Glory among the geeks

For serious programmers, contributing code to Linux pays off not in dollars but in respect.


Peter Wayner
January 29, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

In December, I stopped by to see some old friends and colleagues at Group Logic, a software firm in Virginia. After a few minutes of chatter, Derick Naef, the director of project development, asked, with a bit of excitement, "Hey, did you hear? Rob Newberry got his code in the Linux kernel."

He said this with an amount of pride roughly equivalent to announcing that someone hit a hole in one, had a child accepted to Harvard, ran a marathon in under three hours or got the city council to stop development of a chemical plant in your backyard. His voice made clear that this was a major event that was worth bragging about -- perhaps not in the same league as hitting 70 home runs, but equivalent to getting drafted by a major sports team.

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Normally, no one would much care about such a technical detail. Most people confuse the term "kernel" with the honorific given to people like Colonel Sanders, and they don't care about their software as long as it runs and doesn't crash on New Year's Day 2000.

But Linux is different these days -- it's caught in a hype storm that makes everyone want to understand what makes it tick. It's a free operating system developed by a loosely knit coalition of developers who've donated their time and effort to building it. The source code is given away for free in regular periodic updates (this week saw the release of the long-awaited Linux 2.2 kernel); programmers grab a copy for themselves, use it and occasionally donate their own fixes to the process.

Now Linux has reached a critical mass where it provides many of the same services as commercial operating systems like Windows, but at no charge -- and many people are wondering whether it could dethrone Microsoft. If it does, it will be because of lots of people like Rob Newberry who are making small contributions to the big effort.

The kernel is the core of the operating system responsible for making sure that different parts of the computer communicate with each other. It's the computer's combination basement, boiler room, kitchen and loading dock -- and only the bravest programmers actually enjoy the heat of working there.

The roster of contributors to the Linux kernel has become a kind of pantheon of respect -- not unlike the academies in various intellectual fields. Linux software is well-built, in part, because a team of dedicated programmers tests new code and guards the kernel with a fair degree of pride. New software is only introduced when it makes a good contribution.

The work Newberry did won't affect many people, and most won't even understand what it does. "I contributed some changes to the Appletalk stack that's in the Linux kernel. That makes it easier for a Linux machine to offer dial-in services for Macintosh users. If they wanted to use Appletalk over PPP, the support wasn't really there," he says.

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What he's really saying is that he's a tinkerer and he wanted his Macintosh to speak with Linux machines. He was able to make this happen because Linux comes with all of the source code available. Once he did so, he donated his code for all of the Mac-Linux users who might follow him.

That's not really a big deal in the whole scheme of things: Mac users are a small minority, and there still aren't many Linux users compared with the Windows hordes. But when these little efforts are repeated time and time again, they add up. There are now thousands of people who've done similar things. And this is why some observers are certain that Linux will eventually be a major competitor for anything from Microsoft, Apple, Sun, Compaq or IBM.

The odd thing is that Group Logic won't be making any money off of Newberry's work. Naef says he is "technically" Newberry's boss and thus responsible in some way for making sure that their company keeps making enough money to stay in business. Yet here he was, bragging about the free work his employee was giving away. That says a lot about how the Linux movement is able to thrive.

Naef is pretty straightforward: "It obviously makes him kind of happy. People get a lot of credibility in the hardcore programming community if they've got some cool project that they've done. It's like a badge of honor," he says. Newberry worked on the project in his own time, but the work overlapped with some of the projects he does for Group Logic.

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Newberry is deferential because he doesn't want anyone to think that he's claiming he did anything special. "On one hand, I'm excited to be talking to you," he said. "But I do think that there are a lot of other people who've made more significant contributions to the kernel. And I wouldn't have been able to do it if it wasn't for the other people who've done this before."

He speaks about the project in much the same way that Kevin Costner taught Tim Robbins to speak about joining the Major Leagues in the movie "Bull Durham." He says, "I write software because I just love doing it. I get a certain amount of satisfaction from the work, but I get a certain amount of satisfaction out of helping people. Improving Linux, and especially its integration with Macs, has been a pet project of mine for some time."

But there's also a certain amount of self-interest lurking in the generosity. Information is a strange commodity that's traded much more frequently than it is bought. In many cases, the most valuable information can't be paid for with money -- it can only be accumulated by trading equally important information. Newberry's gift to the Linux movement means that he now has better access to other experts' time and energy.

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Naef is quite sure this helps Group Logic, and says, "He's plugged into that community and mailing lists a lot more. There's code out there that can be incorporated into computer projects. It can cut your development costs if you can find stuff you can use." In other words, Newberry's connections may point him toward other free software that might save Group Logic days, months or even years of development time.

The two also admit that work for Group Logic must take priority: If Newberry wished to donate free code to the Linux kernel and that could somehow hurt the company's revenues, fights could follow. "We've pretty much had to define this up front. We have to make sure he doesn't conflict with the best interest of the company," Naef says.

To illustrate the point, he suggests: "If he worked for Cisco and put some border routing protocol in the Linux kernel [which would make it easy to replace a Cisco router with a cheaper Linux-based box], then they would probably be really upset about it."

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Alan Cox is the lead programmer responsible for Linux networking enhancements; he ushered Newberry's code into the kernel. Explaining what drives people to contribute to the project, he says, "I've often had code for cited reasons like 'It was bugging me that ...' 'This fixes a problem I'm having,' 'I wanted to use my XXX.' We also get code from research projects."

More companies are catching on to the game and asking their programmers to make sure that their products work well with Linux systems. Many device manufacturers now contribute drivers written by their internal programmers. Cox says that these "donations" are becoming more common as companies want to make sure they can sell devices to Linux users.

But none of this hidden self-interest changes the fact that the Linux project now has a buzz that attracts talented people. Adding new revenues to the Group Logic bottom line might benefit Naef and Newberry, but it doesn't animate their voices or light up their faces. There's a pride and even a little personal glory involved in contributing to Linux that can best be described by the word that keeps creeping into these programmers' sentences: cool.


Peter Wayner

Peter Wayner has several large Pascal applications he needs to rewrite.

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