Is Linux graying?

The Linux kernel panel at the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit is usually a glimpse into Linux's future, but this week, it was also a reflection on how far Linux has come and how its leadership is growing older.

This annual panel was, as usual, chaired by Jonathan Corbet, editor in chief of the Linux Weekly News, the best hardcore Linux techie news site. During the course of the conversation, Corbet, looking around at the group of top Linux kernel developers, asked "Is the Linux kernel developer crew getting too old?"

Too old is, of course, a vague term. After all, Linus Torvalds, Linux's creator and leader, is just 40. Still, it is a clear that Linux's top kernel leaders aren't kids anymore.

Greg Kroah-Hartman, a Novell engineer and head of the Linux Driver Project, replied, "Turnover at the upper level is not happening." James Bottomley, another Novell engineer and the Linux Foundation's Technical Advisory Board Chair, agreed that: "There are more gray beards. The graying of the Linux kernel is going to continue until people start dying."

Kroah-Hartman added, "The rate of change still keeps going up." In part that's because, Bottomley noted that the "effective code wisdom is going up in Linux."

Andrew Morton, a Google software engineer and possibly the Linux kernel's top developer and manager after Torvalds, remarked, "Yes, we're getting older, and we're getting more tired. I don't see people jumping with enthusiasm to work on things the way that I used to." Bottomley, with tongue in cheek, replied, "I'm not ducking work, I'm giving other people a chance to work in the community." New developers are coming into Linux, but they're just not arriving as quickly as they once did.

Morton noted that that's in part because "The code is more complex. We have stuff getting in now that we would have run away from 10 years ago." In addition, Christoph Hellwig, a top Linux kernel developer, notes, "There is new blood trickling in, but it does seem that it's slowed down... [because] a lot of other cool projects are pulling in new talent."

That said, Kroah-Harman observed that many Linux kernel projects, such as his own Linux Driver Project, require little from developers to start, except that their device drivers have the right open-source licensing and that their software will compile. Specifically, there's "No barrier to entry into getting code in the staging-tree kernel."

In addition, the Linux Foundation and many of the top developers are going out of their way to help teach people how to work on Linux. Besides helping Linux advance it's also good news for the developers. As Corbet reminded the audience, "75% of Linux developers are getting paid for working on Linux." Corbet added that this is old news but it still shocks people.

That's because, Corbet said, it's "counter to Linux's upstart image." He added that the image of hackers in basement was formed "before IBM came along and put a necktie on Linux." Kroah-Hartman added, "If you can show competence in working on the kernel, you'll get hired." And, why not? "Wouldn't you do this if you got paid for your hobby?" asked Kroah-Hartman.

With a quarter of people submitting patches to the Linux kernel still doing it purely on their own time, it seems to me that new blood is still coming into Linux and we aren't going to need to worry about Linux developers becoming old fogies and stuck in their ways anytime soon.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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