Linux now a corporate beast

Dispelling the perception that Linux is cobbled together by a large cadre of lone hackers working in isolation, the individual in charge of managing the Linux kernel said that most Linux improvements now come from corporations.

'People's stereotype [of the typical Linux developer] is of a male computer geek working in his basement writing code in his spare time, purely for the love of his craft. Such people were a significant force up until about five years ago,' said Andrew Morton, whose role is maintaining the Linux kernel in its stable form.

Morton said contributions from such enthusiasts, 'is waning.' Instead, most code is generated by programmers punching the corporate time clock.

About 1,000 developers contribute changes to Linux on a regular basis, Morton said. Of those 1,000 developers, about 100 are paid to work on Linux by their employers. And those 100 have contributed about 37,000 of the last 38,000 changes made to the operating system.

Morton spoke last week at a meeting sponsored by the Forum on Technology and Innovation, a semi-regular meeting to address technology-related issues held by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), Sen. Ron Wyden (D- Ore.) and the Council on Competitiveness.

The meeting in Washington was on the policy implications of open-source software. One concern raised is whether Linux can offer a high level of security'and not entangle users in intellectual property issues'even though it is being developed almost exclusively by volunteers.

Earlier this year, the SCO Group Inc. of Lindon, Utah, requested that the Energy Department pay SCO licensing fees for its use of Linux, claiming that some of SCO's proprietary code was leaked into Linux (See GCN).

Since Linux is an open-source project, anybody is free to submit changes to the core development team. The team reviews the proposed changes and incorporates into the kernel those they find to their liking.

Even though anyone can submit changes, rarely does good code come from just anyone. Morton noted that it is rare that a significant change would be submitted from someone who is completely unknown to the core developers. And all submitted code is inspected by other members of the group, so it is unlikely some malicious function may be secretly embedded in Linux.

Far from being a project with a vast numbers of contributors, about half of those 37,000 changes are made by core developer team of about 20 individuals, Morton said.

Morton gave a detailed profile of the Linux development community to meeting attendees, many of whom were Senate staffers.

There are still a fair number of independent developers working on Linux in their spare time, even though the number of changes they submit is shrinking, Morton said.

A few also come from the Open Source Developer Labs, a nonprofit organization sponsored by companies such as Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., and Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto, Calif., specifically to develop Linux for large-scale production environments. Linux creator Linus Torvalds works for OSDL.

But Linux is increasingly developed by a small pool of corporate-sponsored developers. These are programmers hired by companies such as IBM Corp., Red Hat Inc., and SGI. In most cases, they split their time between in-house projects and time devoted to developing the Linux kernel.

Since these companies base some of their products and services on Linux, it is beneficial for them to have someone who is familiar with the operating system, Morton said. Also, if these companies modify Linux for their own products, it is in their best interest to see that those changes are incorporated back into the public kernel. If a company-developed feature is incorporated into Linux, that feature will be maintained by all of the Linux community, rather than just being the responsibility of the vendor.

Further characterizing Linux's volunteer development team, Morton said open source 'does tend to attract the very best developers,' individuals who are 'miles ahead of regular developers.' Most of the developers live in the United States, Europe and Australia. The Eastern European countries are increasingly involved, though participation from Asian and Latin American developers remains rare, he said.

Morton's observations were verified by other panelists.

'The person in the basement is a rare bird now,' said Morgan Reed, vice president of public affairs for the Association for Competitive Technology.

Reed said Linux generated $2.5 billion in related products and services in 2003.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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