms inside it. You can see that it’s come from Unix or somewhere else. It’s fairly obvious when this happens,” he said.

The OSDL is a global consortium of vendors and individuals who are working together to encourage the use of Linux in corporate computing. OSDL members include IBM, Dell Inc., Computer Associates International Inc., Red Hat Inc. and SUSE Linux AG.

Stuart Cohen, CEO of the OSDL, said in a statement that “the Linux kernel development process, under the guidance of Linus Torvalds, has proven to be an extremely effective means to produce powerful software for more than 10 years now. Recent public criticism of the Linux development process shows a lack of understanding as to the rigor imposed by Linus himself and the development community at large. It is a process built on the scientific method of peer review.”