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Linux and Decentralized Development

Christopher Browne

Table of Contents
1. Motivation - Why is Centralization an Issue?
2. Organization Models in the Linux Community
3. Mandates and Purposes of a Linux Foundation
4. In the Interim - Your Fair Share
5. Free Software
6. Related Literature
7. Patents: Yet Another Problem
8. Credits

This essay describes the facts and merits of the decentralized form of Linux development and support. It suggests some ways that the continued development and growth of free software such as Linux can be encouraged. Despite the use of Linux as a specific instance of a "free" OS, this is not intended to be overly Linux-specific; the principles should largely be applicable to other initiatives such as the free BSD projects and many others that are directed towards applications rather than OS platforms.

1. Motivation - Why is Centralization an Issue?

Many people have complained over the last few years that there should be some sort of "central" Linux organization.

Some common reasons that I see include:

There is little agreement as to what organization should be "king," but there is desire for a "king" nonetheless.

I would like to argue that while there are imperfections in the support presently available for Linux, this does not mandate the creation of an authoritative central Linux organization.

I would argue furthermore that the decentralization Linux displays represents a strength in that it allows support to grow simultaneously in many areas, unhindered by any particular controlling agency.

1.1. Real Disadvantages to Decentralization: Linux Support is Fragmented

There are disadvantages to the decentralized nature of Linux development, as it causes support arrangements to be somewhat fragmented. Linux does not have a single organization offering all of the sorts of things on the list below, as is the case for most other operating systems. There is no single organization responsible for the various support roles which are presently distributed across various organizations in the Linux community:

  • There are many Linux Web sites, none being authoritatively the home of Linux.

  • The same can be said for FTP sites where Linux software resides.

  • There is a lot of duplication of effort in documentation maintenance.

  • There are many marketing efforts coming from different directions and organizations, none really organized to help The Linux Community.

    This is an intractable problem, since due to the diversity of interested parties the needs and desires of the community are themselves diverse.

  • There are a number of kernels and other "base" system utilities that are of interest as possible application targets.

    This includes kernels in the version 1.2.x "series," which has been stable for a long time to the point of being "ancient," to the more modern 2.0.x series, which is also quite stable, but changes every so often, to the 2.1.x experimental series, which changes on roughly a weekly basis.

    In addition, there have been a number of sets of C libraries (with the recent transition from LIBC 5.x to the FSF "GLIBC"), multiple binary formats (with the transition from a.out to ELF), and, of late, three C/C++ compilers to worry about (GCC 2.7.x, GCC 2.8.x, EGCS). Transitions between libraries have sometimes been painful.

    Critics of Linux often overstate these problems. Most programs do not need to be aware of the distinctions between these system components, and typically do not even need to be recompiled in order to function on a system using a newer kernel/library. Those few that do need coding changes tend to attract a great deal of publicity.

    It can still be difficult for developers to select an appropriate target kernel or a special purpose library particularly when some specialized or experimental feature such as resource locking, threading, or multiprocessing are needed.

  • Just how many libraries are there out there for GUI development? Which one should I use?

    There are many graphics libraries for X that run on Linux, including Xt, Motif, Tk, Qt, Gtk, and GNUStep, to name only the most popular ones. This problem is of course not restricted to Linux. It has roughly the same impact on applications running on both "free" and commercial Unix-like OSes.

    This problem also plagues popular non-Unix-like platforms. The various Microsoft Windows variants support quite a wide variety of graphic APIs and libraries that come from a variety of vendors.

  • Organizations that use Linux would prefer to have one authoritative Linux organization to look to for support.

1.2. Advantages to Decentralization

Despite there being some problems to decentralization, I believe that there is a net advantage for Linux to having the variety of independent organizations fulfilling their various roles. We may view the independent organizations in aggregate as a sort of "virtual corporation."

Here are a number of ways that decentralization benefits the development of the system:

  • Independent organizations can act in their own best interests.

    So long as these various organizations remain legally and truly independent, Linux will not run into some problems that have beset IBM and Apple.

    Apple has the Software or Hardware? problem. Their software operations might make better decisions if they did not need to care about the health of the hardware side, and vice versa. And this might well benefit the overall organization.

    IBM has long been noted for spending millions of dollars developing new products, and then dropping them before even trying to release them as soon as another division determined that the new product would cannibalize their own sales. OS/2 is a good case in point:

    • The PC division benefited more from selling computers running MS-DOS and Microsoft Windows, and has never stood behind OS/2. It could be argued that they should have been required to bundle OS/2 with every computer IBM sold, with other third-party operating systems as "extra cost options."

    • OS/2 could not be permitted to be a "threat" to the mainframe or "mini" (e.g. AS400) divisions.

    • There is also the AIX/Unix group that would also be unhappy about competition from OS/2.

    Trying to come up with real advocates of OS/2 within the company was a problem; there were ample reasons for these and other IBM divisions to actively oppose increased use of OS/2. There are, no doubt, times when Unix-related sales efforts threaten mainframe sales, which begs the question of which "threat" to prefer. OS/2 evidently didn't receive the support needed to compete against Microsoft's operating system products.


    Note that Brett Fleisch has written a paper on the failure of IBM's "Workplace OS" project that puts a somewhat different slant on this. If things were as he indicates, OS/2 was, in fact, strategic to IBM; the problem was that IBM's main efforts went into building the Workplace OS for which OS/2 would have been a primary "personality." In effect, OS/2 (in the form that we've seen it) was put on the "back burner." Had Workplace OS turned out as expected, there would have been a "new, improved" OS/2 on top of it. In effect, the failure of Workplace OS doomed OS/2 to a niche existence in the marketplace.

    I expect that both my thesis and his have merit: his paper makes many events at IBM over the last five years make a lot more sense, while I believe my thesis to be reasonably representative of how decisions were likely made in the personal computing division...

  • Having independent organizations reduces the incidence of bottlenecks.

    The Free Software Foundation has had the problem that their leader, Richard M. Stallman (commonly known as "RMS") appear to think that they ought to have control over the entire body of free/GPL (GNU Public License) software. Ignoring the consideration that others may not want to be so controlled, they simply don't have enough staff to manage all of the projects that are active.

    There is the potential for free software to represent a billion dollar a year sort of effort. The Free Software Foundation is certainly not large enough to manage the results that come from that level of activity. I'm not sure that they could grow large enough to oversee it all.

    Linux developers have nobody stopping them from introducing something new. Nobody is waiting for permission from Linus Torvalds for much of anything.

    Moreover, Linux developers can and typically do use standardized protocols that allow projects to work independently, which means we're seldom forced to wait for any particular resource. Since, for instance, the X11 protocol used to implement the X Window System is a defined graphical standard that is quite stable, development can proceed independently on such things as X servers, GUI libraries, the Linux kernel, and other system components both large and small.

    In contrast, MS-Windows system updates/upgrades have often been painful as system components as well as applications are deeply interlinked. This is good for the careers of consultants that want to have continuing work cleaning up after the problems, but it is expensive for the global community on which the changes are inflicted.

    Unix-like OSes and Microsoft's OSes can be contrasted nicely from a technical perspective in this fashion:

    • Microsoft Windows (in its various versions) enforces relatively little separation between the different system components. Programs using the Win32 API fairly directly access all pieces of the system, from file systems to GUI to memory management.

      This has the unfortunate result that if the way any system component functions is changed, all programs typically need to be changed to conform.

    • Unix-like systems enforce a clear separation between kernel and user processes, and furthermore separate users. The X Windows graphical infrastructure is also clearly separated from both kernel and users.

      On Unix systems, it is typical for component upgrades to not have adverse affects on programs. There are counterexamples, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

      Linux kernel upgrades normally only directly affect the functioning of a small number of programs.

      Upgrading the X Windows System from version X11R4 to X11R5 to X11R6 to whatever other new revision has not normally caused significant disturbance to programs written for the older versions; there may be benefit to rewriting programs to use functionality from the new libraries, but that is not necessary. It is not normally necessary to recompile programs. The existing programs normally continue to function as if their environment had not changed.

      Moreover, running a program using the "new" Gtk GUI does not make the Xt applications stop working. This also displays a valuable and novel thing about the X Window System, which is that it can simultaneously accommodate applications that use different graphical user interfaces.

  • When ownership of Linux is distributed to many people around the world, this discourages attempts to privatize Linux as any one person or organization's asset.

    The situation where Della Croce laid claim to the trademark "Linux" pointed out the importance of this. He temporarily had legal control over the name, which caused much concern in the Linux community. A Petition to Cancel was filed against this Linux Trademark. The matter was settled out of court; Linus Torvalds is now the holder of the trademark to Linux.

    In contrast, since Linus Torvalds started accepting changes to Linux using the GNU Public License, nobody has had, or will have, sole control from a legal standpoint over the source code to Linux. In order to legally privatize the source code to Linux, thousands of contributors to Linux would need to agree to this. There are enough that are likely to disagree that this is extremely unlikely to happen.

  • Independent organizations can agree to disagree, when necessary.

    If Linux remains somewhat fragmented in its support network, this does mean that there may be some problems that fall through the cracks, which is unfortunate.

    The NetBSD Project (building a "free" operating system based on a system called "BSD 4.4 Lite") seems to have fractured due to internal disagreements, where people with dissenting opinions left and created OpenBSD. It is difficult to (without entering into great controversy) establish precise causes. Regardless of the causes, the split has hurt the credibility of both groups.

    But by not having a monolithic organization, Linux people are free to work as independently as they wish to. They can agree to disagree, and support may grow independently of the political limitations on any of the organizations that are involved.

    The GGI graphics project is a good example of why it is good to have a degree of independence. It has been ongoing for several years, with occasional intentions to be a replacement for X.

    In a "fully-integrated" Linux Organization, such projects would either become:

    • Critical path projects which, since they're not done yet, prevent further development of anything else that somehow depends on them (bringing us back to a bottleneck), or

    • Projects discarded because Linus Torvalds did not agree that they should go into the official kernel.

    There are disagreements over the wisdom of these particular efforts; the fact that they're going on independently means that at present, they disturb no one that doesn't want to be so disturbed.

    For instance, while I would personally like to see GGI "succeed," at least as a platform on which X could be run very fast, I think that the (former) "Berlin Project" efforts have been misguided. My feelings doesn't necessarily hinder either effort; in the decentralized world of Linux development, they are free to succeed or fail independently of what I want or think. Some developments may be a waste of time, but ultimately do not critically hurt other Linux efforts.

    This doesn't necessarily hinder either effort; in the decentralized world of Linux development, they are free to succeed or fail independently of what I want or think. Some developments may be a waste of time, but ultimately do not critically hurt other Linux efforts.

    Were the efforts centralized, failure of a critical development project would injure everyone. For instance, if I were the authority, and I, "Great Tyrant Chris," required that the GGI graphical infrastructure be adopted, this would leave continuing work on many other Linux-based applications and subsystems vulnerable to the possibility that GGI may not become stable and useful in a timely fashion.

    With the highly distributed development model, Linux is not generally vulnerable in this fashion.

  • There simply does not exist some monolithic or otherwise easily characterized body known as The Linux Community.

    In other words, there is no fixed centre that to Linux, although Linus Torvalds and a number of other "core developers" certainly exert influence.

    Linux has a whole variety of users with a wide variety of desires, needs, wants, and abilities.

    Some would describe it as a server OS, just like the other Unix operating systems. Others deny that, claiming that it's the greatest "PC" OS, and that demanding that applications support multiple users is a foolish notion.

    Linux is a very powerful system that can indeed by used in many ways. Writing applications that limit themselves to a particular "mode" of operation if they can be readily extended to provide added flexibility and power is clearly unwise. You can, very often, have your cake, and eat it too with Linux.

1.2.1. Gentle Tyranny

All of this could be taken to imply that the process of developing software for Linux takes place in some sort of "anarchistic utopia" where everyone simply does what they feel like doing, and somehow it all just works out.

That is not in fact the case. In various places around the system, there are developers that hold "dictatorial" powers. Many "neat ideas" for developing the kernel have been considered and discarded because Linus Torvalds did not approve of them. Decisions concerning how the C libraries should be implemented are effectively made by a relatively small group of highly competent developers. The code base may be open for anyone to examine, but the "authoritative" kernel sources come from Linus Torvalds and Alan Cox, and changes are filtered through these people.

This has not caused serious organizational problems thus far, and the "free" licensing approach means that should some core developer take some ridiculous stand, someone with a more palatable answer, and superior code, could replace the offending developer.

As a good case in point, the people responsible for the graphical infrastructure called GGI have been in a fairly longstanding disagreement with Linus on the merits of including their code in the kernel. Their code is most definitely not yet ready for inclusion in "stable" kernel releases. GGI is (somewhat arguably) also too experimental for general release as part of the "experimental" releases that while not deemed "stable" are still expected to be fairly stable.

If the GGI people can come up with a sufficiently mature, stable release of their code, this might convince the Linux community to overrule Linus' objections and include GGI in an "official" kernel release. This has not happened, which is, thus far, a perfectly fair outcome.

(As preparations occur for the Version 2.2 kernel release, there seems now to be a "frame buffer" scheme that may be used with the kernel that certainly parallels what the GGI folk would want; it is not yet clear whether or not this represents a subsystem that supports the kernel functionality they need...)

1.3. Other Beneficiaries of Decentralization

Three companies that have seen fairly spectacular levels of growth come out of an "allow independence" approach are:

  • SAP AG

    This German Enterprise Software organization has not tried to provide all consulting services for care and feeding of their (exceedingly complex) software, but actually has encouraged the use of external consultants. R/3 has received tremendous support from "Big Six" consulting firms as a clear and direct result.

    SAP AG and consulting firms actually do work cooperatively because they have all found this cooperation to be profitable.

    It is more common for sales organizations pay lip-service to such cooperation, while working against it in reality. Oracle's application "suite" has not done so well in the marketplace, and I believe that this can be attributed in part to Oracle being less cooperative.

  • Hewlett Packard

    The independence of the various components of Hewlett-Packard is quite remarkable from organizational, technical, and economic perspectives. The current dominance of the their printing unit in the global market displays the importance and value of independence.

  • Microsoft - Personal Computers

    Many years ago, corporate information systems were largely run by IBM. They provided robust systems, but systems development was time consuming and expensive, and departments were often unhappy with service provided by MIS departments.

    Personal computers running MS-DOS and PC-DOS gave departments the opportunity to own and control their own computing environments, independent of central MIS management, at relatively low cost. PCs certainly didn't provide the robustness and scalability of mainframe systems. But it was fairly easy to make PCs do useful things without too much effort using prepackaged word processing, spreadsheet, and database software. From a political perspective, software licenses could be acquired relatively cheaply at the departmental level rather than having to go through the MIS department. This gave departments more power.

    The fact that these personal computers were neither particularly reliable nor particularly manageable compared to the mainframes (and this can lead to nightmarish problems to this day as organizations try to scale up PC LANs) does not contradict this. PCs have been "good enough" to prove useful and valuable.

1.4. Multiple Implementations: Not A Waste of Time

It is a commonly-held view that having multiple implementations of things is a waste of effort. I do not agree; let me count the ways...

  • Reducing the Risks of Experimentation

    Having multiple implementations of things allows people to more safely experiment with new approaches without the risk that failure will have disastrous effects.

    Several Linux projects are exploring new sorts of file systems; since they're not working on the only file system, they can take some more substantial risks within their individual projects without increasing the risk of potentially hampering all Linux development.

  • Diverse participation

    Having multiple small projects allows individuals to participate in whatever they want to work on.

  • Coping with conflict

    If I were to have a severe "personality" conflict with Linus, it might well be that there would not be room for us to work together on the same operating system kernel. If Linux was the only "free" OS kernel out there being developed, that would leave us a dilemna; only one of us could do this sort of work.

    Fortunately, there is no such apparent conflict, but this sort of thing has happened before on many projects. It has on occasion caused "splits" that have resulted in multiple viable projects. (NetBSD and OpenBSD come to mind...)

    More common is the situation where there are substantially different positions held as to what direction development efforts should take. That is a good place for the people with unreconcilably different positions to go in those different directions. The results will establish which directions were wise or otherwise.

  • Cutting off Proprietary Directions

    Many users have not made substantial use of the Debian Linux distribution.

    I am glad it is there, however, and would argue that its simple existence benefits me as well as many others that may never use it.

    At one point in time, Linux distributions were regarded as "works" that could usefully be copyrighted, and for which use could be restricted. Thus, even though substantially all the components of the Blue Fedora Distribution may have been GPLed software, and thus, by one metric, freely redistributable, the collection, being suitably copyrighted, might itself require licensing fees.

    Enter Debian. It provides a useful distribution that provides similar sets of applications to common commercial ones like Red Hat's, SuSE's, and Caldera's. Presto! Prices fall.

    You can get Debian free of licensing fees, and it contains substantially the same software as provided by the "expensive guys." I argue that this has cut off the option of the "other guys" charging substantial amounts for building their distributions.

    They are still free to charge for service and for third-party commercial (non-free) software; they can't realistically charge a whole lot for collecting together the software on CD.

    Similarly, the existence of multiple X implementations has brought prices down and encouraged common developments of useful functionality.

    This can also be applied to the KDE versus GNOME Controversy. The fact that there are two independent projects substantially defuses the possible problems that could result from the more paranoid interpretations of Qt licensing.

    • If Red Hat Software were to head off down any particularly proprietary paths, the existence of Debian represents a ready alternative.

    • If Troll Tech, producers of Qt, were to do anything particularly proprietary, the existence of GNOME provides a (not quite ready yet...) alternative.

    • If Linus Torvalds were to move to Microsoft, and could (by some legal bizarreness) make Linux proprietary, the existence of FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD, and others represent potential alternatives.

I would thus conclude that it is not, in general, a waste of time to have multiple implementations of things.

If anything, I would suggest that there may be some places where additional projects could be useful. There do exist certain "bottlenecks" where there is dependance on a single tool:


    There do exist other substantially different compiler efforts such as TenDRA and LCC that have seen very little attention.

    There could be improvements that could result from taking substantially different approaches from those used by GCC/EGCS.

  • The X Window System

    There was great controversy last year concerning the licensing of the X11R6.4 Sample Implementation by The Open Group.

    For a time, there were separate source code streams. The loud outcry against the action resulted in TOG restoring the old license.

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