Torvalds Says Open Source Is the Way to Combat Software Complexity

At the Open Source Summit, Linus Torvalds the creator of Linux talked about the Linux development process, security challenges and why Linux will prosper even after he no longer has a guiding hand on the operating system.

Torvalds Hohndel

VANCOUVER, BC—Linus Torvalds is no longer worried about what happens to Linux if he gets hit by a bus, as he's confident there is a work flow process in place that guarantees the success of Linux. Torvalds, the creator of Linux, shared his views on the future of Linux in a conversation with Dirk Hohndel, Chief Open Source Officer at VMware at the Open Source Summit here Aug. 31

Torvalds exchanged lively banter with Hohndel on a wide variety of topics ranging from the recent Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities, the state of hardware performance, the Linux development process and the future of Linux without Torvalds' guiding hand.

"What I really worry about is the flow of patches and the workflow is more important than the code," Torvalds said. "If you have the right work flow, code will sort itself out and if a bug happens, we know how to deal with it."

In reference to the Meltdown and Spectre security vulnerabilities that first emerged in Jaunary, Torvalds said it feels 'less fair" when the Linux kernel has to fix someone else's issues. Torvalds also is not a fan of keeping vulnerabilities secret as it impacts his development work flow. With the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities there has been a need to keep information private, which means that kernel developers have had to keep some things private and have not been able to do everything in the open as is the usual process.

During the conversation, Hohndel also asked Torvalds if he knew when the next set of Meltdown and Spectre issues would be patched in Linux. 

"I don't know what the schedule is and if i knew I wouldn't be able to tell you," Torvalds quipped. 

That said, Torvalds noted that the Meltdown and Spectre bugs have become increasingly esoteric lately. He added that Intel as well as others in the IT industry are very aware of the issues and he's hopeful that going forward there will be fewer Meltdown and Spectre issues.

Quantum Computing

While there is lots of hype in the industry about the potential for Quantum computing, Torvalds is not a believer.

"I am a huge unbeliever in that thing (quanutm computing)," Torvalds said. "I will be long dead by the time people can prove me wrong."

Torvalds also doesn't see computer performance accelerating as quickly as it once did and he also doesn't believe that Moore's Law is still a reality. With Moore's Law the basic idea is that computing power doubles every two years, which Torvalds said really isn't happening anymore.

"Performance is not really doubling every two years and that's good," Torvalds said. "It means we'll maybe go back to the time when you cared more about performance on the software side and you had to be more careful and couldn't just rely on hardware getting better."

On Growing a Developer Community

Torvalds also commented on his role as the maintainer of Linux and what can or should be done to grow a development community.

"As the maintainer of a project your job is to make sure the project works as well as you can make it work and that you are responsive to the developers you have," Torvalds said. "It's the—'if you build they will come model'—you need to do so well that developers come and look for you."

Torvalds also admitted that he doesn't know every line of code in the Linux kernel at this point and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"Nobody knows the whole kernel anymore," Torvalds said. "Having looked at patches for many years, I know the big picture of all the areas in the kernel and I can look at a patch and know if it's right or wrong."

Torvalds now relies on a group of maintainers and sub-maintainers to handle the specific areas of the Linux kernel. As such he noted that if he were to be hit by a bus, Linux would continue, because it is the maintainers that are doing all the heavy lifting of Linux development today.

The need for multiple developers to maintain different parts of the kernel is a function of the kernel's size. The size of the kernel also leads to complexity, which is where Torvalds said that the open-source model is core to Linux's success. 

"When you have complexity you can't manage it in a closed environment,  you need to have the people that actually find problems and give them the ability to get involved and help you to fix them," Torvalds said. "Its a complicated world and the only way to deal with complexity is the open exchange of ideas."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.