It's running late - but it's Linux

Windows isn't the only operating system whose delivery date is the subject of office bets and rewritten roadmaps. Linux 2.4 is likely to be a year behind schedule, at best
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

It's running a year late. But many distributors, developers and customers say they couldn't care less. A new version of Microsoft Windows? Not this time. It's the next version of the Linux kernel, 2.4, which is about a year behind its promised delivery date.

While the Windows world is all too accustomed to dealing with delays and vapourware, the Linux camp had until recently enjoyed a fairly regular nine- to 12-month update cycle. But at the current rate of development, Linux 2.4 may not reach final status until October.

The father and owner of the Linux trademark, Linus Torvalds, originally had committed to delivering the 2.4 kernel last October. Then, this past spring, he updated his projection to this summer. Sources in the Linux community now say they aren't expecting gold code until late fall.

Torvalds: Don't blame Transmeta

What's going on? Is Torvalds' day job at chip maker Transmeta leaving him little time to oversee the open-source process via which Linux is developed, as some have suggested?

According to Torvalds, nothing could be further from the truth.

"We didn't much have a timetable for 2.4 originally, except that everybody knew that the two and a half years between 2.0 and 2.2 was too painful," Torvalds said. "The original hope was to have a release schedule between nine and 12 months, which everybody thought was wonderful, but at the same time a lot of people wondered about how it would work with a minimum three-month testing cycle. "Right now it's been about 15 months since 2.2, and it's almost certainly going to be at least three more months," Torvalds continued. "Oh well. More than I would have liked, but not surprisingly so." Torvalds said a big part of the reason that 2.4 is running behind schedule is the same reason that Windows releases so often run late: Developers always want to add just one more feature.

"So instead of just going to a well-threaded FS (file system) and cleaned-up networking, we ended up having loopback mounts, 64-bit file systems, NFS v3, 64GB memory support, etc. -- a lot more than originally envisioned," Torvalds explained. "And it's damn hard to say 'no,' when it's all so obviously a good thing. At some point the 'no' is required just to get a new stable version out.

"In this regard, open source is definitely not very different from any software project -- they are notorious for always being over budget both fiscally and timewise. At least we don't have the fiscal budget issue," he continued.

Gold code still matters

But what open source does have that traditional, proprietary software projects don't are efficiency claims to defend. Open-source leaders often tout the open-source development process as being superior to that of Windows and other non-open-source code because the input and testing of so many result in cleaner, timelier code.

Torvalds noted that some developers and users have the option of going with nonvalidated, non-fully-debugged Linux "development" kernels, rather than waiting for the sanctioned, more stable product release kernels.

But for some, especially the keepers of the commercial Linux distributions, gold code is all that matters.

"It matters to folks like us who are in charge of packaging Linux," said Lonn Johnston, vice president of marketing with TurboLinux, one of the four primary Linux distributors. Nonetheless, he added, "it's still not unreasonable for us to live with the uncertainties of the (Linux) development schedule as a trade-off for leveraging the huge development pool without the cost."

Johnston acknowledged that TurboLinux has been forced to make a choice whether to wait for 2.4 or go with the interim 2.3 release (odd-numbered Linux releases tend to be more minor, less mainstream upgrades). He declined to say upon which the company had finalised its strategy, but said beta testers will soon find out.

"We mostly know what's supposed to be in the 2.4 kernel and can build around that. We spend a lot of time with major hardware partners in advance to include drivers that might not be in the kernel. We definitely will be able to issue a build within a couple of months" after the final kernel release is posted, Johnston said. "All we really need is to have our boxes (packaging) prebuilt, and we'll be ready to go."

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