BitKeeper: No holds barred open source infighting

BitKeeper: No holds barred open source infighting

Summary: There's a pitched battle raging between various factions of the open source community over whether proprietary software should be avoided at all costs


BitMover has undoubtedly benefited from its work with Linux kernel developers. The company's front page includes a prominent quote from Torvalds praising the application.

"BitKeeper has made me more than twice as productive, and its fundamentally distributed nature allows me to work the way I prefer to work — with many different groups working independently, yet allowing for easy merging between them," Torvalds states.

Mozilla contributor David McGuinness says that BitMover's recent decision to change its licence shows the risks of relying on proprietary software for open source development. "The problems with BitKeeper show the disadvantages of relying on proprietary software as you're stuck with the whims of the company that owns that particular code," says McGuinness. "If they want to revoke your licence or stop releasing updates then you can end up in trouble."

Some Linux kernel developers have disagreed with Torvald's decision to use Bitkeeper from the beginning. Harald Welte, who maintains the packet filter subsystem in the Linux kernel and runs, says he has always refused to use Bitkeeper to develop free software, but concedes that he is "somewhat more religious" than Linus, who is "very pragmatic".

Ovum's Barnett believes that Torvalds was right to use BitKeeper if it was the best software available for the job. Open source developers should stop being "childish" and accept that there is nothing wrong with using proprietary and open source software together, says Barnett.

"I think it’s a responsibility of any good software engineer to use the most appropriate tool or technology to achieve the outcome they're looking for," says Barnett. "It's simply not a flyer for the open source community to be overly precious over the use of proprietary software with open source software, because on this planet these things will have to coexist for a long time."

The debate — over whether Torvalds was right to use Bitkeeper in the first place, and whether he was right to criticise Tridgell for reverse-engineering the application — is likely to continue for some time. Free software purists and open source pragmatists are unlikely to find any common ground on this issue, and as it drags on, some are concerned that it may damage Torvalds' reputation.

Although Torvalds is revered by many within the open source community as the founder of Linux, he also has detractors among the free software movement. There is even a conspiracy theory on news site Slashdot that the anti-Torvalds rhetoric may have the underlying aim of persuading the open source community to switch to Hurd — an alternative to the Linux kernel that is being developed by the Free Software Foundation.

But, Torvalds doesn't appear too worried. In a posting to the Linux kernel mailing list last week he appears unconcerned about recent articles criticising him. "Thick skin is the name of the game. I'd not get any work done otherwise," he says.

Topics: Apps, Software Development

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Actually, what the article writes is not true.

    First of all, the free BitKeeper license does not state that you cannot use BitKeeper (BK) to help develop a competing product; it states that you cannot help develop a competing product *at all*.

    Second, Mr Tridgell has never actually used BitKeeper under its free license, so he is not bound by any of the terms set forth therein; the statement that "some open source developers haven't kept up their end of the bargain" is thus simply not true.

    Third, it's important to note that the "bargain" mentioned has actually gradually shifted over time; the "you are not allowed to work on a competing product" clause was not in the license when BitKeeper was first adopted for the kernel development process, for example. Rather, the original bargain was - roughly - "the kernel developers get to use BitKeeper for free; BitMover gets to say that its product is good enough for even a very high-profile, high-visibility product like the Linux kernel" (i.e., BitMover essentially got free advertising).

    It seems, however, that now that BitMover has actually managed to establish itself, Mr McVoy does not need the Linux kernel anymore, and is instead only worried about protecting his company's revenue. Now, that is not morally wrong in itself; but if you look at the circumstances of the withdrawal of the free BitKeeper license, it is pretty obvious that Mr. Tridgell was merely a convenient straw-man for Mr. McVoy.
  • The register has an article on just how much "reverse engineering" was involved:

    For the impatient, or just in case the above URL gets swallowed by the form parser, the short summary is:

    1) telnet to the bitkeeper host on port 5000
    2) type "help"
    3) read the resulting instructions

  • Lies and misdirection from ZDNet? Why stop now.
    1. The open source community was begged to use the tool.
    2. Only a small percentage used it, and only a small percentage agreed to not reverse engineer it.,
  • Thanks for your comments, Karl. I have updated the article to take into account your first comment.

    Regarding your 2nd comment, I did not state that Andrew Tridgell hasn't kept up his end of the bargain.

    Andrew Tridgell's point of view is stated clearly in the first paragraph of the 2nd page: "He claims he did not use BitKeeper when developing his tool and was therefore not subject to the conditions in its licence."
  • This article would be far more insightful if the author actually attempted to get the facts rather then the hype generated around this.

    It would be impossible for Andrew Tridgell to violate anyone's end of the bargain considering that he never possessed or even used bitkeeper. McVoy clearly knows this otherwise he would have made a legal case against Tirdgell rather then spitefully attacking everyone.

    The real loser here will be McVoy. In one fell swoop he did three things:
    1. Made commercial developers wary of using a product that whose management has a proven record of pulling contracts based on actions of those beyond their control.
    2. Lost the free advertising of association with the Linux Kernel and Linus.
    3. Finally and most importantly gave hundreds of highly skilled developers a vested interest in creating a free competing product.

    In all it ends up being a rather foolish decision on the part of McVoy.
  • Ingrid,

    In response to your post:
  • "... has split the open source community down the middle."

    You use this word "middle". I do not think it means what you think it means.
  • Many people only read the first page, or even the first paragraph or two of an article, and this article gives a very anti-Tridge slant from the beginning. Comments supporting what he did don't appear until page two.

    On the first page, the reporter says "Some free software advocates argue that proprietary applications should not be used, on principle, in the development of free and open source software." I believe this is not the general feeling of free/open source developers. Rather it is closer to "Some free software advocates argue that using proprietary applications leaves you vunerable to the company changing licenses or abandonding the development of that application, leaving devoplers in a lurch."

    Also on the first page, the reporter stats as fact that "The resulting clone would violate BitMover's intellectual property". I do not believe this is true at all. This clam may have been made by Larry McVoy, but it is just a claim, not a fact as the reporter has stated.

    On subsequent pages, the report gives a lot of quotes from one "Gary Barnett", from "Ovum", a person and company that I have never heard of. Going to, I find that their website returns the error "An error occurred on the server when processing the URL. Please contact". I guess it is possible that ovum has simply ensured that non-microsoft browsers can't access his website. Either way, this does not speak well of Gary's technical knowledge or independance.
  • I struggle to find an accurate description of the extent to which this article misrepresents the facts in this situation. I will therefore fall back to a phrase local to my part of the world -

    damn lies.

    Tridge did not try to clone bitkeeper. He tried to come up with a way to access data stored inside of bitkeeper without having to buy bitkeeper (with actual cash or by submitting to unreasonable license agreements). The data in question is the programming code for the Linux kernel, which is SUPPOSED to be open to the community. All Tridge was trying to do was to restore access to software code that was supposed to be open in the first place.

    Furthermore, even if Tridge were trying to clone bitkeeper, he was never bound by its license. Ergo, he was never part of any deal for which he would need to keep up his end. He could have taken packet traces of its operation and set off to reverse engineer a complete working clone, and there would be nothing unreasonable or unethical about it. Every single large software company in existence has done the exact same thing.
  • First, Linus' response to Tridge's actions was uncalled for and over the top. He accused Tridge of "tearing down" Larry's work, which it has been established was NOTHING of the kind. This was obviously an intemperate comment on Linus's part due to his irritation over having to change his method of operation.

    Second, Linus was criticized early on for requiring people to use BitMover, a proprietary product, simply for his own preference. I suspect much of his irritation comes from being hoist with his own petard.

    Third, Ovum's spokesman claims that there is nothing wrong with using proprietary software and OSS together. Only a few OSS ideologues believe there is. The problem is when proprietary software is used to make OSS dependent on it. The result in this case demonstrates why this is not a good idea. This has nothing to do with being "childish" and everything to do with being pragmatic - something Linus obviously was not in this case, despite his claims to the contrary.

    In any event, the speed with which Linus has come up with an alternative - git (even though Linus calls it "stupid but fast") - demonstrates that there always an alternative to using proprietary software.

    Finally, the OSS community needs to drop the whole thing and get on with it - while remembering the consequences of trying to tie proprietary software to OSS projects.

    As Bruce Perens has said, "Linus needs to chill out."