Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce Linus Torvalds: looking back, looking forward

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Most years, Linus Torvalds comes to Australia. He apparently likes the place, so the creator of the Linux kernel makes his way to the Australian national Linux conference in January.

He's been doing this since 2003, when the affable James Bromberger and Tony Breeds (corrected) organised the LCA in Perth, only missing out in 2010 when the event moved across the Tasman to Wellington.

Torvalds is an excellent subject for an interview; he never evades a question, not even if he has a single word to offer as reply. And despite claiming to have a big ego, he is indeed very approachable.

He couldn't sit down for an interview as he was leaving the conference the morning after I approached him; hence this was done by email.

iTWire: It's been nearly 20 years now since that now-famous message posted to comp.os.minix announced the arrival of something that has grown beyond anyone's imagination. Have there been any occasions when you've thought of walking away from it?

Linus Torvalds: Walking away? No. There have certainly been times of frustration, and times when I've really wanted to take a break, but quite frankly, even then it's been "I need to get away from this for a few hours (or days) to relax and do something else" rather than anything more than that.

And I can't imagine doing it now either. I'd just get really bored very quickly. There have been stressful times, but in hindsight even the stressful times have usually been things that really were worthwhile in the end. And interestingly (and maybe not all that surprisingly, but it always took me by surprise every time it happened anyway), most of the ones that have been the most stressful have been not really about technical issues. They've always fundamentally been about development model. So there's been several times when the way I did something just didn't work out well as the kernel project grew, and I (and others) needed to change how we worked in Linus Torvaldsorder to streamline the process and make it work better in the face of many new developers.

As an example, we had the multi-year release cycles, which really led to a lot of pain and caused all the distributions to have to back-port a lot of code to the "stable" version, which got increasingly hard as the development tree diverged quite radically over the years. And people still remember that model, and the whole "even release numbers" (for stable, ie 2.4.x) vs "odd release numbers" (for development, ie 2.5.x) got so ingrained that a few other projects started doing the same thing. And it caused lots of problems, and we had to change how the whole release cycle looked. Because it was _incredibly_ painful, and making ready for 2.6.0 was what led me to say that I needed to take a year of unpaid leave from Transmeta exactly because it was getting to be such a big load (that's how I ended up at OSDL, which is now the Linux Foundation - it started out as a way to pay the bills and have health insurance during my year off).

Or all the changes we've done to our source code management. I stayed at patches + tar-balls for the longest time, because it used to work. But I couldn't imagine doing that any more, and we had some painful times with the networking tree using CVS for a while, and trying to sort out the results of that.

So there's been times when it wasn't as much fun, but never really a "walk away" moment, no.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.