So now Linux is innovative?

I just ran across this interview with Linus. If you've read my blog, you know I've talked before about OS innovation, particularly with regards to Linux and Solaris. So I found this particular Linus quote very interesting:

There's innovation in Linux. There are some really good technical features that I'm proud of. There are capabilities in Linux that aren't in other operating systems. A lot of them are about performance. They're internal ways of doing things in a very efficient manner. In a kernel, you're trying to hide the hard work from the application, rather than exposing the complexity.

This seems to fly in the face of his previous statements, where he claimed that there's no innovation left at the OS level. Some people have commented on my previous blog entry that Linux cannot innovate simply because of its size: with so many hardware platforms to support, it becomes impossible to integrate large projects. What you're left with is "technical features" to improve performance, which (in general) are nothing more than algorithm refinement and clever tricks1.

I also don't buy the "supporting lots of platforms means no chance for innovation" stance. Most of the Solaris 10 innovations (Zones, Greenline, Least Privileges) are completely hardware independent. Those projects which are hardware dependent develop a platform-neutral infrastructure, and provide modules only for those platforms which they suppot (FMA being a good example of this). Testing is hard. It's clear that Linux testing often amounts to little more than "it compiles". Large projects will always break things; even with our stringent testing requirements in Solaris, there are always plenty of "follow on" bugfixes to any project. If Linux (or Linus) is afraid of radical change, then there will be no chance for innnovation2.

As we look towards OpenSolaris, I'm intrigued by this comment by Linus:

I am a dictator, but it's the right kind of dictatorship. I can't really do anything that screws people over. The benevolence is built in. I can't be nasty. If my baser instincts took hold, they wouldn't trust me, and they wouldn't work with me anymore. I'm not so much a leader, I'm more of a shepherd. Now all the kernel developers will read that and say, "He's comparing us to sheep." It's more like herding cats.

Stephen has previously questioned the importance of a single leader for an open source project. In the course of development for OpenSolaris, we've looked at many open source models, ranging from the "benevolent dictatorship" to the community model (and perhaps briefly, the pornocracy). I, for one, question Linus' scalability. Too many projects like crash dumps, kernel debugging, and dynamic tracing have been rejected by Linus largely because Linux debugging is "as good as it needs to be." Crash dumps and kernel tracing are "vendor features," because real kernel developers should understand the code well enough to debug a problem from a stack trace and register dump. I love the Solaris debugging tools, but I know for a fact that there are huge gaps in our capabilities, some of which I hope to fill in upcoming releases. I would never think of Solaris debugging as perfect, or beyond reproach.

So it's time for Space Ghosts's "something.... to think about....":

Is it beneficial to have one man, or one corporation, have the final say in the development of an open source project?


1ZFS is an example of truly innovative performance improvements. Once you chuck the volume manager, all sorts of avenues open up that nobody's ever though about before.

2To be clear, I'm not an ardently anti-Linux. But I do believe that technology should speak for itself, irregardless of philosophical or "religious" issues. Obviously, I'm part of the Solaris kernel group, and I believe that Solaris 10 has significant innovations that no other OS has. But I also have faith in open source and the open development model. If you know of Linux features that are truly innovative (and part of the core operating system), please leave a comment and I'll gladly acknowledge them.

Comments:

Here is page 2 of an interview with Andy Tucker from last year. In question 8, he's asked about the new O(1) scheduler in Linux. The interviewer expects Solaris to be behind from the way it's phrased...

For people like me who are curious about kernel design and features but don't follow such things full time, it's frustrating trying to make kernel comparisons since the available information is so dispersed even when it is available. For example, how to make a descent response to posts like this one...

Posted by Chris Rijk on August 18, 2004 at 09:43 PM PDT #

Without a volume management layer, how do you logically groups devices and file systems (it may no longer be required, but thought I would ask)? I have not see much documentation on ZFS, and wondered how it will integrate with clustering products? How does it perform versus the commercial extent based solutions? Thanks, - Ryan

Posted by Ryan on August 18, 2004 at 11:02 PM PDT #

I guess we'll have to wait until ZFS is in Solaris Express before getting a decent amount of info. I'm very curious too.

Here's two papers presented at Self-Manage 03 though:
Automatic Performance Tuning in the Zettabyte File System
Existential QoS for Storage

Posted by Chris Rijk on August 18, 2004 at 11:25 PM PDT #

I've poked the ZFS folks a bit, so you're likely to see some ZFS material appear on Val's and Matt's blogs. Because the project is under development, there won't be much talk about performance numbers, but you may see lots of the other cool ZFS features.

.

Posted by Eric Schrock on August 19, 2004 at 04:32 AM PDT #

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