Open source angst: Fear of forking

Splitting Linux! The unthinkable is happening and many are not happy
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Among some open source developers, forking equals the end of the code-development tree's common roots. For others, it's just an inevitable part of the growth process.

So when open source print-and-file server vendor Samba announced Friday plans to fork, or split, its codebase, reactions predictably ran the gamut. Some claimed it was the beginning of the end, not for only Samba but for other open source projects. Others claimed the move would improve the quality of Samba's products. Still others blamed it all on Microsoft.

Fears of the effects of a fork on the Linux source base have approached mythic proportions for some time now.

The open source community has tried to avoid the fate of Unix, which lost much of its strength when commercial vendors tried to differentiate their products by making proprietary modifications to the core codebase.

While individual Linux distributors are free to make custom editions to the standard Linux kernel, the kernel itself has not forked since all kernel work -- for better or for worse -- is overseen by Linux creator Linus Torvalds and his crew. Funneling all Linux code through a small set of gatekeepers has kept the Linux kernel from forking to date, but it also has contributed to bottlenecks and delays in delivering major new updates.

Samba allows users to share printers and files between Windows desktops and non-Windows servers, as well as between Windows-and non-Windows servers. The company made the decision to fork its codebase in order to appease two warring camps. One group, those behind the newly minted Samba TNG (for "the next generation"), wanted to provide support for new printer-and-networking functionality built into Windows 2000. The other was less interested in supporting some of the newer, less standards-compliant Microsoft add-ons, such as Microsoft's customised version of Kerberos.

Posters to the Linux enthusiast site Slashdot.org reacted swiftly to the news about Samba. "We need this like we need a hole in the head. Yet another camp of developers who can't/haven't learned to play well with others. 'I'm taking my marbles and going home, bwaaahhh,'" said poster arothstein. "Open source seems to be a great forum for encouraging childish behaviuor."

Not everyone was so critical, however. "People in the open source community are rightfully jittery about forks, but I think that this one could make sense," said poster Todd. "On the one hand, we get the main Samba project pursuing the goal of just having a great file sharing server platform," Todd continued. "On the other hand, we have a lighter-weight project with the specific goal of just achieving W2K [Windows 2000] full interoperability. I think this could be cool."

A number of open source advocates claimed the Samba fork would not actually amount to a fork, since the development team said it had no plans to commercialise the Samba TNG results but planned to incorporate the code back into Samba 3.

Samba did not immediately respond to requests for clarification.

Take me to the Linux Lounge

Is Linux forking? Yes and no. Steven Vaughan-Nichols gives the top-five reasons why Linux isn't in trouble. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news commment.

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