Who's Linus Torvalds?

Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, has become something of an icon for developers. For those of you who aren't familiar with Linux, imagine a powerful version of Unix that comes at the ideal price point -- free.

In this interview, the man behind Linux reveals the issues facing the future development of operating systems and economic models that drive the industrySo, what's Linux?

Linux is considered something of a Unix clone that is spreading from the world of hobbyists and Unix experts to the enterprise. However, don't mistake it with Solaris. You'd be hard put to run it exclusively in a large operation, but you can definitely run a small business or a single function server with Linux. And more and more, businesses are doing just that. With modern features, a large range of programming and development tools (also free), Linux will run happily on obsolete hardware, has enough power to handle jobs like Web and print servers and even comes with source code.

One major computer equipment maker uses a total of 36 Linux systems worldwide as print servers. The Linux print servers handle about 1800 printers and everything is run by just two people.

According to the system administrator, who asked not to be identified, the reason for using Linux was cost. "The big issue was we wanted to make print servers available under the funding of just any old manager," the sysadmin says. "Because we have no software cost at all and the hardware is really cheap we can put together a very capable print server for about $1500. When I say very capable I mean it can spool 200 to 300 printers easily."

The turning point for this user came the day a power outage hit the data centre. At the time there were two Linux systems sharing print server duty with three Sun OS machines. "After the power outage the Linux servers rebooted right back up but two out of three Sun machines had problems with disks that didn't come back."

Q: In some ways, you are the poster child for the open source code movement. And even though you don't have a big company backing you, the people who back Linux do a nice job of supporting the product. Can that model actually work for other companies or is Linux a unique case?

Torvalds: I don't see why it shouldn't work. What you already have at many companies is completely separate marketing and development teams. There are some interfaces between them, and marketing is usually the pointy hair people that tell development what to do. The fact is that inside a company you have a development group that likes to be on top of things and do the right thing. Then you have a marketing group with completely different priorities and within a company you have this constant clash of wills.

Q: How does this conflict play out in an open source environment?

Torvalds: In an open source environment you decouple these groups. You don't have to decouple it a lot. For example, Netscape decoupled Mozilla so they are a completely different arm, but they are still in the same building.

The other alternative is the Linux kernel. I'm so completely uninterested in all the marketing things. I don't want to work for a Linux company. But it's just a question of degrees. I don't want to feel that the economic success of the company I work for depends on the technical decisions I make. I want to make the technical decisions based solely on the technical issues. I want my priorities to be extremely obvious and always straight. But that does not preclude working with a marketing department.

For example, there's Red Hat Linux. So you now have a separate group that does the marketing, distribution, and packaging. It's similar to the traditional model, it's just more clearly decoupled. This makes it more natural to have one development group, but perhaps 15 different marketing organisations. Or you could go the other way, and have one marketing group that gathers from different engineering groups. It also makes more sense from an economic sense. Why should you have one company that tries to do everything? We've tried that.

And if you look at things on the hardware side, that's what happens. You have marketing companies like Gateway 2000 that buy from all the development companies. Let's not think that what we're talking about in software is all that radical or that we're left-wing or right-wing religious nuts.

Q: Have we lost our way in terms of operating system development? It seems that the operating systems are just getting bigger and bigger.

Torvalds: One thing that makes operating systems special is that it is extremely hard to change them. Changing an operating system means changing everything from under you. So changing the operating system is like trying to go in and transplant a person's brain.

It's much easier to switch a word processor. It may be painful, but it's not that painful. You may have withdrawal symptoms. Once you have the operating system niche, you're really home free. That's what people are worried about. It implies that you can leverage your other products on top of that. It also means that you are free to do whatever you want to. And few people are going to switch because most people are going to just tag along and take whatever you give them. You have no incentive at all to do a good job.

Q: Are you talking to bigger companies like IBM, Digital, and Sun to add support for Linux?

Torvalds: It depends. Digital tends to have a fairly separate hardware and software side, so Digital has been open toward Linux. They don't see themselves losing any sales because they will sell more hardware to make up for any potential losses they may have on the software side. Sun is very tightly integrating their hardware with their software.

Q: What do you make of Java?

Torvalds: I dislike the hype. I think it's way overhyped. I'd like it to have a more proven track record and I think the licensing restrictions are hurting it. I understand why Sun wanted to have them in place, but I also think that it means Java does not get as well maintained. Right now, if somebody notices a bug in Java, it's pretty hard to fix unless you're inside Sun.

But the major issue is that it's a good idea whose time has come. It's an idea that's been done before, but you didn't have the same kind of hardware power you have today. Also, you didn't have the same kind of software interfaces, so right now is it possible to make Java efficient? Potentially, it's a great technology, but it's unproven and there's been way too much hype.

Q: Who can you point me to as a case study for the deployment of Linux in corporate settings?

Torvalds: It usually doesn't happen that way. The corporate IT managers notice someday what is that box in the corner and they tell them that it's the departmental Web server that's been running for a year and a half, and by the way it's running Linux. One normal reaction is to upgrade it immediately to [Windows] NT, but what happens is that they go back to Linux because the performance dropped. So Linux moves on the unofficially approved list. But not many people want to come out of the closet to officially say they are using Linux. NASA is very open about supporting Linux, as are universities. I know that Linux is used in places like Boeing, but I can't point people to a Web page that says so.

Getting Linux

If you don't have a friend with Linux, you can download it from a number of sites on the Net. One of the most popular FTP sites is http://sunsite.unc.edu/pub/Linux/ (also http://sunsite.unc.edu/pub/Linux/docs/ for the documentation). There are a number of other sites that maintain the current distribution of Linux as well.

Linux picking up steam

Computer Associates last month said it will join companies such as Software AG, InterBase, Informix and Oracle in running its database on the Linux operating system. CA confirmed that a Linux version of its Ingres II database will arrive in September.

Informix Software is set to detail a Linux support plan for its database, and in a sudden turnabout Oracle will indeed port its Oracle8 database to the Linux operating system. The company earlier this month said it had no such plans but has had a change of heart based on a recent groundswell of support for the open-source operating system. Meanwhile, Linux will be getting richer in functionality with upcoming features to include support for Intel's 64-bit Merced processor, a panel of Linux experts recently said.

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