Enterprise Unix Roundup: The Bitkeeper Controversy

Enterprise Unix Roundup: The Bitkeeper Controversy

April 28, 2005

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Michael Hall
Amy Newman

A few weeks ago we made passing mention of what has since come to be known as "the Bitkeeper Controversy." We knew there'd be more to say about the matter at a later date, but we weren't sure when that would be. As it turns out, we were just waiting for the right last word.

In a nutshell, Linux kernel development has depended in no small part on a revision management system called Bitkeeper. "The Bitkeeper Controversy" is another one of those baroque Linux stories that cause casual observers to shake their heads and go back to wondering if Longhorn will ship with a better version of Solitaire.

Bitkeeper was adopted after widespread complaints about how Linux leader Linus Torvalds was keeping up with the patches sent to him; its adoption prompted even more complaints because the software is not Open Source or Free. As problematic as Bitkeeper's license was, however, it solved a much bigger problem, which was the lack of a Free or Open Source alternative that could come near Bitkeeper's capabilities. In a case study moment of marketing insight, Bitkeeper's owner smoothed out the license objections not by taking the product Open Source, but by giving it away to Linux developers at no cost.

Longtime Linux observers might wonder how giving a proprietary product away for no money would smooth over objections to the product's proprietary nature. The answer to that question is fairly simple, and it's part of the core conflict that forces us to use unwieldy constructions like "the Free and Open Source software community" or opaque acronyms like "FOSS." Part of that community (the "Free Software" wing) has assigned a certain moral value to software; another part of that community (the "Open Source" wing) downplays discussions about software morality in favor of what it prefers to think of as "pragmatism."

At the time Bitkeeper was selected, the self-styled pragmatists weren't interested in worrying about the license behind a needed tool, and they were even less interested in building an open source alternative. If no suitable alternative is available, the reasoning went, we'll just have to chalk it up to one of life's funny contradictions. And they went back to coding.

All was as well as it could be under this arrangement, until recently, when Bitkeeper's owner began to complain that certain Linux developers were trying to reverse-engineer his product. After some unsuccessful back and forth, the no-cost version of Bitkeeper was slated to be pulled, and the Linux kernel team was left without a way to keep its patches straight.

In the pragmatist version of this narrative, this is how the story ended:

Linus Torvalds announced he was working on his own patch tracking system, called "git." It was picked up by the kernel developers who needed to stay in sync with Linus, and the Linux kernel rumbled on.

Two weeks ago, that was where things stood, and it didn't stir us to revisit the story. What got us to provide this recap was commentary from Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, who argued against adopting Bitkeeper in 2002, and who has provided, more than anyone, the most consistent voice in favor of considering the ethical dimensions of software licensing:

The Free Software Movement has said 'Think of free speech, not free beer' for 15 years. McVoy said the opposite; he invited developers to focus on the lack of monetary price, instead of on freedom. A free software activist would dismiss this suggestion, but those in our community who value technical advantage above freedom and community were susceptible to it.


It was also, whether intentionally or not, a powerful political PR campaign, telling the free software community that freedom-denying software is acceptable as long as it's convenient. If we had taken that attitude towards Unix in 1984, where would we be today? Nowhere. If we had accepted using Unix, instead of setting out to replace it, nothing like the GNU/Linux system would exist.

Free Software activists haven't been able to point to a more straightforward object lesson since the legendary closed-source printer driver, which inspired Stallman to launch the movement in the first place.

If concerns about the dangers of lock-in and dependence on a tool that's available only at whim aren't pragmatic, what is?

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In Other News

» On Wednesday, Novell announced a partnership with China Standard Software Co. (CS2C) of Shanghai to help expand and promote Linux adoption in China. The two companies will compete against China's number-one Linux vendor, Red Flag, as they partner on services, marketing, and technology support issues to give Chinese organizations "enterprise-class Linux services and local and global support." News also came through Wednesday that Novell has lured Jeremy Allison, one of the core programmers behind Samba, from HP. Allison, who will start immediately at Novell, said the reason he made the switch was to benefit from Novell programmers' experience with file servers.

» There's a new sheriff in town on the Debian project. After four unsuccessful runs for the position of Debian Project Leader (DPL), Branden Robinson has been elected over five other candidates. His first challenge, as noted in an e-mail sent yesterday, will be to move Debian toward a regular release cycle and move the much-delayed "Sarge" closer to gold.

» 64-bit is rapidly becoming all the rage, and Terra Soft Solutions has latched on to the trend with the release of a 64-bit version of Yellow Dog Linux. The interim set of ISOs is available for immediate download as part of Yellow Dog Linux v4.0.90. The new version offers double-precision, support for 16 GB of RAM, a native runtime environment for both 32- and 64-bit code, a bi-arch (32/64) toolchain, Core 64-bit libraries, and an updated X.org, which corrects Aluminum Cinema display issues.

» As any self-respecting Mac fan knows, Tiger's release is drawing near. Mac OS X will go on sale at participating Apple Authorized Resellers and Apple retail stores worldwide tomorrow, April 29 at 6 p.m. "Tiger World Premiere" events will be held in all 105 Apple retail stores from 6 p.m. until midnight, with giveaways, workshops, and hands-on demonstrations of Tiger's hottest features planned. Tiger is priced at $499 for a 10-client edition and $999 for an unlimited-client edition.

Among the many reviews we've been reading, this one stood out as particularly noteworthy.

Recent Updates

Tips of the Trade

The Linux/Unix world contains many mail servers, and most of them provide superior performance, features, and security. One that is rather different from the rest is PowerMail. PowerMail is a distributed, redundant system capable of receiving and delivering large volumes of mail quickly. It has a central user account database, which obviates the need for system accounts, and users' mailboxes can be located anywhere. You can even set up redundant mailboxes in different locations to add fault-tolerance.

PowerMail is very fast because there is no mail queue or message store — messages are routed directly into users' mailboxes. Bulk mails are delivered only once; copies are made and hard links created for the remaining recipients. Scaling up is easy, since mailboxes can be located anywhere — just add more storage.

Configuration is simplified because you don't have to mess with configuring domains. The mailbox name includes the domain, like "carla@mykewlserver.com." Adding a new user account means simply adding the user to the PowerMail account database. The database backend can be just about any database you like; MySQL is the default. It runs on Linux, Unix, FreeBSD, Mac OS X, and Windows.

PowerMail's limited feature set is its Achilles Heel. It cannot handle outgoing mail and does not support IMAP, or external mail handlers like procmail, Amavis, or Spamassassin, though these may be added in future releases. See PowerDNS.com to learn more.

Carla Schroder writes the Tips of the Trade section of Enterprise Unix Roundup. She also appears on Enterprise Networking Planet and Linux Planet, covering Linux from the desktop to the server room, and is the author of the Linux Cookbook.

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