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New Linux kernel a little closer to release

The Linux community passes another milestone in the development of the next version of the Linux operating system.

The Linux community passed another milestone in the development of the next version of the Linux operating system this week, but in a way that would make Microsoft proud.

The army of programmers that collectively develops Linux has been steadily moving toward a new version of the heart of Linux, dubbed the 2.4 kernel.

Linus Torvalds, the creator of the OS and leader of the Linux movement, posted a test version of the kernel bearing that version number.

While the new version is a step closer to the real thing, Torvalds says the "2.4.0-test1" kernel still is a prototype. The nomenclature is reminiscent of the methods of Microsoft, famed for coming up with a variety of different definitions to describe the pre-release state of its software.

"It doesn't really exist yet," Torvalds said in a note accompanying the newest test version. "It's not a real 2.4.0 release, but we should be getting closer."

Torvalds in March exhorted programmers to get down to the serious business of making a bug-free, stable "production" version of Linux that could be used by businesses. That schedule has slipped, however, and 2.4 is expected in August or September, Torvalds has said.

Linux programmers boast that quality is more important that adhering to arbitrary schedules. However, more time pressure is on Linux as the formerly hobbyist operating system software becomes a key part of the business plans of companies such as Red Hat, Caldera Systems, Dell Computer, Compaq Computer and IBM.

"I would get frustrated if we released things 'on time' and it wasn't really stable and ready," David Miller, a key kernel programmer, said in a recent email interview. "It's always been my experience that you get a half-assed job from engineers if you pressure them with release schedules, and you eat the cost of this in support later when all the hard-to-solve bugs start popping up."

Andrea Arcangeli, another central Linux programmer, believes that bug-fixing doesn't have to be mundane. "In my work, I spend lots of time in bug-fixing all over the place. A bug-fix for a subtle bug can be more important to achieve than a new exciting feature," he said in a recent interview.

Choosing version numbers has been an adventure in name designation as Linux programmers wind closer to 2.4.0. For starters, there was the 2.3.x development version that was launched in May 1999--the standard name for the development version of Linux.

That version incremented its way to 2.3.51 before suddenly hopping to 2.3.99-pre1 in March. Two-and-a-half months later, 2.3.99-pre9 arrived. Now the new naming convention has arrived, 2.4.0-test1.

The 2.4 kernel contains several improvements. For desktop use, the most notable improvement is support for the multitude of printers, digital cameras, scanners, keyboards, mice, network cards, modems, Zip drives and other devices that plug into the Universal Serial Bus (USB) port.

CNET's Linux Center For server use, the most significant changes are improvements that will let Linux take better advantage of systems with multiple processors--a key feature for spreading Linux into more powerful servers. In particular, networking tasks on multiprocessor computers go much faster, said Miller, who maintains the network portions of Linux.

Linux is a clone of the Unix operating system. It competes with Unix versions such as Sun Microsystems' Solaris and with Microsoft's Windows operating system. Unlike those commercial packages, it can be obtained for free and can be freely modified.

Linux burst onto the scene in 1999, when big computer makers adopted it into their product lines. That popularity led to wild successes on the stock market for a few publicly traded Linux companies, enthusiasm that has since waned.