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Our exclusive interview with Linus Torvalds

Linus Torvalds has probably done more for the world than many know, and his influence stretches far and wide throughout all corners of the globe with a variety of amazing implementations of his original vision that started almost two decades ago.

Whether you know it or not, at some stage in your day-to-day life you probably come into contact with Torvalds’ work. Without him, many wouldn’t be where they are today, Ubuntu wouldn’t exist, and Free Software wouldn’t be such a prevalent mainstream ideology used by millions of people.

Torvalds has paved the way for Linux to become a truly successful mass-market product that’s ubiquitous in everything from embedded ARM devices like in-car entertainment systems to the likes of the TiVo set-top box that graces living rooms the world over and possibly even the smartphone that resides in your pocket.

His early work to establish the Linux kernel as a reliable, feature-rich and flexible basis for Operating Systems made Linux one of the most prominent and widely used examples of Free Software in the world.

Torvalds has been named as one of the “most influential people in the world” by TIME Magazine in 2004, and was voted 17th in their “Top 100 Most Important People of the Century” in 2000.

Torvalds has won numerous awards including the EFF Pioneer Award, the Lovelace Medal and the Takeda Award and in 2008 he was inducted into the Hall of Fellows of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

I had the honour of meeting Linus when he appeared at Linux.conf.au 2011 in Brisbane this week, and after chatting to him for quite some time I must say that this man is a lovely, amicable and approachable person who is truly passionate about what he does.

Linus is humble although what he has done has affected the day-to-day lives of millions, he is friendly and approachable although his position makes him a target for potentially annoying fanboys and media to swoon after and his insight into the world of Open Source is something that I believe should be truly valued.

On Ubuntu

In its 6 year existence, Ubuntu has delivered 13 releases into the hands of millions of users, a number which continues to grow every day. It has been fundamental in helping lower the barrier to entry for Linux and has brought many more people into the Free Software world, myself being one of these people.

So naturally, I asked what Linus thought about Ubuntu, and the first thing he said was that he is not an Ubuntu user.

“I’ve tried it a couple of times over the years, mainly because the thing Ubuntu did so well was make Debian usable. I always felt that Debian was a pointless exercise because to me, the point of a distribution is to make everything easy. Easy to install, to be pretty and to be friendly and Ubuntu did that to Debian.”

[…] the thing Ubuntu did so well was make Debian usable.

“I’ve always had a few problems [with Ubuntu.] It’s not very friendly to kernel developers, and I just end up giving up. That’s kind of okay, because clearly I am not the target audience.”

“I think that Ubuntu has done a really, really good job making Linux available to a wider and different audience, the kind of audience that comes from a Windows and Apple background.”

I think that Ubuntu has done a really, really good job making Linux available to a wider and different audience.

I explained to Linus that certainly that was the case with myself, as I only got involved with Linux a couple of years ago and if Ubuntu wasn’t around I don’t think I would have had the guts to give Linux a go.

“Even from a technical angle, I love the fact how Ubuntu was basically the distribution that started the whole Live CD install. While you’re installing [Ubuntu] you can actually use the program. You can actually do something while it’s installing and I thought, why didn’t everybody else do this?”

On Linux in mobile devices

Linux on mobile devices has come a long way in the past two years, mainly helped along by the massive force that is the Android Operating System by Google.

Suddenly, Linux is actually being used by a huge number of people around the world and with over 300,000 Android phones being sold a day, as well as other Linux based platforms such as Nokia’s Meego starting to take shape, this doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon and indeed it will only get more popular.

I suggested to Linus that it must be really pleasing for him to see Linux in the hands of hundreds of thousands of people every day.

“Not just Android. What I’ve found that has been most fun for me has been when people are using Linux in ways that I don’t use it or in ways that I never intended it to be used, people using it in embedded areas, and with cellphones like Android but also all the crazy people using it in printers and TVs.”

“I am very happy about Android obviously. I use Android, and it’s actually made cellphones very usable.”

“In fact, long before cellphones became more usable there were all these failed prototypes that tried to use Linux and that was a lot of fun to see too. It’s a learning experience.”

I am very happy about Android obviously. I use Android, and it’s actually made cellphones very usable.

At that point we had to catch our bus from the conference venue to the Brisbane Cultural Centre where the Penguin Dinner was to be held.

I got to have a nice informal chat with Linus off-record during the bus ride, about everything from Australian public transport to where he had been diving that morning (one of Linus’ hobbies is SCUBA diving).

Eventually we got to the Cultural Centre and found a quiet place to continue the interview, where I had one last question to ask Linus.

Upcoming kernel features

The kernel is Linus’ domain, so I figured I better ask him what cool new stuff is happening in the next 6 months of kernel development.

“The current merge window that closed only a week before I left for the conference is my personal favourite merge window in a long time because we have two really big things going on.”

“We have the new filename lookup code. The neat thing about that is that it should be completely invisible to users in the sense that we don’t add in new features, we don’t do anything that people notice except we’re doing it much faster.”

[…] we’re doing it much faster.

“We were very good at file lookup before too because it’s a very common operation. Even when you’re using a graphical desktop and you don’t think about your workload as being filesystem specific, quite often every time you open a new graphical application they tend to open ten thousand different configuration files.”

“Sometimes it’s a disgrace what those processes are doing behind your back, and making that very fundamental kernel operation faster is something that I get involved in and I think the kernel should do really, really well.”

Sometimes it’s a disgrace what those processes are doing behind your back.

“At the same time it’s kind of the less glamorous side of the kernel. People tend to talk up new features and how we do something really cool that nobody has ever done before. The fact is in the end the really important stuff is the meat and potatoes – doing the boring stuff, the stuff that really matters.”

“Too many merge windows have fancy features. New drivers are something that everybody wants and needs and there is new hardware coming out and we need to support it, but at the same time new drivers tend to not be something fundamentally exciting, that’s the other side of the meat and potatoes, you need to do it because you need to support the hardware but it’s not the kind of stuff I personally find exciting.”

At this stage I asked Linus whether the kernel was going to continue getting faster as the kernel team work on optimization.

“I hope so, quite often the kernel doesn’t get faster. We add new features and as a result the kernel gets bigger and slower. The fact that we get noticeably faster on some really important operations is a great thing.”

I suggested to Linus that unlike other Operating Systems such as Windows, Linux tends to not suffer from the same level of bloat as time goes on.

“We have bloat, it comes up in a lot of benchmarks and a lot of people do benchmarking of how kernel performance improves over time, but we do have bloat and it happens.”

Almost always there is a really good reason for the bloat.

“Almost always there is a really good reason for the bloat. For example, we add in something because we want people to do new things but it does often end up meaning that we have a bigger footprint. Sometimes we add stuff that really speed things up so that it makes up for all the bad things!”

“Computers are getting faster and in the last three years we have improved scalability a lot. It used to be that having four CPUs or eight CPUs you were talking about server systems and relatively few people using them.”

“What’s happening now is that we’ve done a lot of scalability for those people and you can now buy a laptop with four CPUs or eight CPUs and it’s not even that expensive.”

Thanks a lot to Linus for taking the time out of his incredibly busy schedule to talk to me, I really enjoyed it and I hope you guys enjoyed reading it!

Linus and I at LCA 2011