Linus Torvalds reflects on 25 years of Linux

"You can just feel the fact that people want to work together and want to make a better system. That really makes for a great community," said Linus Torvalds.

linus dirk hohndel 1

Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundaton, Linus Torvalds and Dirk Hohndel.

Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

LinuxCon North America concluded in Toronto, Canada on August 25th, the day Linux was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, and Dirk Hohndel, VP and chief of open source at VMware, sat down for a conversation at the event and reflected upon the past 25 years. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation.

From nothing to something

Hohndel asked Torvalds about the highlights of the 25 years and to his surprise, Torvalds didn’t point out any. Hohndel tried again and said “there's got to have been a moment where you said, ‘Yes, this is awesome’."

The moments where Torvalds really felt ‘this is awesome,’ or those that he clearly remembered, are when he was struggling with something that took forever to fix.

“When nothing works, it is really, really frustrating. Even the slightest sign of life makes you go, ‘Wow. I really mastered this machine’. When the first character shows up on the screen ever, even if the system does nothing else, you're really pumped because you actually got a character on the screen. Completely useless, but those early times were actually some of the most memorable for me when you go from nothing to something,” said Torvalds.

What makes him proud

Torvalds doesn't write code anymore. His focus is more on the process of development. “I don't have any code I can be proud of, because I send off emails to random people and say, ’Hey, you are the expert in this area, can you fix it?” He said he can be proud when the release process really works and people get results without a lot of issues. “That makes me happy these days. That really has been working very well for a while.”

Kernel panic?

When Hohndel asked about low-lights, Linus said that there had been some, though almost none of them were about technology. “We've had difficult times when things didn't make progress,” said Torvalds.

He mentioned the struggle with power management on Linux, which took years to fix. He also mentioned one huge issue around memory management during the 2.4 series. Torvalds blamed himself for it and said, “It was very, very, very painful. That, I still remember as a low-light as a ‘this is not how we're supposed to do it.'"

Torvalds then mentioned switching over to Bitkeeper for revision control, which, despite being a failure, was a kind of savior for him because before that the process was such a disaster. But then Torvalds went ahead and created Git, which is now the best tool for the job.

He also said that low-light on the technical side were not big issues. “You have frustrating issues that come up and are hard to debug, but most of the low-lights have been really the social and especially, again, on the development side when the process doesn't work,” said Torvalds.

In the very early days of Linux, some 15 years ago, there was fair amount of commercial interest in Linux but it was still very early. Their process was geared towards pre-commercial interest models when they had a lot of individuals at universities. “Our kernel was much smaller, we had maybe 10 to 15 developers and then all these big commercial companies came and now we have hundreds of developers and lots of new code,” said Torvalds. “Lots of problems that we didn't have to face before. Our process was just a mess. It was very painful.”

“That is probably the only time in the history of Linux where I was like, ‘this is not working.’ I felt like, in retrospect, I look back and say, that might have been the moment where I just gave up,” said Torvalds. But that was 15 years ago.

I'm done, I give up

That made Hohndel ask if there has ever been any moment in these 25 years where Linus really considered walking away from it.

Torvalds said that there had been times when the kernel community had big enough arguments and he would get so angry with the people involved that he would want to throw in the towel. “I decided I would be offline for a week because I [couldn't] take this anymore. Usually the next day I'm back and things are better. It's been a couple of times where I felt like this is not fun and not worth my time."

But most of that is history. He said he hasn’t felt that way in the last 10 years.

A great community if not a happy family

Linux is a massive project with thousands of developers from hundreds of different companies contributing to it. While there were problems in the early days, “for the last few years everything has been so smooth. We have thousands of people involved and it’s working great,” said Torvalds. “We still argue. We're not all happy people. We don't love each other. I suspect a lot of developers really don't like each other. But quite often even if there's not a lot of happy-love feelings I get the feeling that there's a lot of respect for the technical side and things are working very well, in ways things have not always worked."

“It's been a great community,” said Torvalds. “People are so nice, in general. I wouldn't say polite. Very many people are never, ever polite. You can just feel the fact that people want to work together and want to make a better system. That really makes for a great community.”

Is Linux future proof?

Torvalds is the pillar of the Linux kernel. But is Linux too dependent on Torvalds? “What would happen when there is no Linus?” asked Hohndel.

“I think it would have been a bigger problem 15 years ago, maybe even 10,” said Torvalds. “These days there are so many people who could take up the work, the mantle. Most of the people who could do it wouldn't want to do it, I think. They've seen enough that they say, ‘No. It's better to let Linus handle it because there is going to be conflict and I don't need that headache.’ There are people who have been around almost as long as I have been. There are people who are universally trusted and do a lot of the work today that could step up. My traditional answer is, hey, I will be there.”

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