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Softpanorama Linus Torvalds' Interviews Collection (1997)
(preserving Linus Torvalds interviews for humanity ;-)

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Softpanorama Linus Torvalds' Interviews Collection(1997)

HY: You have become one of the champions of free software. However, unlike Richard Stallman, we don't see you commenting much on what free software should be and what it means to all of us. Are you interested in these "promote free software" aspects at all, or are you more interested in the software itself?

Linus: I'm generally a very pragmatic person: that which works, works. When it comes to software, I _much_ prefer free software, because I have very seldom seen a program that has worked well enough for my needs, and having sources available can be a life-saver.

So in that sense I am an avid promoter of free software, and GPL'd stuff in particular (because once it's GPL'd I _know_ it's going to stay free, so I don't have to worry about future releases).

However, that doesn't mean that I'm opposed to commercial software. Commercial software development has some advantages too - the money-making aspects introduces some new incentives that aren't there for most free software. And those incentives often make for a more polished product.

For example, I've been very happy indeed with the commercial Linux CD-ROM vendors linux Red Hat. What commercialism has brought into Linux has been the incentive to make a good distribution that is easy to use and that has all the packaging issues worked out - essentially everything is easily available.

Before the commercial ventures, Linux tended to be rather hard to set up, because most of the developers were motivated mainly by their own interests, which very seldom include issues like ease-of-use. And with Linux, commercialism doesn't exclude the availability of sources, so you get the best of both worlds.

Then there is software that is commercial but doesn't come with sources (the "traditional" commercial software as opposed to a Red Hat Linux distribution). And I don't try to preach against that either: I hate the fact that I (and others) can't fix bugs in them, but sometimes that kind of software is the way to go.

HY: What's your views on Richard Stallman's idea of "free ware"? In your lecture at MIT several years ago, you didn't sound like you were opposed to proprietary software. Are you? What are better off as freeware, and what are better off as proprietary software?

Linus: I'm not as black and white as rms: I tend to think that people can do whatever they want to, but obviously personally I prefer to use free software. And the reason I prefer free software is not actually anything religious or anything like that: it's just that I have a lot of different machines, and I want to be able to work on them all. Having free software means that I can compile it both on my alphas and my PC's.

On the other hand I tend to think that some things work better as commercial software, mainly because a lot of the program is that "final polish" that commercial software is so good at.

For example, user interfaces are _usually_ better in commercial software. I'm not saying that this is always true, but in many cases the user interface to a program is the most important part for a commercial company: whether the programs works correctly or not seems to be secondary (as shown by the many buggy Microsoft programs - not that MS is nearly the only offender).

So things like Word Processors _tend_ to be better when they are commercial, because in a word processor the most important part really is the user interface.

HY: About the GNU/Linux argument; have you talked with Richard Stallman about this?

Linus: rms asked me if I minded the name before starting to use it, and I said "go ahead". I didn't think it would explode into the large discussion it resulted in, and I also thought that rms would only use it for the specific release of Linux that the FSF was working on rather than "every" Linux system.

I never felt that the naming issue was all that important, but I was obviously wrong judging by how many people felt very strongly about it. So these days I just tell people to call it just plain "Linux" and nothing more.

HY: (I know you've been asked this question a million times, but...) Why did Linux become such a big success? Some people say it*s you, some people say it's just a matter of good timing and a lot of luck. What's your opinion?

Linus: There are lots of reasons. Good timing, lots of luck are certainly two obvious ones. But at the same time I also like to think that I've been a good manager (and obviously a good programmer), and that that fact has also been very instrumental in making Linux a successful product.

I also think that the Linux development model in general is a very good model: Linux tends to have fewer rules than other developments, and anybody can chip in doing whatever they want. I act as a general "filter" for all the patches, but other than that it's a very free development model.

HY: There are always various advocacy debates about which is better/best, Linux or FreeBSD or NetBSD. What's your stance? It's often argued that Linux isn't inherently better than any other OS. Do you feel the same way? Have you looked at HURD? What do you think about it?

Linus: I don't think Linux is _inherently_ better than FreeBSD or NetBSD. I just think that Linux is much more successful, partly because of better management, in my opinion. And because Linux has been more successful, there have been more people working on it, and it has developed a lot faster.

There are also a few technical advantages going for Linux: it's a clean re-implementation that doesn't have any historical baggage, and the fact that there is one person who everybody agrees is in charge (me) allows me to do more radical decisions than most other projects can allow.

For example, I can single-handedly decide that something is badly done, and re-do it completely even if it breaks lots of old code. It takes a while to recover from those kinds of decisions, but it makes for a better end result: if something is broken it gets fixed faster.

As to Hurd, I have to say that I'm not very convinced about the approach. I personally tend to think that Mach, the microkernel the Hurd is based on, is not only bloated and slow, but also much too complex.

I think the Hurd tried to be the "perfect" operating system, and they chewed off more than they could handle. It tries to be too clever, too different, too radical. It doesn*t try to be _practical_, which is the main goal with Linux.

HY: Do you consider yourself (or Linux) as a threat to Microsoft? Do you try to be one? Or do you see Linux as occupying a separate niche from Windows?

Linus: I don't try to be a threat to MicroSoft, mainly because I don't really see MS as competition. Especially not Windows - the goals of Linux and Windows are simply so different.

I used to be interested in Windows NT, but the more I see of it the more it looks like traditional Windows with a stabler kernel. I don't find anything technically interesting there. In my opinion MS is a lot better at making money than it is at making good operating systems.

USENIX - USENIX'97 Conference Summaries

Future of the Linux Kernel

By Linus Torvalds, Helsinki University

Summary by Gordon Galligher

There was so much interest in this talk that the conference management made the "Client Tricks" session switch rooms, because its room was much larger. Once we were all seated in our new room, Linus began with a thank-you to all of the people who have been working on the OS and making it successful. He then went into a brief history of Linux and assured everyone that, by 1998, no one will have to worry about "Bill" anymore.

In 1991, Linux actually started out as a terminal emulator (it is the Emacs of terminal emulators). He added some Virtual Memory, some context switching, and voilá, he had UNIX! Actually, in March of 1994, version 1.0 was released, but it lacked good networking, which is one of the reasons it took so long. By March of 1995 version 1.2 was released, and the major change was that the networking really worked by then. In June of 1996, version 2.0 was released; it included multiple architecture support (i386 and DEC Alpha), SMP support and faster performance.

Linus's view of the future of Linux can be boiled down to two words: "world domination." He had a picture of Pinky and the Brain as the background for this slide, and he mentioned that he really wanted to see UNIX on the desktop. Many vendors are pushing their products as "servers" and "giving in" to other products for control of the desktop. Linus truly wants Linux to be a "fun" system, with games and other applications that people need in their work. "Sysadmin tools are boring. No one buys a system for administration tools. They buy it for the games!"

In Progress. The works already in progress for Linux include better Symmetric Multiprocessing (SMP) support on the Intel and SPARC platforms. He mentioned that it required finer granularity for the clocking and that the current system does not scale well on SMP platforms. There are also works to improve the filesystem performance, especially Network Filesystem (NFS) performance. It is written as a user-level application, and that does tend to slow it down as compared to other operating systems that have implemented NFS partially in kernel space. There is also an effort to make kernel threads more efficient via the clone() interface. Clone() is similar to the rfork() call from Plan-9 and sproc() on the SGI platform. As Linus said, "all the others are wrong: Linux is implementing them via clone() as God intended." Linus was a very humble presenter.

More Distant Future. In the more distant future, Linus plans to concentrate much more on performance issues of the kernel. Having sat through the SPARCLinux port discussion, I can see that this idea was probably helped along considerably by pushing from David Miller (the person who performed the main kernel port of Linux to the SPARC). One way to implement that is by having "0-copy devices" so that the kernel is not wasting time copying data back and forth from user to kernel space.

Clone: Kernel Threads. Linus spent a considerable amount of his time discussing the clone() interface for threads, and it generated the most amount of discussion. The main difference between clone() and the way "everyone else" does it is that there is no longer a "thread" vs. "process" dichotomy. Instead of there being a hard and fast wall separating threads of different processes (namely, the process itself), the clone() approach has more importance put on the "context" of the thread. Therefore, threads of different processes will be able to communicate and share execution state (the same virtual memory, file descriptors, signal state, etc.). This lends itself to true lightweight threads and is a good performance booster for things such as threaded execve() for Web-based services.

After a few questions regarding this novel approach, Linus capitulated and stated that perhaps sharing of file descriptors may not be a good idea (because someone else could close a descriptor and it ends up closing yours). However, having threads that share part of their information, such as the virtual memory space but not the descriptors, is a good thing and is something that cannot be done with the existing thread models.

Realtime Features. Linus mentioned that there are a couple of plans to give both "soft" and "hard" realtime support to the Linux kernel. The soft realtime consists of memory locking, signal extensions, and scheduling issues. This is the "easy" realtime to implement, and it is nearly done. The more difficult one is the hard realtime that implements guaranteed latencies among all the other aspects of soft realtime. A member of the audience mentioned that there is a patch available that purports to supply hard realtime to the Linux kernel from the University of Mexico Tech.

Existing/Future Ports. The list of stable and "integrated" ports of Linux include the Intel 80x86 platform, the DEC Alpha, and the Sun SPARC. There are a number of other "unintegrated" ports available for platforms such as the MIPS, the PowerPC, Motorola's 68k architecture, and the Acorn ARM. The unintegrated ports are working versions of Linux, but their changes have not made it into the main source tree that Linus maintains. He mentioned that they would be integrated within a few months. As a result of the DEC Alpha port, Linux is already a 64-bit clean operating system. He then asked the audience, "Would you trust Microsoft or SCO/HP with the P7? They are not even out of the gate for a 64-bit clean OS."

Compatibility Issues. Through the use of the "Wine" program, Linux can run a number of Microsoft Windows programs. Linus mentioned that Microsoft Word runs on Linux, and the only drawback is that it cannot print directly from the application. This should soon be fixed. Once Wine is in more widespread distribution, many of the Microsoft applications can run on Linux. This could give Linux something that has been lacking from UNIX systems from the beginning: desktop applications. There is also support for running OSF/1 applications on the DEC Alpha port of Linux, as well as the SunOS (and some Solaris) applications on the SPARCLinux port.

Copyright/Trademark Issues. A member of the audience asked about the recent trademark dispute over the name Linux. Linus mentioned that there was ongoing work to try to invalidate the trademark, which was registered in 1995 using a "first use date" of 1994-well after Linux was in widespread use. Linus further mentioned that if the person wanted to continue to claim ownership of the trademark, he would lose in court. Another audience member mentioned that interested people could check out the Web page at:

Overall, this was a very well attended and interesting session. Linus used humor quite a bit in his presentation, and the number of people who clamored to attend was astounding. Linus is leaving Helsinki University and moving to Cupertino, CA; but he mentioned that other than being "off the air" for a month, his role of updating and managing the development of Linux should not be impacted.


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