Jim Zemlin: I would love to take Linus Torvalds to space

I sat down with Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, in a video interview to discuss efforts the foundation is involved with.

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Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

The Linux Foundation is doing so many different things, including sponsoring key developers like Linus Torvalds, creating courses, organizing events around the globe, bringing the major tech companies together to collaborate, supporting other open source projects, as well as flying Linus Torvalds in fighter jets. So while other organizations have struggled to survive, what has been the secret behind the huge success of the Linux Foundation?

Jim: I think the secret of what we work on is we work very hard. I think we have also been able to set up a set of processes to effectively enable developer communities through a loosely structured federation of different projects that have their own governance structure, their own technical decision-making bodies, and really just focusing on the role of essentially facilitating either development infrastructure or creating governance structure, or managing the intellectual property that enables us to do a lot of things. Because, of course, all of the magic in these open source projects come from the developers who create the code in these wonderful projects.

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Jim Zemlin and Swapnil Bhartiya, a mandatory selfie at LinuxCon

What are the core focuses of Linux Foundation?

Jim: Linux continues to be a core part of the Linux Foundation, and we continue to support that platform. Just today [the first day of the event] you see that we started the Open Mainframe Project, which is a project dedicated to Linux on the mainframe—one of the fastest growing Linux markets out there with 5% annual growth. So that continues to be a core focus of the foundation.

What we also demonstrated today was that we want to take the collaborative DNA of Linux and provide a similar infrastructure guidance to other open source projects like the node.js Foundation, the Cloud Foundry Foundation, the Open Daylight Foundation, and all of the 20 collaborative projects that we host here at the foundation.

If we go beyond technology and look at the real world, what problems is the foundation trying to solve through technology?

Jim: Certainly technology is working on a huge variety of real-world problems. You have our Dronecode project, which powers technology that enables precision agriculture, as an example, to solve problems around productivity for the world's food supply. Linux obviously powers so many important parts of our society—these are all important things we can do to help society. But what we really want to improve is that there is a world where you can help others as well as help yourself. From a personal perspective, if you are a developer working on these projects, you have a wonderful career, but also from a corporate perspective, businesses can invest in these projects that benefit everyone. For every dollar they put in, they get $10 in value back. In other words, there is a balance, we think, in a way that industry can benefit itself while benefitting others.

Talking about corporations, open source has kind of become a norm in the enterprise segment. Most businesses don't even talk about proprietary technology much. What is driving this adoption and collaboration around open source? What's the thread binding them together?

Jim: Organizations have discovered that they want to shed what is essentially commodity R&D and software development that isn't core to their customers and build all of that software in open source. The reason is there is simply too much software to be written for any single organization to do it themselves.

Take a company like Facebook. They are in the social networking business. They open source a huge amount of infrastructure that actually powers Facebook. Why? Because they aren't in the software infrastructure business; they are in the social networking business and by collaborating with other web-scale companies like Twitter, Amazon and Google, they are able to have a better infrastructure for themselves and focus on their core business, even if it means enabling competitors—and that's fine by them.

The Linux Foundation has started a lot of courses recently. What kind of demand are there for all these courses?

Jim: The problem that we identified long ago was that the growth of open source and Linux, as a critical part of the technology stack and mission-critical infrastructure, has outpaced the supply of talent to service those critical applications. So we have a series of training programs that we are working on to increase the supply of talent to service open source and provide people with career opportunities in open source and in the technology field in general.

I have a question regarding India, as you have a close relationship with the country. India is seen as a software development hub, the back office of the world. But when we look at the contribution, I don't remember any major open source projects that have come out of India. At the same time, the country has a lot of developers who come here and work for software companies. So what problem do you see in India from the perspective of contribution? And looking at the vast pool of talent, what plans do you have to tap into that?

Jim: I think you will see companies like Wipro, Tata and others actually becoming, overtime, more active participants, both at the corporate level and just individual developers who work for those organizations as the companies they service use an increasing amount of open source software in their infrastructure. Just from a business perspective, I think that will happen naturally over time.

I also think there is a tremendous opportunity for developers in India to have careers in open source. In fact, we have country-specific pricing for Linux admin programs, at a lower cost than the rest of the world to the Indian market, where we can provide affordable training to developers in India. And hopefully, we get more contributions to open source projects, which, of course, will mean more jobs for those developers who make those contributions.

Courses were announced a couple of weeks ago. How has been the response?

Jim: Terrific. We are seeing a huge demand for training certification work in India.

Every year you talk about Linux desktop. I don't know when that will happen, but Chromebooks are becoming quite popular lately. Do you think this is the Linux we were looking for?

Jim: The nature of the desktop is changing. I think the browser has, to some degree, become the modern desktop, and certainly Chrome, Android and other forms of Linux—whether it's a television or an embedded system with a smart appliance—are becoming sort of the desktop, which is euphemistically now referred to just as a screen. So the nature of the desktop is evolving, and Linux is evolving with it because the innovation that is happening in Linux is organic, and so it tends to flow with the way the technology flows as well.

Microsoft and the Linux Foundation have collaborated on some projects and events. Do you see Microsoft becoming a full-time member of the foundation anytime soon?

Jim: Certainly, we are open to it. Microsoft has been a terrific collaborator with us on a variety of projects. They are working with us on security issues and with our core infrastructure initiative. We work with them on the AllSeen Alliance, which is an IoT initiative. We work with them on the node.js project. We work with one Cloud Native Foundation and a whole bunch of other efforts. And we have found them to be smart, humble, embracing open source in a way that works for them. And it's been a refreshing and welcome change from the past to work with them. And we like it.

Do you think Microsoft will open source Windows, or will there be Microsoft Linux, looking at the struggles with Windows?

Jim: [Laughs] I don't know.

Just for fun, do you think there will be Microsoft Linux?

Jim: I don't know.

There is Oracle Linux, there is Red Hat Linux...

Jim: Microsoft certainly supports Linux in Azure, and they do a lot of work to enable containers and other technologies on their cloud. So to some degree, they are supporting it. So who knows! But, as I said, Microsoft has been a terrific company to work with, both from a corporate perspective and the individuals that I work with directly at Microsoft. They are terrific people to work with.

What's your next big goal after conquering the world with Linux?

Jim: As we see more projects embracing open source, what I would like to do is see opportunity around where we can have best practices across those projects, around security, around governance, around intellectual property management, around training opportunity. So, how do we take what is essentially a loose federation of a bunch of very large-scale open source projects and establish best practices and create opportunities across them. I think that's the next opportunity I think we would like to look at.

Linus Torvalds has been diving in oceans around the globe and flying in fighter jets. So when are you taking him to space?

Jim: [Laughs] Who knows, some day. That would be fun. I would love to take Linus to space.

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