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Open Source Summit: Linux Kernel Developers Discuss Challenges, Opportunities

By Sean Michael Kerner (Send Email)
Posted September 14, 2017


LOS ANGELES — While Linus Torvalds is the most famous Linux kernel developer, he's just one of many that help to lead the way forward. In a panel session at the Open Source Summit in Los Angeles, a panel of leading Linux kernel developers discussed their views on the current state of Linux kernel development.

Google developer Kees Cook explained that right now the kernel is broken up into many different sub-systems, each with its own maintainer. A challenge for Cook is getting changes implemented that span multiple sub-systems. Cook works specifically on security, and the changes he tends to need to make have broad impact.

What Cook has to do now is either send patches to each and every subsystem, or have his own complete kernel tree that the subsystem maintainers can pick up.

"I'm not a huge fan of the existing model, but I hope I get to the point where I'm irritating people enough that they take my changes," Cook said.

One challenge noted by Laura Abbott, Fedora kernel engineer at Red Hat, has to do with responsibility.

"Often, if you touched it last, you own it," Abbott said.

What she would like to see is more training for new kernel developers to help do code review and get more constructive feedback.

VMware engineer Steve Rostedt remarked that often the best way to learn how the kernel works is by breaking things.

"I learn more when I break things then when I actually try and solve things," he said.

Dealing with Old Code in the Linux Kernel

At this point in the Linux kernel's life, there's lots of old code, and not all of it is safe or even needed. While some issues can be manually removed or fixed, not everything can.

"There is no way we can review all the code," Rostedt said. "Maybe we just catch things that we know are broken."

Cook added that from a security perspective, the Stack Protector technology in Linux can help to mitigate the risk of old code leading to software vulnerabilities. Cook explained how the stack protector can help to protect against some classes of poor coding errors that can lead to flaws such as buffer overflow.

Learning how to participate in kernel development isn't alway easy, and the Linux kernel mailing is not particularly well known for being polite either. Cook noted that everyone is passionate and just wants things to work.

"A certain level of resilience is needed to brush off any comments that aren't about code," Cook said. "But I've also got lots of constructive criticism as well."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at ServerWatch and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

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