LinuxCon's surprise keynote speaker ​Linus Torvalds muses about open-source software

In a broad-ranging question and answer session, Linus Torvalds, Linux's founder, shared his thoughts on the current state of open source and Linux.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

SEATTLE -- LinuxCon attendees got an early Christmas present when the Wednesday morning "surprise" keynote speaker turned out to be Linux's founder, Linus Torvalds.

Jim Zemlin and Linus Torvalds shooting the breeze at LinuxCon in Seattle.
-- sjvn
Jim Zemlin, the Linux Foundation's executive director, opened the question and answer session by quoting from a recent article about Linus, "Torvalds may be the most influential individual economic force of the past 20 years. ... Torvalds has, in effect, been as instrumental in retooling the production lines of the modern economy as Henry Ford was 100 years earlier."

Torvalds replied, "I don't think I'm all that powerful, but I'm glad to get all the credit for open source." For someone who's arguably been more influential on technology than Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Larry Ellison, Torvalds remains amusingly modest. That's probably one reason Torvalds, who doesn't suffer fools gladly, remains the unchallenged leader of Linux.

It also helps that he doesn't take himself seriously, except when it comes to code quality. Zemlin reminded him that he was also described in the same article as being "5-feet, ho-hum tall with a paunch, ... his body type and gait resemble that of Tux, the penguin mascot of Linux." Torvald's reply was to grin and say "What is this? A roast?" He added that 5'8" was a perfectly good height.

More seriously, Zemlin asked Torvalds what he thought about the current excitement over containers. Indeed, at times LinuxCon has felt like DockerCon. Torvalds replied, "I'm glad that the kernel is far removed from containers and other buzzwords. We only care about just the kernel. I'm so focused on the kernel I really don't care. I don't get involved in the politics above the kernel and I'm really happy that I don't know."

Moving on, Zemlin asked Torvalds what he thought about the demand from the Internet of Things (IoT) for an even smaller Linux kernel. "Everyone has always wished for a smaller kernel," Torvalds said. "But, with all the modules it's still tens of MegaBytes in size. It's shocking that it used to fit into a MB. We'd like it to be mean lean, mean IT machine again."

But, "Torvalds continued, "It's hard to get rid of unnecessary fat. Things tend to grow. Realistically I don't think we can get down to the sizes we were 20 years ago."

As for security, the next topic, Torvalds said, "I'm at odds with the security community. They tend to see technology as black and white. If it's not security they don't care at all about it." The truth is "security is bugs. Most of the security issues we've had in the kernel hasn't been that big. Most of them have been really stupid and then some clever person takes advantage of it."

The bottom line is, "We'll never get rid of bugs so security will never be perfect. We do try to be really careful about code. With user space we have to be very strict." But, "Bugs happen and all you can do is mitigate them. Open source is doing fairly well, but anyone who thinks we'll ever be completely secure is foolish."

Zemlin concluded by asking Torvalds where he saw Linux ten years from now. Torvalds replied that he doesn't look at it this way. "I'm plodding, pedestrian, I look ahead six months, I don't plan 10 years ahead. I think that's insane."

Sure, "companies plan ten years, and their plans use open source. Their whole process is very forward thinking. But I'm not worried about 10 years ahead. I look to the next release and the release beyond that."

For Torvalds, who works at home where "the FedEx guy is no longer surprised to find me in my bathrobe at 2 in the afternoon," looking ahead a few months works just fine. And so do all the businesses -- both technology-based Amazon, Google, Facebook and more mainstream, WalMart, the New York Stock Exchange, and McDonalds -- that live on Linux every day.

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