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Linux Kernel Devs: We Need New Blood

Get Off My Linux Lawn

  • April 15, 2010
  • By Sean Michael Kerner
Sean Michael Kerner

Are Linux kernel developers getting too old?

That was a question raised during a panel discussion with kernel developers at the Linux Foundation's Collaboration Summit this week, as some admitted that there are a large number of 'graybeards' that make up kernel development.

The graying of the kernel could put Linux development at risk unless new blood is brought into the fold, some warned.

"Yes we're getting older and I think we're also getting more tired," Linux kernel developer Andrew Morton said. "Amongst individuals in the development community, I don't see the amount of same energy, enthusiasm and effort -- I'm afraid I often see people ducking work which they would have happily jumped into 10 years ago. So yes, we need new blood."

Morton added that in his view there are now a bunch of developers that have been very active for 10 or 15 years and they have a very highly specialized level of experience and understanding. He noted those experienced developers have the skills to integrate components of great complexity into Linux.

"So the people are getting more expert and the code which they are adding is more complex, which makes it harder for newcomers to reach the same level of productivity," Morton said. "That problem is becoming worse and worse as with the stuff we're putting in now, we would have run away from screaming 10 years ago."

Morton does have a solution for the problem. In his view, Linux kernel developers need to document the work that they do better. He wasn't talking about offline documentation, but rather documentation within the code itself.

According to kernel developer James Bottomley, two things carry development forward in open source. Enthusiasm from new developers is an important complement to the coding wisdom from people that have been working on the technology for years, he said. That the Linux community is getting older is a reflection of the fact that coding wisdom is increasing.

Encouraging Newcomers

"As long as we are getting sufficient young blood coming up through the community, the graying of the Linux kernel will be a natural process until, frankly, people start dying," Bottomley said.

But some panelists argued against the concern that the Linux community isn't bringing in new developers.

Linux kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman doesn't entirely agree with Morton's assessment. Kroah-Hartman is the co-author of the "Who Writes Linux" study, and has direct insight into where developers are coming from. Kroah-Hartman said that he has seen between 200 and 300 new developers per kernel release over the last several years.

"I don't know how old they are and I don't honestly care," Kroah-Hartman said. "I'm waiting for Baby Boomers to retire and look for a hobby -- and I'm seeing that happen. As long as the influx of new people is constant we'll be ok."

Actually working on the Linux kernel can also be a good route to landing a job. While some people might get started working on Linux as a hobby, many developers are currently paid to work on the kernel by corporations.

"If you show any experience or competency in kernel development you will be hired," Kroah-Hartman said. "There are a lot of companies that need kernel work and companies are hiring for kernel work. So if you do it as a hobby and you're offered to get paid, wouldn't you do that? I did and now I need a new hobby."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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