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I have written several articles about the “pseudo-religious” aspects of linux but each time I return to this theme I find new dimensions of the topic. In no way this phenomenon is limited to Linux. Similar effects were observed among Apple enthusiasts (The Varieties of Religious Experience How Apple Stays Divine - The Atlantic):
There are scholars who study Apple's consumers as religious devotees. Consumer behavior specialists Russell Belk of York University and Gulnur Tumbat of San Francisco State, even put together a framework for assessing Apple's mystical mythology. The company was built on four key myths, they argued.
Here are the four narratives, as summarized by media csholar Texas A&M's Heidi Campbell, who distilled their work for her May paper "How the iPhone became divine":The stories they identified aren't myths in the sense that they aren't true, but more in the Joseph Campbell sense of being a story that helps people make sense of their relationship with the world.
- a creation myth highlighting the counter-cultural origin and emergence of the Apple Mac as a transformative moment;
- a hero myth presenting the Mac and its founder Jobs as saving its users from the corporate domination of the PC world;
- a satanic myth that presents Bill Gates as the enemy of Mac loyalists;
- and, finally, a resurrection myth of Jobs returning to save the failing company...
Certain category of people tend to get infatuated with ideas, for example open source, and it becomes a religion for them. And in this case there is a symbol of this infatuation. Like the car for Americans, linux has become more that a cheap and reasonably stable OS, really more than a utility which provides the means to get from the point A to the point B. Despite being a technologically backward project in comparison with such developments as scripting languages and LAMP stack it has occupied a central place in the open source psyche because it offers the distinct pseudo-religious, insulating from reality cocoon.
Most large organizations have mixed infrastructure with a large (sometimes predominant) Windows server presence. Linux is a part of Unix infrastructure and as such typically represents a fraction of total server park. But due to strong IBM PR machine there's constant pressure within many organizations to increase linux share of the servers and sometimes to do it at the expense of Solaris. Usually the driving force are university graduates who come brainwashed against anything that is not linux including Solaris, which they do not know and thus do not like. Most of them usually quite quickly understand that irrational preference of one OS over another has no place in business and that opening source is not panacea: software problems are too complex to be solved by "magic solutions" and issues, including issue of cost, are far from being simple, especially in not too logical atmosphere of IT in large organizations. And if there are no substantial savings, there can be some losses. But some proved to be resistant to "deprogramming".
Even superficial analysis of such site as Groklaw and Slashdot suggests that among programmers and system administrators there is a sizable minority of people who are by their psychological traits are suitable candidates for fervent participants of Mass Movements, no matter what this particular movement is about. In Eastern Europe this issue is often discussed under the umbrella theme of "tragedy of Russian intelligencia" but has definitely more wide implications. Here we will discuss this particular very vocal minority which takes position in open source debates which somewhat reminds the main theme of the classic John Cleese video (John Cleese vs Extremism ).
Eric Hoffer called the category of people who are "pre-destined" to became a fervent participants of mass movements "true believers." They are joiners and followers ... people who want to give away their personality in the name of the great idea. They look for answers, meaning, and enlightenment outside themselves, in some abstract idea, technology or political movement. Hoffer, who wrote famous "The True Believer" observed that,
"true believers are not intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but are those craving to be rid of unwanted self. They are followers, not because of a desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy their passion for self-renunciation!"
Hoffer also noted that true believers "are eternally incomplete and eternally insecure". He wrote:
The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause....
A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business....
The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources -- out of his rejected self -- but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength.... He easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings. And he is ready to sacrifice his life.
That's why true believers want to give up all personal responsibility for their beliefs and actions by fervent serving to some obscure ideology or cult. Paradoxically, they personally want to be free of the burden of freedom even if they claim that their cause is to defend freedom. Such people can be easily commercially exploited. In fact, the inside nickname for this type of selling among marketing professionals is, "sell it by zealot!" Therefore it is important objectively discuss the ideological dimension of "Linux vs. Solaris" debate and the specifics of open source marketing which reminds me typical PR of anarchist organizations as well as recruitment drives of high demand cults on university grounds. See brilliant satire Penguin Suicide Bombers in which author enumerates several interesting and controversial properties of open source PR which are identical to methods used by anarchist organizations for last hundred years and which he incorrectly but acceptably for satire exaggerates to "primary characteristics or traits of the open source movement":
First and foremost, the open source movement is to some degree a rejection and opposition to the direct capitalization of software but is perhaps more specifically and correctly defined as the rejection and opposition to what is perceived to be a “unipolar, capitalistic superpower”, in this case Microsoft. This appears to be a widely accepted attitude within the open source community as there are endless quotes spanning a large number of open source projects to the effect of “the enemy is Microsoft”.
Third, the open source movement by and large uses crude propaganda and hate-filled rhetoric to defame and demonize its opposition. For example, this third point can be easily demonstrated by the coarse language used by Linux proponents when debating or characterizing peers that utilize Windows-based technologies. More often than not, Linux proponents and other open source advocates go out of their way to characterize their opponents as “stupid”, “ignorant”, “retarded”, “evil” or much, much worse. If you don’t believe me, go browse any forum frequented by Linux or open source proponents. In addition to the name calling and hate speech there is even advocacy of sending Windows users to concentration camps or purposefully spamming their email with viruses.
Fourth, a favorite tactic of the open source movement is the use of fear as a weapon. Again, this can most readily be seen by Linux, Apache and Firefox proponents that tout the perceived security of their systems while attempting to instill fear, uncertainty and doubt in those that use Microsoft technologies by claiming that Microsoft systems are inherently insecure or inferior in terms of security.
We should never underestimate the potential danger of fanatical followers of any social moment and the True-believer syndrome . While such people will gladly work and, sometimes, even die for their holy cause it is not a true devotion, it is just a substitute for their lost faith in themselves and offers them a substitute for individual self-esteem. All high demand cults are composed mainly of true believers, but you can find some examples anywhere: in politics, churches, businesses, technology, etc.
Researchers who investigated high demand cults were surprised to discover than when such cults receive a major shock -- a prophecy fails to come true, a grave moral flaw of the founder is revealed -- they paradoxically come back stronger than before, with increased belief and fanaticism. The Jehovah's Witnesses placed Armageddon in 1975, based on Biblical calculations; 1975 passed but they still doing strong. Similarly Unarius Academy of Science cult survived the nonappearance of an intergalactic spacefleet in 1975 and 2001 (the Wikipedia article mentions only a failed prophecy in 2001).
This phenomenon is connected with so called cognitive dissonance. When people have taken expensive or "irrevocable" actions for a belief that later is discredited, they has difficulties admitting their mistake. In Wall Street lingo "they married their trade". The challenge to their belief presents an immense cognitive dissonance; they must find reinforcing evidence to counter the shock, and so become more rather then less fanatical. We definitely observe similar behavior with "the year of the linux desktop" and other prophecies.
True believers want to convert others to their way of living or impose some new way of doing things -- if necessary by force. They typically share a common hatred of enemy, or devil which is crucial for increasing solidarity within the movement. Any problems or setbacks of the movement are viewed as a result of the subversive activity of the enemy. In case of open source movement this role is often played by Microsoft, but sometimes other firms are targeted. SCO is one such example. Sun also is far from "most favorable" status in open source community despite of its huge contribution to open source and Unix in general. It's funny that despite its questionable past IBM never got into this category and is viewed by most open source true believers extremely positively. This effect is closely connected with the notion of groupthink. Here is how this phenomenon is described by Answers.com:
In order to make groupthink testable, Irving Janis devised eight symptoms that are indicative of groupthink [Wikipedia].
Groupthink occurs when the pressure to conform within a group interferes with that group's analysis of a problem and causes poor group decision making. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages that can sometimes be obtained by making a decision as a group—bringing different sources of ideas, knowledge, and experience together to solve a problem. Psychologist Irving Janis defines groupthink as: "a mode of thinking people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action. Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures." It can also refer to the tendency of groups to agree with powerful, intimidating bosses.
The concept of groupthink provides a summary explanation of reasons groups sometimes make poor decisions. Indeed, groups are supposed to be better than individuals at making complex decisions, because, through the membership, a variety of differing perspectives are brought to bear. Group members not only serve to bring new ideas into the discussion but also act as error-correcting mechanisms. Groups also provide social support, which is especially critical for new ideas. But when new perspectives are rejected (as in the "not invented here" syndrome), it is hard to correct errors. And if the social support is geared toward supporting the group's "accepted wisdom," the elements that can make groups better decision makers than individuals become inverted, and instead make them worse. Just as groups can work to promote effective thinking/decision making, the same processes which enhance the group's operation can backfire and lead to disastrous results.
From the start, linux has been an object of quasi-religious longing and I targeted it in one of my early writings called Bad Linux Advocacy FAQ (Raymondism FAQ). For many fanatic advocates (we will call them "linuxoids" for brevity) linux represents a readymade "Promised Land" (I always wondered wouldn't volunteering for organizations like UNICEF be more rewarding for those who want to help poor ). That's why linuxiods berate advocates of other flavors of Unixes and vise versa Solaris advocates usually grant linuxiods their good intentions but remind them that road to hell is paved with fallen penguins as well as "save mankind from Microsoft" aspirations [Bezroukov1999a]:
If we use the ESR metaphor in a different context, Linux can be looked as a cathedral as it was build to express passion about Unix by a large group that cared about it very much. The ability to attract a geographically distributed community is characteristic of political movements and religions. Although people are physically separated, they all are working toward a common and important goal. That fuels the Linux movement.
Along with a positive agenda, every powerful social movement requires an enemy, a target that can be used as a powerful unifying force. Therefore it is not accidental that a large proportion of the Linux and open source community really hate the 'Evil Empire'. The history of religious and political movements suggests that the OSS is not simply a loose collection of Internet-connected developers and users motivated only by mutual recognition. The OSS really operates on a larger stage as a political movement and as such has its own political agenda.
Probably the most important part of OSS political agenda is its negative aspect, taking the form of a revolt against Microsoft. I call it the ABM/BTM ("anything but Microsoft/Better than Microsoft") agenda. Both statements are simplifications and both presuppose that Microsoft software is not good enough for any task in hand and view Microsoft in black and white in the best of "we against them" war mentality. That's why the OSS movement and Linux have powerful allies in OS/2 and Macintosh communities. Both OS/2 and Macintosh are based on closed proprietary models (actually not much different from the Windows model), but with powerful communities that also has ABM/BTM as their political agendas.
The ABM/BTM agenda, like any political agenda, is simple yet attractive to some. More importantly, it appeals to certain elements of corporate management with support from a wide spectrum of executives at Intel, IBM and almost all major PC vendors. Given the licensing fees paid by Compaq, Gateway and other PC vendors to Microsoft, you begin to understand why there are programmers working on Linux development in these companies with full (and, if necessary, covert) support of management. Politically, some compare Microsoft to IBM in 70's; that attitude fuels reasonable attempts to develop opposition to Microsoft.
Among Internet providers the same agenda is fueled by a fear that Microsoft can usurp the Internet by using well-funded top corporate technocracy in large manufacturing companies. Large and influential Internet providers are resentful about expensive and restrictive licenses; they perceive Microsoft as a threat ("dark force") that tries to slow them down.
It is really important to understand that there is and always was a very strong ideological component in all discussions of "Solaris vs. Linux". Comparison of those two OSes seldom is limited to purely technical issues, it is usually performed in a larger framework that is colored by ideology.
What is interesting is that many proponents of Linux even view Solaris as something belonging to an "enemy camp", despite the fact that Solaris is a descendant of the same OS and that developer communities intersect (for example many Sun programmers work on Open Office). Similarly they view Linux as a pure, shiny altruistic Penguin what stand above all those dirty for profit OSes. But in fact linux was cooped by corporations long ago and evolved from the concept of development by a group of enthusiasts to the idea of a "community edition" financed by few large corporations, where the source may be available freely but much of the actual development and actual "know-how" is concentrated in development teams belonging to and employed by those corporations which are members of this informal consortium. Actually profit motive is an interesting aspect of open source. It does affect even "saints" of open source. As Linus Torvalds admitted himself, he came to the USA to become rich. (Slashdot Discussion). Here is relevant quote from one of the posts:
The central point of Nikolai Bezroukov's essay seemed to be that the open source model may have something to learn from the academic model it emulates.
It's an interesting line of thought to travel, especially when you compare the IPO millionaires open source has created at places like Red Hat to the vow of poverty that's both expected and respected in the academic community. How essential to the open exchange of knowledge is the notion that none of the participants are getting rich off the exchange?
With the arrival of Open Solaris on the scheme, Solaris formally should be perceived by linuxiods as equal partner to linux. But this is not how most linuxoids view Solaris despite existence of Open Solaris. And this allergy to Solaris so typical for linuxiod community requires a coherent explanation. One possible explanation is that is some sense Solaris definitely belongs to a different ideology of programming then linux. Slightly simplifying there are two contrasting ideologies of programming: Software Realism and Software Idealism. The latter in its turn can be subdivided into two major schools: Stallmanism and Raymondism. Here is how I defined them for readers of my two old papers[Bezroukov1999a, Bezroukov 1999b] on the subject (the quote below is taken not from the papers but from Softpanorama OSS page):
In the vision of Software Realists programmers like all humans have weaknesses and guided primarily by self-interest and as such can benefit formal organization and incentives (direct or indirect, via professional norms) to act outside the limits defined by their own self-interest. Software Realists see the evils of the software world as given and derived from the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings and existing hardware. Some of them try to create better software like programmers involved in creation of all BSD flavors but they consider commercial programmers as equals (actually many of them wear two hats) and do not object to reusing the code that they developed pro bono in proprietary software.
In this slightly tragic worldview the software development is a hard and often underappreciated craft that requires special, pretty rare, talent People with this talent like talented sport stars (for example tennis players or ice ballet dancers) risk their health while they are young creating short living but tremendously complex artifacts (large software systems are probably the most complex system even created by humans) and for this reason should be remunerated accordingly. It is important to understand that like in case of artists creating paintings on the sand beach, programmers creation are short-lived and the new wave of hardware often wipes them clean. For example, who now remembers the creators of PL/1 optimizing and debugging compilers, the compilers that were real breakthrough in many areas of complier writing art and in comparison with which some modern compliers still look like junk despite the fact that they were written 30 years ago.
In other words they see that due to immense complexity of those artifacts all software sucks. It is just that some software sucks less. It can be proprietary software, it can be free software -- all depends of the talent of the creators, not so much on a particular ideology (which, by the way, can be completely wrong: Soviets invented quite a few new technologies and managed to launch the first man into space). Thus, in view of Software Realists school the perfection of software is unachievable and old good Unix with its classic codebase might sometimes be preferable to new Turks be it Windows or Linux. That does not mean that Linux or Windows codebase is all crap. That just means that they are just another OSes in a long historical line of such systems. In some areas they might be better then competition, in some worse, but none has the monopoly on innovation (actually Linux is a pretty conservative kernel despite a radical ideology behind it).
Software Realists are unconvinced by claims of linux superiority and want to see hard facts. Furthermore, history guided them that the proper tradeoffs between different subsystems of OSes can be ironed out only via long, expensive and painful process that requires strong, highly paid managers, programmers and testers who are ready to sacrifices their health for the success of their creation. The real art requires sacrifices and it is better when such sacrifices are properly remunerated, although stories of talented artists who died in poverty are nothing new.
Because real talents are rare, good software is a very expensive thing. Software realism school presuppose that modern software is almost always a compromise between the demands of the talent and demands of the marketplace.
Software realists contribute to open source projects not because they see them superior to commercially developed software, but because they consider them an important part of software ecosystem, the part that requires support and nourishment and helps to keep closed source software developers honest. It is a extremely important countervailing force that has value of its own, independently whether particular open source program is superior to similar closed source program or not, the availability of open source codebase make it more suitable for some purposes, for example in education and often compensates for real or perceived shortcomings. They view open source development as a special type of academic research that has similar set of motivations, similar risks and reward structure
The Software Idealist school (both in its Stallmanism and Raymondism incarnations) holds that mankind in general and programmers in particular has not yet achieved their full moral potential, and that they are (at least in principle) perfectible if guided by wonderful new software development ideology. Foolish and immoral choices inherent in the creation of proprietary software explains the all the evils of the existing software world and revolution was needed and actually already came in the form of either free software movement or its less pure form called open source software movement. Both major Software Idealism schools rely on volunteer labor of programmers connected via Internet to produce immortal gems of software wisdom that will crush proprietary software developers like cockroaches.
In Software Idealism worldview, whether purely moral incentive actually work in a long run or not and what will happen when Linus Torvalds will become yet another retired dot-com multimillionaire with his own yacht is irrelevant to the achievement of true software justice, justice for all. This utopian view holds that volunteer programmer potential is immense and can do everything including improving human nature that should get rid of those outdated economic rewards for software development and be satisfied working part time in McDonalds in order to be able to participate in the movement. So the Software Idealism vision promotes pursuit of the high moral ground of software freedom which somehow guarantee the best software solutions. At the end of the day new liberated men should all storm this evil Bastille of software oppression which is of course Microsoft and dance on its ruins. Sometimes in their enthusiasm they can attack other sinful old fashioned proprietary software vendors instead of Microsoft. Until opening Solaris (and even after that) sometimes their target was Sun.
And if the unwashed masses who corrupt their soils by using Windows are slow in catching on, then it is the role of the intellectual vanguard (the keepers of programming craft who in Eastern Europe might be called "programming intelligentsia") to lead them -- even if in the short run, the masses can be unhappy with the results because they might not be able to use full capabilities of their laptops, cameras or scanners. In general Software Idealists think that higher moral considerations should guide us and that those consideration somehow guarantee creation of a better software, the software that is not only better but which is as perfect as it is free.
Again this is a slight simplification, but I believe it catches the key points. For more elaborate discussion you can try to read [Bezroukov2004a]. Another important problem with GPL is that if you work for a commercial company and want to share code it is dangerous to do it using GPL, especially if you take GPLed software as the source of inspiration. But also if you extract and submit parts of the product to the community as a library or stand-alone utility there is always a risk that zealots can blackmail company products. And if you do not study something in depth you are less inclined to contribute to the codebase. In case of BSD the more you use some product or library, the more you can contribute without any danger of "zealots blowback" for your generosity. For example several lawsuits about usage of BusyBox probably did a lot to prevent its further usage by commercial developers.
This particular "cuckoo egg" property of GPL considerably depletes the space of capable developers and only naive can claim that this represents "higher freedom" as if sharing of complex code with "strings attached" makes it more attractive for other developers to base their products on it. There are always alternatives as designers of scripting languages learned all too well (none of the popular scripting languages use pure GPL licensing; actually Perl pioneered a very elegant way to preserve sanity without alienating users who prefer GPL by inventing dual licensing scheme and Artistic license which is very close in spirit to BSD ). Paradoxically programmers who are too afraid that something will be stolen from them, usually are too weak to produce anything of lasting value in the first place.
|Paradoxically programmers who are too afraid that something will be stolen from them, usually are too weak to produce anything of lasting value in the first place.|
You can also see that some less "strict", less fundamentalist modifications that fit somewhere in between the extremes (like LGPL) might actually increase the product survivability properties. The same is true about business model. Red Hat is an example of such a compromise from the point of view of business model as it seems paying their developers well, on par with commercial software giants like IBM, Microsoft, or Oracle. Novell probably also can serve as such example and it should be commended for building some bridges with Microsoft. Of course the latter caused a wrath of "true believers" and costs Novell some PR setbacks.
While in 1999 the ideas the open source as, essentially, a quasi-political movement that does not has any monopoly on technical innovation were pretty unorthodox and the amount of flames I endured for writing two articles sited above was probably above average, recently those views became more or less an established common sense.
Apt demonstration of this trend was the keynote address at EclipseCon, 2007 by former A&T Wireless chief technical architect Robert M. Lefcovits ['Dilbert' Creator, Open-Source Maverick Address EclipseCon - Open Source, Software - CRN] who stated:
The ideology of the open-source moment is built atop some odd assumptions... including the idea that buyers need access to code because product designers can't be trusted to get it right.
... ... ...
Flashing a photo of a pill bottle, Lefkowitz quipped, "Sorry this drug was defective. I'm sorry you got sick but, you know, we included the chemical formula on the bottle! You could have fixed it yourself!"
His presentation was well received by the participants of this key open source conference (Eclipse became the dominant development environment for major open source projects).
From architectural standpoint Solaris is more of a complete OS, not just a kernel with a collection of partially written in-house, but mostly written by outsiders software components hacked into a particular distribution. The latter creates its own set of complex integration problems.
Sun developed Solaris as a typical commercial software developer with enigmatic founders and hired developers. During long life of the product it has it highs and lows. Developers in Sun work for cash not so much for the holy purpose of saving mankind. Which does not exclude that they enjoy their work and have a strong positive feeling toward the product. If opportunity arise, Sun can switch its focus to other supposedly more profitable products as it has done with Java. This is still not a betrayal of roots, but a fair play as the company needs profitability to survive and prosper. And survival and prosperity of the company means prosperity for the developers. In this sense Sun is not that different from Oracle, Microsoft, SAP and other software powerhouses. If it see value in open source it can use it were it suits its goals like IBM profitably did, but in no way that means that Sun brass suddenly became a bunch of GPL converts.
Recently we observed that Solaris moved higher in Sun's agenda and Sun management recently changed attitude toward Solaris in internal war for resources between Solaris and Java camps. As I mentioned before, Sun now really committed to Solaris on Opteron and Intel Duo CPUs and this change in attitudes can benefit enterprise customers.
As we all know that was not always the case. For almost a decade, Sun seemed to relegate Solaris to the status of red-headed stepchild of Java, undeserving of attention, nurturing, and support (and shipped it with weak management applications like now discontinued Admintool, which paradoxically was replaced by also "not-so-good" Sun Management Console). In the past Sun brass demonstrated very mixed level commitment toward Solaris on X86 platform. But that completely changed with the adoption of Opteron which might eventually became the main development platform for Solaris.
In my opinion they can not betray this commitment again. As the x86 market space continues to grow, the gap in CPU speeds between RISC producers and Intel/AMD became wide and wider and in comparable price/performance ratios Intel essentially wipes the floor with all major RISK hardware vendors. With Microsoft growth outpacing Linux/Unix growth in enterprise space Intel and AMD are making the most money in server CPUs area and can afford to outspend competitors in research by a wide margin.
IBM and Sun already feeling the heat from the recent introduction of Intel Duo CPUs and despite being competitor in RISC space they are sitting in one boat against onslaught of Intel and AMD; actually IBM even more so with the superiority in benchmarks for P5/P6 architecture against Intel and AMD CPUs now becoming history (SpecInt for Intel X5160 3GHz is 16.8/17.4 vs IBM P6 4.77Ghz 17.8/21.7; now compare the costs of servers :-). For Sparc Spec benchmarks looks dismal with only few (and very expensive) CPUs being competitive. They have some addityiona niche with T1/T2... CPUs due to large number of cores which can help in running multiple websites on a single box, but that's about it.
With the current gap created by introduction of Intel Duo, the strength of Sun's commitment to AMD and Intel CPUs should not be underestimated: shipments of Opteron based servers became the major growth sector for the company and probably will remain such a sector in foreseeable future. And that change in attitude is already reflected in training with the additional courses for Solaris on Intel released for Solaris 10 as well as the multiple of new virtualization offerings and zone management capabilities in Solaris 10 11/06.
Unlike typical for large commercial organization structured project development in Sun that started with the traditions brought by graduates by two prestigious US universities (Stanford and Berkeley) and which from the beginning had Unix design architect of the highest caliber (Bill Joy of BSD fame), linux initially was developed in anarchist manner but semiautonomous individuals around the globe. Linux Torvalds started with really humble OS development baggage and had professionally grown with the system. Like most successful large open source project linux development is based on the talent and charisma on a single leader who works like crazy to implement his vision be it right or wrong. Workagolism is the norm for such leaders and their whole life revolves around this single project. Due to this chronic overload, sometimes they often look more like hostages of their ambitions. More then one hurt their health in the process.
As the level of commitment necessary for leading the project is extremely high, almost superhuman, large open source software projects which lost the initial leader, often remain "leaderless" and/or are directed by people who want just benefit from the implicit status associated with the leadership and who lack both vision and discipline (and sometimes even commitment). The "I'll donate some of my time to some project" developers prefer working on "cool" features, not on the preserving architectural integrity and if there are no real charismatic leaders who try to preserve architectural integrity despite all odds it gradually deteriorates and codebase become unmanageable. In this case the pressure to add all of those supposedly "cool features" is unresisted and will eventually find their way into codebase even if half of them are completely redundant. As the result many "leaderless" large open source projects suffer from feature creep and quick, irreversible deterioration of the quality of the architecture. Bloat of the codebase is a very serious problem, problem that is undercut future software development of the product [Bezroukov1999a,Bezroukov1999b]. In a sense the only viable flavor of open source is a "slim source" :-). And the only way to accomplish larder project is to select higher level language (that's why I think scripting language are so important for open source: there is not that much "open" in several hundred thousand likes of C or C++ code :-). Like in case with severely overweight people as soon as you cross some weight to height ratio, quantity turns into quality and other, often a lot more serious, diseases are almost given. That already happened with Gnome, Perl 6 and several other large open source projects which now wonder aimlessly in the complex maze of architectural alternatives and directions [McFarland2006]
From this point of view the important difference is that Solaris is trademark of Sun, not the trademark of Linus Torvalds :-) . Openness of the code is not the whole story; it is just one of the important characteristics for a large software projects. In no way it, by some magic, can prevent loss of architectural vision, aging and stagnation of the leader and in-fighting. Due to the latter often the most capable developer are pushed away as they threaten the status and position of the leader, exactly like in large companies. The story of Alan Cox should be at least partially known by most readers this paper with decent Linux background.
In general commercial software development with its motto: "we pay, you deliver" is less susceptible to ego-related problems like in-fighting. They can replace the leader of the kernel group with much less damage then open source projects where reputations and vanity fair is the name of the game. Money speaks and good money speaks quite loudly. Also there is an advantage of severe, ruthless discipline of commercial software development over open source Internet based semi-anarchy. Just compare Red Hat releases frequency with Debian. Also while far from being easy, in case of the change of the leader the commercial project might have advantages as it is easier to maintain and preserve architectural integrity just because the working assumption is that the product belongs to the firm and everybody just need to deliver the product as good as they can so that it can sells well and sustain the salaries of the developers. Due to this people are ready to put long hours to meet deadlines, in a way that parallel binge work schedule of open source developer. Level of commitment and long hours spend by Microsoft developers during the period when Bill Gates was at the helm were legendary in the industry and were sustained by the example of Bill Gates himself, who literally lived in his office for many, many years giving the firm 200% of commitment and working hours per year in comparison with normal corporate brass. Also while linux kernel development is now accomplished in best "cathedral" style, Sun still has an advantage as Solaris was commercial project from the beginning and as in any such project ego-related issues were suppressed and this atmosphere hopefully preserved so that those issues cannot badly hurt the project even after the codebase was opened.
The level of complexity of project like Linux, Open Office, Python and so on is such that the idea of CATB looks not as tied metaphor or fairy tail, it looks plain silly. Spending months understanding someone else's framework and code before you can even start on your cute "scratching itch" addition of modification requires tremendous self-discipline and real sacrifices both in time, energy and lifestyle. Most talented people would better off writing something from scratch. Also the problem of "a large shadow" of Linus Torvald and other leaders of key open source projects is also very real. There is an inherent tendency toward cult of personality in such projects as without proper remuneration for their efforts the best protection for the participants who already invested considerable time and energy into the project is a blind devotion to the fearless leader. You need to understand that simple fact or be bitterly disappointed at the end. Chance of being dismissed due to plain-vanilla envy are also very real. Leaders are humans and have tremendous stake in maintaining their position at any cost due to the amount of contribution and hardship endured.
Even more self-discipline is necessary to test all dependencies so you don't break somebody else code. Money and preferably very good money, not an enthusiasm (although it helps) are the only reliable cure. Enthusiasm is no substitute for money in large open source software projects. Volunteer work can help quite a lot but still it is peripheral to the contribution of key paid developers who constitute the core of the project. That's why Linux kernel development is now just of cooperative venture of several large corporations which provide all the funding. A pretty convenient "corporatist" framework with several large corporations just pooling their resources to counter MS onslaught on their franchises.
I would like to stress it again, that this problem extents to testing, which is really Achilles spot of linux. Volunteer approach to testing works only until certain level of complexity and cannot replace structured testing by specialized testing organization of a caliber that Microsoft have. In December 2006 Open Source Development Labs(OSDL), an Oregon-based kernel development organization cooperatively funded by major hardware vendors which employs Linus Torvalds cut one-third of its staff[Shankland2006]. The OSDL is funded by IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Novell, Intel and several other computing companies and it's staff after layoffs is 18 people. Even before that to conserve resources Linux Torvalds decided to abandon the concept of production kernel and assumed that it is distributors who should bear the burden of testing...
While bureaucracy which is inherent in large organizations dampens individual creativity and initiative, deadlines (and strict responsibility for failing them) discipline and money motivates people much better then FSF slogans. There is also a type of talented software developers that like elite special forces can deliver the performance close to the best even under intense pressure. Such people are often can be found in major software companies, especially game industry where life and death of the company often depends on timely production of the next blockbuster game.
Huge open source commercial projects like Open Office and Linux has theoretical advantage of being less dependent of feature creep and theoretically can deliver slimmer versions then in case of completely closed software development. But they need to compete with bloated commercial products so this advantage can not be safely materialized. That is probably the reason why this never happens and code bloat is the name of the game of all major open source projects. For the same reason it is doubtful that Sun can utilize this theoretical possibility either, as for commercial developers the complexity is the name of the game as it prevents competition from encroaching on the acquired market share. In a way Microsoft is really a king of software complexity. And I really admire and do not understand how such projects like Excel 2003 were so well debugged. There is something superhuman in this, if you really understand the level of complexity of the product and the size of codebase. And for a typical level of debugging of complex codebase one can look at Linux, Perl, bash or, if want a example of commercial software, Lotus Notes. And believe me I really admire Perl developers and is a heavy user of this scripting language as well as bash which I use on all Unix platforms. Product are very useable but he number of bugs is pretty high. Both in Perl and in bash. That's why developer of complex shell scripts usually use ksh instead of bash. Cynics call this level "permanent beta". This is cruel but reflect real situation.
Anyway for large open source projects the old rhetoric of CATB proved to be irrelevant. In reality actual "Bazaar" projects are mostly limited to thousands of smaller and mostly single developer projects on SourceForge. They are still very important, and some of them are very innovative, but in large open source project space Cathedral style development proved to be the only way to go. Just because something is free and open source doesn't mean that they can't be managed by someone with a business background. Just think about Ubuntu. Small doze of bazaar can add some spice and PR advantages (they should hire Erik Raymond ;-) , but that's about it.
As this article partially is a counterargument to naive linux evangelism I would like to quote an old (Aug 09, 2004) entry in Chard Dickerson weblog Solaris vs. Linux that by-and-large coincides with my own views of Solaris vs. Linux problem especially his observations about using Oracle on Debian (or any enterprise class software on unsupported distribution) as well as classic "if you've already 'sold out' to Oracle, why try to be righteous by using a free Linux distribution anyway?" theme:
While we're mostly a Linux/Intel shop here at InfoWorld, I don't feel nearly as fired-up and evangelical about Linux as I did five years ago when I convinced the marketing department at my then-employer to issue a press release trumpeting our migration to Red Hat Linux (spawning a Slashdot posting, a Webmonkey article, a piece in PC World, and a mention in a News.com story ). Despite the flurry of attention that migration brought, the dirty little secret of this Linux proponent was the Sun E450 I had in the server room running our content management system (which was open-source based and ran great on Solaris) and our mission-critical Oracle database. Linux was a bit risky at that time, so I wasn't foolish enough to migrate *everything* to Linux -- we had a content business to run, so the core content-producing system stayed on Solaris/Sparc. An excellent choice, but no one issues press releases about rock-solid Sun boxes running Oracle. They were just too commonplace.Fast forward to the present. The Red Hat Linux I run isn't free (as in beer) anymore, and though the mission-critical Oracle I used to run on Solaris is now humming away on Red Hat Advanced Server on HP hardware, it's not officially supported on Debian, our Linux distro of choice for our front-end web servers, mail servers, etc., so I'm stuck working with two Linux distributions. Though I can get plenty of advice on how to make Oracle work under Debian (see here, here, and here), I find the thought of fooling around with a Debian system (even minimally) to make a five-figure software package function. . . . well, it registers somewhere between "aggravating" and "pointless." Might as well just cough up the money to Red Hat and go through as normal an install as possible. (And speaking within the "social movement" context that Jonathan asserts in his original post -- if you've already "sold out" to Oracle, why try to be righteous by using a free Linux distribution anyway? Seems a little like wearing a shiny new leather coat to a PETA rally.)
Quandaries like the one I outline above led me to conclude this week's column this way:If I’m going to be paying license fees and support to a commercial OS vendor, what difference does it make whether the core is a well-tested Linux or a well-tested Solaris? I don’t think I would lose sleep at night going with either.
Role of open source as a new type of social welfare is a very interesting phenomenon and pretty novel approach to the study of open source. In a very dialectical way software that initially was free and considered by many as add-on to expensive hardware get first into commercial stage and then enters new level on which the code again is free and opened, but support is extra. Also like in good old times software is considered as add-on, advertising expense for an inexpensive (mainly Intel-based ) hardware. In such roles it definitely can serve as a zero-cost substitute for poor families and disadvantaged groups who cannot afford themselves expensive commercial software. This is a great progressive role that recently has an interesting hardware development twist in form of $100 laptop and its commercial variants called netbooks (with ASUS as the most successful so far). For approximately $250 one can get a very capable portable computer with or without Linux.
At the same time like any welfare system has its inherent drawbacks and is by the very fact of its existence limits the quality of contribution (may be not at the very beginning, but only after a short "irrational exuberance" period). Also like any welfare system along with serving needy people its creates a special class of open source parasites, people who want everything from the society for free and, moreover, claim, that this is their immanent right.
When people have an entitlement to get software without doing any work or paying any money, when the whole organizations rely on "software welfare", the problem is not that so few people are participating in major open source software development projects but rather that anybody is. That problem extends also into "open source software cooperatives" when several commercial firms pull their efforts in development of potentially useful package like Linux kernel, Open Office, Apache or Mozilla application suit. There is not much trust in such ventures and each side suspect that other is "leaching" on the other and is not contributing enough or is not contributing in good faith.
Now let's discuss the notion of open source elite. Our discussion will be partially based on the paper "The tyranny of stuctureleness" by Jo Freeman who analyzed feminist groups.
The term "elite" refers to a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part, usually without direct responsibility to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent. Because elites are informal does not mean they are invisible. At any small group meeting anyone with a sharp eye and an acute ear can tell who is influencing whom. The member of the "base" or "inner circle" will relate more to each other than to other people. They support each other's views and give in amiably. They tend to ignore the "outsiders". The 'outsiders' approval is not necessary for making a decision; however it is necessary for the 'outsiders' to stay on good terms with the members of the inner circle. Of course, the lines are not as sharp as I have drawn them. They are nuances of interaction. But they are discernible, and they do have their effect. Once one knows with whom it is important to check before a decision is made, and whose approval is the stamp of acceptance of Linus, one knows who is running things.
Elites are not conspiracies: they are not bound together to take over the larger group for its own ends. In a way they are friends who also happen to participate in the same open source software development project. They would probably maintain their friendship if they were not involved in the common project; and they would probably be involved in some other project if they did not get to this one. But as soon as such group is formed in any egalitarian group their grip on the group is difficult to break. From now on they control the direction of the group. Elites also arise out of the need for the group to communicate with the outside world. While none of them has been consciously chosen spokesperson, the movement itself promotes those who have the talent to communicate the goals of the group to the outside world. These people typicallt became public face of the project. Because there are no official spokesperson nor any decision-making body, the press can interview those people when then need to know the position of the group on a currently important and making the news subject. This way they promote their "star" status, reinforcing their elite position in the group. In other works "they play queen". Thus, people who can well represent the project to the press often are moved into the role of spokesman for the group.
That means that "open source stars" are not selected by the people in the movement, they are selected by press. Press is the kingmaker and can chose one among equals. That's why "rank-and-file" members of the movement often resented when the press presumes they speak for the movement as was many times the case with Eric Raymond... Thus the backlash of the 'star' system, in effect, encourages the very kind of behavior of the elite that the particular group or movement as a whole condemns. They feel more alienated from the group who now "does not understand their sacrifice" and they became more free to pursue individualistic goals and first of all the goal of personal enrichment. This line of development often is called "Animal Farm effect" with its immortal slogan "All pigs are equal but some pigs are more equal then others" . This slogan precisely captures the relationship between elite members of the group and rank and file members.
The friendship between the members of elite helps to form channels of communication outside any regular channels used by the project. Because they share the same values and orientations, because they talk to each other socially and consult with each other when common decisions have to be made, the people who can use additional channels of communication have more power in the group than those who don't. And it is a rare group that does not establish some informal channels of communication on the top.
Although the process of elite formation within small groups is well studied that does not mean that elites are destructive. They just limit and hierarchically structures the flow of information which in turn often can be a defensive reaction to the "information overload" by the top members of community. All large informal groups create informal structures, as the "flat" model of interaction overload the members after the group achieves a certain critical mass.
There are two potential negative consequences of this implicit "structuring" of the informal group and crystallization of elite:
As long as open source movement stays dedicated to a form of the organization which stresses unstructured participation of volunteers the fertile ground for the creation of informal elites will persist. With no formal elected bodies the elite is exclusive and discriminatory against those people who are not or do not want to be tied into the additional informal friendship networks. Those who do not fit will inevitably be discouraged from trying to participate by attempts to keep them at the low level and exclude them from major decision-making. Those who are "in" will develop vested interests in maintaining things as they are. As C. Wright Mills notes the immorality of elite can't understood as primarily a matter of corrupt men in fundamentally sound institutions. The immorality of elite is a systemic feature of the "unstructured mass movements". "I've been rich and I've been poor," Sophie Tucker once said, "and believe me, rich is best."
The elite vested interests are sustained by the informal structures that exist and first of all the level of loyalty to the leader. This tend to reinforce cult of personality problems and they are clearly visible in some open source projects. At the same time without formal, structured elections the movement have no way of determining who shall exercise power within it. If the movement continues deliberately to avoid formalizing power structures, the members does not only abolish power, they also abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for their behavior. If the movement continues to keep power as diffuse as possible and avoid electing its officers it cannot demand any responsible behavior from the elite, and at the same time can do nothing to prevent the forming of elite itself.
Jo Freeman in her article mentioned above also tried to outline the principles of democratic structuring. Most of them are well known to those who participated in various academic computer societies, such as ACM, IEEE Computer Society and USENIX. Of course, democracy as a very tricky mechanism, and principles are not a panacea as anyone with real experience in participating in such computer societies suggests. Elections are just a small step in the right direction and it does not prevent from forming elite that controls the organization pretty tightly. Of course, not all of them are applicable to open source movement. But at least they can provide the foundation on which additional measures for keeping group more demoscratic and at least slow down/postpone the evolution to the stable statre ""All pigs are equal but some pigs are more equal then others" :
As elite crystallizes, their power and prestige increases. It controls larger and larger share of the information down the channels of communication, censoring what they do not want the rank-and-file to know. Typically significant efforts are also spent to pollute the channel with pure propagandas. This way it is earlier to persuade the rank-and-file of the rightness of their views. In most societies people are socialized to obey those in positions of authority. Therefore the rank and file show little initiative and wait for the leaders to exercise their judgment and issue directives to follow. Similar dynamic is typical for political parities as reflected in popular notion called Iron law of oligarchy
In a cynical form this process is reflected in Peter principle, which, paradoxically, is fully applicable to open source development. In this sense one can claim that Linus Torvalds became undisputable "father of Linux" when he considerable part of his value/energy as a kernel developer :-). Of course this is an slight exaggeration, like Peter Principle itself, but are has strong shades of truth in it.
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Created Jan 2, 2005. Last modified: September 12, 2017