Linus on Solaris

Most people have probably read the recent Linus interview, in which he has a number of things to say about Linux, Solaris, and software development. Like any interview, it contains some interesting assertions, some obvious filler, and some real head-scratchers. Many in the Solaris community have expressed dismay or anger over some of his remarks, but rather than add to that, I'd like to examine some internal contradictions in Linus's statements and try better to understand why he's made them. As we ready OpenSolaris for public consumption and contribution, it's important to observe how similar development systems work and take steps to avoid difficulties encountered by other projects. Linus's comments indicate that, indeed, the structures and processes in place to serve Linux development are imperfect. We will be well-served to learn from this.

One of the head-scratchers is his assertion that he's not interested in Solaris because he feels it offers nothing of value that isn't already in Linux. This conclusion might be less baffling, though no less disappointing, if he'd actually examined the code, the feature set, and then made up his mind. But he admitted openly that he probably won't even look at the code, and instead will rely on others to tell him if it contains ideas worth considering. I really have to wonder about this approach, especially given his later comments concerning the reason for adding a feature to a system. We certainly agree with him that system design is about solving problems, not just doing something new and different for its own sake. Features don't get added to Solaris if they don't serve some useful purpose, fill some hole for developers, users, or both. It's difficult to believe that Solaris developers and users have problems to solve that differ greatly from those of Linux developers and users. In fact, as a long-time Linux developer myself, I can say with some confidence that the challenges are the same. So why does Solaris offer tools like kmdb, dtrace, and crash dumps, while Linus either refuses to integrate similar functionality or claims he hasn't heard of the problems these tools help to solve?

One possible reason is that distributions sometimes provide parts of these feature sets, so that users never even realize their absence in Linux proper. Linus talked about the distributors serving a valuable function, buffering developers from customers. But perhaps in that process, valuable information is not making its way back to Linus. The Linux development community would be well-served by talking to ordinary systems administrators now and then. Another possibility is that users and administrators can't, won't, or don't effectively communicate the problems they are trying to solve. But why don't Solaris users seem to have this problem? Do Linux distributors simply not listen? Or perhaps these decisions are really based on ideology, as so many Linux detractors claim. Regardless, a sober assessment of users' real-world needs might well reveal that Linus and others still have much work to do (as do Solaris developers), and that some of the changes they ought well to consider have already been made in other systems. The solutions Linus might choose may well be quite different from those chosen by Sun, but disregarding or remaining ignorant of the challenges is an opportunity lost to innovate and improve. What kind of engineer willingly passes up that opportunity?

If NIH is in fact "a disease" - a point which ought to solicit universal agreement, I'm left to wonder why Linus would pass up an opportunity to examine the works of other engineers. If he does in fact rely on others to tell him about valuable features in similar systems, something in that process is broken. If he wants to make sure Linux can solve all the problems Solaris can, I'd suggest he look closely at what's been done here. The code isn't even needed for this - a quick glance at public white papers would be sufficient to understand many of the problems Solaris engineers have been working to solve. If he doesn't believe these problems exist, a reality check is in order.

There are lessons here, of course. One of them is that systems developers must not lose touch with the problems they're supposed to solve. It pays to listen. Another lesson is that a process which prevents useful features from being implemented is broken, and someone has to be willing to recognize and correct such a process. If distributions take on the work of making a usable system and interacting with customers, engineers risk losing sight of appropriate goals. This is avoidable, but that it appears to be occurring implies that the relationship among Linux (the codebase), its distributors, and its developers (many of whom work for distributors) is defective in some way.

I'm cheered by the prospects for OpenSolaris to avoid these pitfalls, especially if we recognize them and take proper action. I hope we as a community will remain cognizant that they have hindered other large projects before ours, even those with leaders of Linus's stature.

Comments:

Keith, Perhaps many of us would be more interested in OpenSolaris if we could actually use the code in Linux (and vice versa). I can't fault Linus for not being willing to look at code in OpenSolaris that he can't use (not to mention the legal concerns around taint). ~spot

Posted by spot on January 25, 2005 at 03:00 PM UTC #

He doesn't need to look at code; just being aware of some of the stuff that's out there (or even trying it out?) is enough.

Posted by John Levon on January 28, 2005 at 05:11 AM UTC #

I am just really amazed at how Sun has failed to get across the superiority of Solaris over Linux. Solaris is like a Porsche 911 and Linux is like a Miata. Yet Sun has just not been able to get that point across. Until that happens Solaris/Sun will be viewed as having little value, which is why the stock is at 3.67.

Posted by sjjma on April 16, 2005 at 09:42 AM UTC #

I think you are a bit harsh on Linus actually. Personally I think he likes ignoring what other people do, but Linux consists of far more developers, and Linus is only really interested in some sets of problems. He also believes that OS desiggners listen to what Oracle say they want too much. But I am sure there will be lots of cross fertilisation when Open Solaris is released.

Posted by Justin on May 26, 2005 at 05:54 AM UTC #

sjjma,

Great analogy!
Cited in and be part of Analogies Archive.

Posted by Carl Park on October 03, 2007 at 07:17 PM UTC #

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