Is Linux innovative?

In a departure from recent musings on the inner workings of Solaris, I thought I'd examine one of the issues that Bryan has touched on in his blog. Bryan has been looking at some of the larger issues regarding OS innovation, commoditization, and academic research. I thought I'd take a direct approach by examining our nearest competitor, Linux.

Bryan probably said it best: We believe that the operating system is a nexus of innovation.

I don't have a lot of experience with the Linux community, but my impression is that the OS is perceived as a commodity. As a result, Linux is just another OS; albeit one with open source and a large community to back it up. I see a lot of comments like "Linux basically does everything Solaris does" and "Solaris has a lot more features, but Linux is catching up." Very rarely do I see mention of features that blow Solaris (or other operating systems) out of the water. Linus himself has said:

A lot of the exciting work ends up being all user space crap. I mean, exciting in the sense that I wouldn't car [sic], but if you look at the big picture, that's actually where most of the effort and most of the innovation goes.

So Linus seems to agree with my intuition, but I'm in unfamiliar territory here. So, I pose the question:

Is the Linux operating system a source of innovation?

This is a specific question: I'm interested only in software innovation relating to the OS. Issues such as open source, ISV suport, and hardware compatibility are irrelevant, as well as software which is not part of the kernel or doesn't depend on its facilities. I consider software such as the Solaris ptools as falling under the purview of the operating system, because they work hand-in-hand with the /proc filesystem, a kernel facility. Software such as GNOME, KDE, X, GNU tools, etc, are all independent of the OS and not germane to this discussion. I'm also less interested in purely academic work; one of the pitfalls of academic projects is that they rarely see the light of day in a real-world commercial setting. Of course, most innovative work must begin as research before it can be viable in the industry, but certainly proven technologies make better examples.

I can name dozens of Solaris innovations, but only a handful of Linux ones. This could simply be because I know so much about Solaris and so little about Linux; I freely acknowledge that I'm no Linux expert. So are there great Linux OS innovations out there that I'm just not aware of?


Dude, go take a look at if you want to see some innovation. There are a bazillion projects and it should only take you six seconds to find something happening on linux which doesn't exist on solaris and probably never will.

Posted by Anonymous on July 21, 2004 at 05:52 AM PDT #

Dude, try reading the question before you post an answer. There aren't a bazillion projects that are part of the OS on sourceforge. I got tired of looking, but almost all of Linux OS projects on sourceforge were to get X or Y working on Linux when it was already available on something else. Hardly innovative.

Posted by Anonymous on July 21, 2004 at 07:07 AM PDT #

Maybe because the Kernel Maintainers have to be very conservative to introduce new innovative features. And like in the academic world people often don't have the time to beat their innovative ideas into production quality.

Posted by arved on July 23, 2004 at 07:59 PM PDT #

I agree with arved - the Linux kernel HAS to be conservative. Primarily because of the plethora of hardware that Linux can run on - and it is a WIDE plethora of hardware and devices. Unlike Solaris, which is specifically designed for Sun kit. So, if you know your target hardware or if your hardware is a limited range , you can afford to be a heck of lot more innovative in OS design. That's just a basic fact, irrespective of the OS in question.

Posted by justin on August 03, 2004 at 06:23 AM PDT #

That is an interesting observation, and quite true. Linux is modelled on unix so it's uniqueness can extend only so far but I'd hardly say its innovative in the same way that say QNX is. Much of the real innovation goes on in the sidelines, in userspace. Strangely enough a lot of the real innovative bits come from commercial donors like SGI, Sun and IBM. Where linux does have an advantage I think is in the "thousand eyes" not that Linux is really more secure because of this but it does tend to be FASTER because of this. Those people wanting to do tuning can fiddle with the source! Bob

Posted by Robert on August 03, 2004 at 08:55 PM PDT #

I wouldn't say that the Linux kernel is conservative at all, and I don't know how anyone who's looked at the changelogs could say the same thing. The firewalling code was rewritten entirely in 2.0, 2.2 and 2.4. There are constant "battles" between the two VM camps (resulting in the entire VM system being replaced in 2.4.10, which is supposed to be the stable branch). Allegedly "stable" kernels have shipped when the developers knew that non-x86 architectures were broken (I forget the exact 2.4.x release this occurred in). During 2.6 development, one of the developers essentially did a "hostile takeover" of the IDE code for several months, before the original maintainer regained control. And take a look at 2.6 after it was marked "stable" - there are still about 10 megs of patches a month that go in, and there is no development branch per se, just a patchset to the stable tree. Add to this the near total lack of formalized testing of the kernel, especially on different architectures, and it really is amazing that Linux is as popular as it is.

Posted by Derek Morr on August 19, 2004 at 12:17 AM PDT #

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