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(?) The Answer Guy (!)

By James T. Dennis, tag@lists.linuxgazette.net
Starshine Technical Services, http://www.starshine.org/

(?) An Anthropologist Asks About the Linux "Process"

From donald.braman on Mon, 23 Nov 1998

(?) I don't know if you cover non-technical questions, but here goes...

(!) Then you haven't read enough of the back issues.
I babble about all sorts of things and have even been know to respond to questions that have NOTHING to do with Linux. (Usually those responses are less than cordial --- but hey, you can have answers that are good, courteous, quick, and/or free (pick any three)).

(?) I'm interested in finding a summary of the process by which LINUX is maintained and updated.

Where is Linus in the LINUX community and loose organizational structure, and how does he decide what to do with all of the stuff he get? (I always see "Linus just released kernel 2.xxx" messages.)

(!) Linus "owns" the kernel. He primarily focuses his work on the developmental kernels (2.1.x right now --- will probably be 2.3.x within a month or so). The stable kernels (2.0 currently) are largely maintained by Alan Cox, though they are still sent to Linus for final approval and official release.
When Linus decides that the work is complete on the 2.1 series he'll declare it to be "2.2" --- then he'll start a 2.3 series (and there will be a quick flood of patches posted to that, since we've been in "feature freeze" for a couple of months and there are people who have been privately working on some new features in anticipation of the next development cycle.
I've heard that Linus plans to turn the maintenance of 2.2 immediately over to Alan and Stephen Tweedie. That will allow him to focus on the next version exclusively.
Although there has been some effort to minimize the number of bugs that will be in the 2.2 release --- it is almost certain that we'll have at least a few 2.2.x releases within the first few months. Many of these will account for bugs that only affect a small subset of the available hardware configurations (one user in 10,000 or less). For the 1.0 series we had about nine releases to the stable kernel set. For the 1.2 series we had about 13 or so. In 2.0 we have had 36 (the versioning skipped from 1.3 to 2.x due major structural changes in the kernel). Don't just graph that to project an estimate --- unless you also scale the graph over the time frames involved. Even than you'd find some anomalies --- the differences between 1.2 and 2.0 are as great as the versions numbers suggest.
As for how Linus decides what to incorporate and what to ignore or kick back ... that's one of the mysteries to which mere acolytes and initiates such as myself are not privvy.
Linus is swamped. He gets direct e-mailed patches from countless programmers and programming students around the world. (The Savvy ones actually read the FAQ at http://www.tux.org/lkml before trying to contribute to the Linux kernel).
See below for more on that.

(?) What if, no offense intended, Linus died tomorrow?

(!) This class of events has been discussed (usually in less morbid terms --- using the term "retiring" rather than references to "expiriing").
This would be a great loss to the Linux community.
However, the sources are out there under a license that ensure that they will remain freely available and "alive" (able and likely to be upgraded, ported to new platforms, and generally improved upon).
The great advantage that Linux has had over FreeBSD, (and it's brethren) has been Linus. He focuses on the kernel, and on code and quality, and almost completely eschews politics. He let's others deal with "user space" issues (libraries, compilers, and all of the suites of utilities and applications that go into any Linux distribution).
We've benefitted immensely from our "benign dictactor" model --- we accepted Linus as "the Linux kernel God" (we hold none before him and we're monotheistic in this regard).
When Linus eventually retires, moves on to other conquests, or whatever (may it happen long after my own demise), then the hope among the Linux kernel developers is that we'll be able to adopt, appoint, agree upon a successor --- a new benign dictator. That might be someone like Alan Cox, or Stephen Tweedie, or it might be just about anyone who's name appears regularly enough on the Linux-kernel mailing list (I don't know enough to say).
Linus as jokingly referred to his daughters and Linus 2.0 and 3.0 (we could make it a heriditary oligarchy, if they take the interest and aquire the proficiency). Check back in with us in about 15 years on that.

(?) Further, I'd like to find a place where (tentative) plans for future releases are discussed, and even a vague timeline is given. In short, is there a project management site/organization that contains a summary of (debates about) where LINUX is going and how it's going to get there?

(!) Here's the real fun question. Anyone who's seriously involved in Linux kernel development is subscribed to the Linux-kernel mailing list hosted by Rutgers University (Read the FAQ listed above for exact instructions on how to subscribe, where to find archives and how to search through them).
linux-kernel is a very busy mailing list. I've received well over nine thousand pieces of e-mail on that list in just the last few months. It gets close to a hundred items per day. (The only Internet mailing list that I've been on that seemed busier was the old cypherpunks list when it was hosted at Toad Hall --- and maybe the Firewalls list that was started by Brent Chapman at Great Circle Associates).
With that volume of traffic, you can be sure that many busy developers (such as Linus) don't get to read everything. (Linus has a family life and a full-time job --- mostly in addition to his kernel work; although Transmeta apparently does provide him with some work time to devote to Linux --- as per his contract with them).
Of course, the best way for you to learn about the social dynamics of the Linux kernel developers is to immerse yourself in it for awhile. Start with some research (read the FAQ, and a month or two's worth of the archives), then subscribe to the list and lurk (read and don't post) for a month.
If you're doing research on us --- please let us know where we can read any papers that you put together. We have one participant (esr, or Eric S. Raymond who has referred to himself as the Linux community's "anthropologist" but it might be interested to have an alternative set of opinions from a more "objective" source).
(Eric has been a hacker since before Linux was developed. He helped to compile and publish the "New Hacker's Dictionary" --- which is also a pretty good source of background if you want to understand the Linux community as a subculture. Take it with a grain of salt, of course --- but read it anyway).

(?) Donald Braman
Yale Anthropology

Copyright © 1999, James T. Dennis
Published in The Linux Gazette Issue 36 January 1999

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