A proposal to help Linus Torvalds keep up with patches for Linux has sparked a controversy over whether the operating system has outgrown its creator.
On Monday, Rob Landley, a computer programmer, writer and Linux
evangelist, posted a proposal to the Linux kernel development list
calling for a "Patch Penguin"--a person who would help integrate fixes
for the myriad of small problems that plague the current development
kernel, Linux 2.5.
The proposal comes after many developers have grown frustrated with
Torvalds for not keeping up with the slew of minor fixes hatched by
volunteers, said Landley. A situation that, he added, that has become a
source of underlying tension in the community.
"Right now, the patch process is manageable, but it's showing stress
fractures, and I'm proposing to relieve that stress before an
earthquake," said Landley, after his proposal set off a heated
discussion on the list between Torvalds and several developers. "If the
stress keeps growing, the more and more likely that something
catastrophic will happen."
The debate has highlighted the fact that, while the complexity of Linux
has grown, the task of managing additions to the operating system hasn't
kept pace. The fear is that frustrated developers could
strike out on their own, "forking" the Linux kernel and
creating two distinct versions of the operating system.
Based on code written in the early 1990s by Torvalds,
Linux has grown from a tiny, basic operating system to
a set of software with features rivaling those of Microsoft's
Windows. However, Torvalds still manages the single official version of
the core operating system, known as the kernel, as well as architects
the future direction of Linux.
Torvalds, a fellow at chipmaker Transmeta, argued that the current
development organization is fine. Instead, he insists that developers
are frustrated that he doesn't apply every patch that is sent to him.
"The basic issue is one of prioritizing," he said. "You can do one of
two things: accept everything, including the crud, (or) being careful,
and spending time on the patches you apply."
A matter of trust
Torvalds added that some of the tension comes from his refusal to apply
patches that aren't properly submitted and that aren't from people he
trusts. Those people, known as maintainers, are programmers designated
to lead the development of certain Linux subsystems, such as networking,
the help system, and graphics.
"In short, send patches to maintainers that you know I trust," he said.
"If you cannot find a person to be a proponent of your patch, you should
ask yourself if the patch might have some problem."
That keeps developers guessing, however, whether Torvalds refused the
patch because it had a problem or because they didn't have time to get
around to it.
"The problem is that the flow of good patches through the system is
getting blocked," said Landley. "Part of the problem is that Linus' way
of rejecting things is to simply ignore them."
And that's not just happening to unknown developers that have little
respect in the community. Big-name developers are seeing their work go
unused for long periods of time.
Eric Raymond, a well-known open-source evangelist and maintainer of the
Linux Help system, said that he had to submit six patches to the system
a total of 33 times to get them included. Each time the kernel changed
without the inclusion of his changes, he faced extra work to make sure that his software fixes worked with the latest
version of the kernel.
"Linux is not outgrowing Linus' capabilities as an architect, but right
now it is outgrowing his capabilities as a manager," said Raymond. "If
we are going to keep Linus as the architect, we have to find a way to
replace him as a manager, or at least supplement his ability to deal
Others argue that the patching problem is the leading cause of delays in
starting development on the next version of Linux.
It took just over three months to stabilize Linux 2.2, a production
kernel, and start development on Linux 2.3, a test kernel used only for
development. However, it took developers almost 11 months to stabilize
the latest production kernel, Linux 2.4, and move onto the newest test
kernel, Linux 2.5.
Even people that have worked closely with Torvalds believe that he needs
help to organize development efforts and keep the code updated.
Alan Cox, a well-known Linux kernel developer who, according to Landley,
has unofficially acted as "Patch Penguin" for the current stable kernel,
Linux 2.4, agrees that Torvalds needs a sidekick at the very least.
An indication of that, said Cox, is that companies that release their
own Linux distributions, such as Red Hat, SuSE and Mandrake, patch the
kernel themselves, fixing many problems to which Torvalds has refused to
"If you look at the vendors, they tend to ship kernels with fixes,
changes and often lag markedly behind the leading edge--that's
intentional," said Cox, a fellow at Red Hat. "The typical customer wants
a solid, reliable platform and someone to stand up and say, 'We support
this, we tested it, we say it works.'"
However, Cox downplays the rifts in the communities, noting that Linux
developers tend to be a fractious lot.
"Think of this more like an office meeting to figure out what is going
on and what needs to be tweaked in the processes," he said. "The
difference being we hold our office meetings in public."
For his part, Torvalds said he isn't becoming overwhelmed by the work of
keeping Linux development on track. However, he does allow for the
possibility that an additional maintainer to keep track of the minor
patches might have merit.
"A person who only takes the 'miscellaneous' patches--the stuff that
falls through the cracks by virtue of being small and not in any clearly
managed code--might be a fairly good idea," he said. "The problem with
that is that there are very few people who want to just clean the
stables and not do the big and 'exciting' stuff."