Who writes and contributes to Linux code?

A Linux Foundation study finds the culture is evolving

As the Linux operating system evolves, the people and organizations contributing to its code base is also changing. A new study has found that participants are moving farther away from the stereotypical open source hobbyist working late nights in his basement writing new code.

The study by the nonprofit Linux Foundation found that the faces behind Linux are a widely divergent group of individuals, many of whom work for Linux and open source companies or are independent contributors to the cause.

The study, Linux Kernel Development: How Fast it is Going, Who is Doing It, What They are Doing, and Who is Sponsoring It?, found that a core group of about 30 developers has contributed about 30 per cent of the changes made to the Linux kernel over the past three years, while the top 10 developers alone have contributed almost 15 per cent of the changes.

A major part of kernel development work continues to be from people who are employed by companies that participate in the Linux project, according to the study. To compile statistics and rankings, the study looked at the contributors to the Linux project since 2005 and tracked their e-mail addresses and names to determine how many contributions they made to the project in the past year.

The top individual contributor to the kernel project, Al Viro, works at US-based Red Hat and made 1,571 code changes, or about 1.9 per cent of the total project changes. Placing second was his Red Hat colleague David S. Miller, who contributed 1,520 changes. Third was Adrian Bunk, of Movial, a mobile device software company in Helsinki, Finland, who contributed 1,441 changes.

The companies with the highest numbers of contributions from employees included Linux vendor Red Hat with 9,351, or 11.2 per cent of the total; SUSE Linux parent company Novell with 7,385, or 8.9 per cent; and IBM with 6,952, or 8.3 per cent, according to the study.

"When you look at the actual numbers, you see that 75 per cent to 90 per cent are paid" by their employers to do the work, said Amanda McPherson, director of marketing for the Linux Foundation. "They're not the guys in the basements, the hobbyists."

Some 11,594 kernel changes, or 13.9 per cent of the total, came from individual contributors who were not employed by IT companies, while 10,803 contributions, or 12.9 per cent, came from donors who could not be identified.

The second annual study was compiled, McPherson said, "because Linux is out there everywhere. People are touching it and they don't even know they are touching it, when they're using Google on their mobile phone. Most don't know it's there. It's important to us to show people that it works."

What the study confirmed, she said, is that there's a "huge ecosystem of companies that have people working on it."

"It's not just IBM and other big companies, but smaller companies that have Linux experts who are contributing back" to the project. "It's also good for us as a community to see how many people are contributing."

One surprise found in the data, she said, is that the number of developers contributing to the project doubled in the past three years.

There are several explanations for this, McPherson said. One is that more vendors want to put code for their products into the Linux kernel, so they are putting people on the job to make such contributions for their products. Also possible, she said, are steady increases in server market share for Linux and the increasing embedded use of the operating system, leading to greater contributions from related companies.

"That's really great for the health of the project," she said.

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