Big Business backs Linux

Open-source software development has become corporate software development. Deal with it.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Believe it or not, there is still this illusion that Linux and open-source software is written by counter-culture, C++ programming cultists living in their parent basements or huddled together in Cambridge, Mass. group-houses. Please. That is so twenty-years ago. Today, as the Linux Foundation reveals in its latest analysis, Linux Kernel Development: How Fast it is Going, Who is Doing It, What They are Doing, and Who is Sponsoring It (PDF Link), it's big business that's making Linux in 2010.

Yes, there is a political agenda that can go with Linux and free and open-source software. It tends to be a mix of libertarian and liberal ideas and its main focus is on free "as in speech, not as in beer" software. For more on that side of free/libre/open source software (FLOSS), I recommend you visit the Free Software Foundation (FSF). Still, while the FSF's Gnu General Public License (GPL) was, and is, vital to Linux, businesses are what drive the day-in, day-out development of Linux, and most other open-source programs.

To be specific, the Linux Foundation found that "over 70% of all [Linux] kernel development is demonstrably done by developers who are being paid for their work." There is still a lot of work being done by "amateurs," about 18.9%; although I'm not sure how "amateur" a programmer can be whose work is accepted into the Linux kernel.

Still, while there are thousands of Linux developers, most of the work falls on the shoulder of a few programmers. To quote from the report, "Despite the large number of individual developers, there is still a relatively small number who are doing the majority of the work. In any given development cycle, approximately 1/3 of the developers involved contribute exactly one patch. Over the past 5.5 years, the top 10 individual developers have contributed 10% of the total changes and the top 30 developers have contributed almost 22% of the total. "

Most of these developers work for technology companies. The top-ten breakdown looks like this:

Company/Organization  Percentage of committed changes

  • Red Hat                          12.4% Novell                              7.0% IBM                                  6.9% Unknown                         6.4% Intel                                 5.8% Consultants                     2.6% Oracle                              2.3% Renesas Technology        1.4% The Linux Foundation      1.3% Academics                       1.3%

Of that group, the only one you probably don't know on sight is Renesas Technology. It's one of the world's largest manufacturers of micro-controllers and semiconductors. The others need no introduction. I will say, however, with Novell now going into the hands of Microsoft, cough, Attachmate, I do worry about how much Novell will be contributing in the future.

I was also interested to see that Linux's developers do indeed appear to be graying. Linus Torvalds, for example, does not appear in the top-30 list of individual developers. As the report explains, "Linus remains an active and crucial part of the development process; his contribution cannot be measured just by the number of changes made. We are seeing a similar pattern with a number of other senior kernel developers; as they put more time into the review and management of patches from others, they write fewer patches of their own."

So, here we have an aging group of developers working, for the most part, for major companies on a gigantic software project. Funny,  that doesn't sound that radical to me. Linux, and its development, has become just as mainstream as any proprietary software project.

That's not to say that they're the same. Thanks for the freedom of open-source software, bugs are found and fixed far faster than they are in proprietary programs and new ideas can be rapidly introduced and tried out.

No, what's important about how Linux and open-source software is created isn't the side issues of politics or how its developers are perceived; it's that its fundamental methodology produces better software. That's why businesses invest in Linux's development. Linux works. If it didn't, big business wouldn't bother with it.

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