Linux as Wintel parasite

When Linus Torvalds choose to tie his new kernel to x86 he did so thinking, quite correctly as it turned out, that Microsoft's tendency to software bloat would provide an unending stream of cheep hardware for Linux developers and users. Great! except there's a side effect: Linux is ultimately dependent on Microsoft because its raison d'etre f is almost literally to live on Microsoft's leavings.

Last week Linus Torvalds told a seminar group at Portland's LinuxCon that Linux is getting a little bloated - a consequence of the big blob kernel architecture required by his decision to prefer the efficiency of directly using x86 interrupts to the much more hardware independent architecture Tannenbaum developed Minix to teach.

Sun blogger Joerg Moellenkamp said something particularly interesting about this:

Of course it's a nice sign of success, when people port more and more stuff to an operating environment and into the kernel. Perhaps this is the price of success. But at foremost it's a problem. Bloat isn't just about using more memory, it's about speed as well.

The Register delivers another interesting piece of information:

Citing an internal Intel study that tracked kernel releases, Bottomley said Linux performance had dropped about two per centage points at every release, for a cumulative drop of about 12 per cent over the last ten releases.


Should they rearchitect Linux for the future (the SunOS/Solaris moment for the Linux community). And as refactoring, optimization and rearchitecting are tedious and boring tasks: Who will do it? I think, the next few years will be interesting ones for Linux.

Another speaker at the same event, IBM's Bob Sutter, really needs to spend a few minutes looking at the history of his own company's VM product line, but other than that came up with another absolute shocker: Linux won't succeed on the desktop, he said, unless it creates a unique Linux desktop - or, in translation, that Linux can't lead by following.

Personally I think that the SuSe business desktop does lead Microsoft in some areas, but, of course, Mr. Sutter wants to sell cloud computing - and so does Eric Mandel, CEO of a company called Blackmesh, providing managed Linux hosting services. He does a very sad and funny presentation on doing what they did: implementing a couple of open source deployment tools (Puppet and Cobbler) to make it fairly easy to configure and deploy Linux server/application combinations. This can be very important in their business, but I thought the retrograde nature of both the solution and its markets unhappily captured the essence of Linux today.

Basically he's using an open source evolution of the old Jumpstart stuff to provision gear for customers who haven't figured out yet that letting other people control both their data and their most critical business infrastructure is a recipe for coming to a quick and unhappy end. Cool stuff, for five years ago - but completely obsoleted for customers by today's cost/risk trade-offs in doing it themselves and for techies by Solaris zones.

When you look at this kind of thing the contrast with BSD could hardly be greater. That group's focus, despite their many divergences and disagreements, is always on better, faster, smaller - and Apple's posture as the anti-IBM in personal computing carries over to its relationship with the BSD community: it's the world's biggest producer of Unix personal computers, but it doesn't try to direct BSD research and it hasn't tried to build services revenues on its own limitations.

Mr. Torvalds set out to build a "free Unix for the 386" and succeeded brilliantly in doing so - but both its internal architecture and its market success depend on the peculiar dynamics of the wintel market in which x86 forms the common ground between the huge majority using Microsoft software and a rebel group looking for something to call its own.

Thus looking at it as an outsider, I'd say that much of what made headlines at Linuxcon 2009 was in one way or the other about the chickens associated with the reinvention of old technologies for commercial gain starting homeward -with all of it demonstrating that if the Linux community didn't have Microsoft both to be against and to prop up their shared x86 foundations, it'd wouldn't exist.

And that's sad - but not irretrievable because at this point it's fundamentally a leadership failure, not a community failure, and therefore something that could be changed.