Intel claims No. 2 Linux contributor spot as hedge against Microsoft

Intel is quickly climbing the ranks of Linux kernel contributors, perhaps angling to hedge against its dependence on Microsoft.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

In 2007 Red Hat stood on top of the Linux kernel contributor list with room to spare. At 12.7 percent of the Linux kernel contributed by Red Hat (measured in terms of lines changed), IBM was the runner-up at a comparatively distant 5.9 percent. In 2008, Red Hat slipped a little but maintained the top spot (11.2 percent), with Novell making a burst into second place at 8.9 percent.

In 2009, things get more interesting, with Intel making a serious challenge to claim the top spot in Linux kernel contributions.

Red Hat, Novell, and IBM all have substantial software businesses, with heavy investments in Linux, so it makes sense that they'd contribute heavily to the Linux kernel. But according to new data Jonathan Corbet of LWN.net announced at the Ottawa Linux Symposium on Wednesday, Intel has surged from 2.3 percent in 2007 to 4.1 percent in 2008 to 6.9 percent in 2009.

Jonathan Corbet (LWN.net)

Red Hat still sits atop the corporate pile of contributors with 12.3 percent, but within the next two years it's possible that we'll see Intel top it. Since Corbet last compiled his kernel data in 2008, 2,559 developers added 4.8 million lines of code. Among the 339 employers found in Corbet's data, Intel ranks second.

This really is remarkable. Why is a hardware company, albeit one with significant software assets, making such an earnest effort to contribute to open-source software?

Intel's commitment, as Dirk Hohndel, Intel's chief Linux and open-source technologist, told me, signals Linux's critical importance to a broad community:

It's a sign of the strength of the Linux community that contributors come from all sorts of places. This shows how important Linux is.

Yes, but why Intel? Suffice it to say, Intel doesn't account for its Linux development as "charitable giving."

Indeed, John Treadway suggests that "at the very least [Intel's kernel development] means Intel-based platforms will continue to have the advantage," because presumably Intel chips inside servers, Netbooks, desktops, mobile phones, and more will run Linux as well or better than they do Windows.

Intel's Linux commitment, in short, could be a hedge on its longstanding partnership with Microsoft.

Or maybe it's more. For years Intel made a fortune buddying up with Microsoft in the so-called Wintel duopoly. The problem with this pairing is that Microsoft's portion of the pie cuts into Intel's to an ever-widening degree. And it's not just Microsoft: the more an original equipment manufacturer spends on software the less is left over for Intel's hardware.

So, as SAP's Dirk Riehle remarks, Intel's Linux strategy frees up more money to spend on its chips, a theme Riehle has touched on before with reference to IBM's commitment to Linux.

Watch for Intel to further increase its commitment to Linux, paying more and more developers like Jeff Dike to give lots of software away.

This makes the developers happy, but it also makes Intel happy. The more great open-source software out there, the more money is available to buy Intel hardware. Microsoft is the casualty, but that's business. One company's complement is another company's core. That's the way open-source capitalism works.

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