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Friday, 16 October 2009 08:23

Mono and Samba: smell the difference, says Allison

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Samba and Mono differ in the ways the two projects have chosen to deal with software patents in the implementation, according to renowned Samba developer Jeremy Allison.

In a long blog post, Allison also said that the Samba project had a differing view of software freedom, taking the view that all should have the same rights.

His post has apparently been prompted by the amount of media that Mono, a partial implementation of a .NET-compatible set of tools, has received, and ill-informed comparisons of Mono to Samba, with some even claiming that Samba may be more open to patent claims than Mono.

Allison pointed out that even though Samba and Mono were similar in that they were re-implementations of Microsoft technology, the genesis and development of the two projects could not be more different.

Samba was originally created by Australian developer Dr Andrew Tridgell as a typical hacker's tool to connect to a Sun machine in his workplace. He was later surprised to find that the code he had knocked up also worked with PCs running Windows. Running on Linux, it could be used as a file and print server.

It may be recalled that Allison quit Novell in disgust soon after the company signed a patent indemnification deal with Microsoft in November 2006.

Allison says he once asked the creator of Mono, Miguel de Icaza, why he created the .NET clone and quotes De Icaza as telling him: "It's simple. I'm fed up of writing memory garbage collection code for C applications. There had to be an easier way to write Linux desktop applications than that."

But Allison points out that De Icaza and the other Mono developers were smart enough to have made Java do what they wanted to do, even if they had to create Gnome-specific wrappers for the Gnome GUI. This was exactly what they had done for C# and Mono.

He says the real reason for creating Mono may well have been "the old Open Source/Free Software disease of being unable or unwilling to cooperate with existing developers who are doing something similar to what you have in mind. Much easier to start your own project to do something similar, after all that way you have complete control over it."

He adds: "And if you believe that by developing Mono you will get Microsoft Windows .NET developers to move their code over to Linux then you can even claim the moral high ground."

Pointing out that Mono is dangerous for free software, Allison writes that Microsoft has patents on the technology inside .NET and had shown by the TomTom lawsuit that it was not averse to making patent infringement claims about free software.

He said the Microsoft Community Promise was not good enough to allay these fears; if patent infringement threats forced the withdrawal of Mono, then one would lose not only the implementation but also all programs that depended on it.

CONTINUED


However, he said, his basic issue with the Community Promise was that though De Icaza had touted it as the panacea to end all fears about Mono, De Icaza himself did not have to depend on the same promise. (emphasis mine)

"Miguel's employer, Novell, has a patent agreement with Microsoft that exempts Mono users from Microsoft patent aggression, so long as you get Mono from Novell. Miguel takes pains to point this out," Allison wrote.

As far as Mono goes, De Icaza has implemented parts of it which are not covered by the specifications submitted to the standards body ECMA by Microsoft; the parts submitted are said to be available on royalty-free terms and without fear of patent violations.

De Icaza admitted on July 6 that he had implemented much more than the ECMA-covered parts, writing: "Astute readers will point out that Mono contains much more than the ECMA standards, and they will be correct.

"In the next few months we will be working towards splitting the jumbo Mono source code that includes ECMA + A lot more into two separate source code distributions. One will be ECMA, the other will contain our implementation of ASP.NET, ADO.NET, Winforms and others."

As is well known, in December 2007, Samba developers Allison, Tridgell, and Volker Lendecke, aided in no small way by kernel guru Alan Cox, the FSF's Carlo Piana and Eben Moglen, won a famous victory by wresting an agreement from Microsoft which provided everyone with a level playing field as far as Samba use went.

The agreement called for the provision of protocol documentation to a foundation, the Protocol Freedom Information Foundation, which would provide implementors with a limited number of Microsoft patents that may be asserted, and clear and timely warning if new patents were added by Microsoft.

Writes Allison: "If Miguel and the Mono folks had been so careful when negotiating with Microsoft, and just a little less excited about the cool new technology, then I think they'd have done their users a better service."

He argues that including Mono as a default part of a GNU/Linux distribution is an unnecessary risk to users and using it should be left up to users - much in the same way that users are free to install players to run patented MP3 files.

"Most distributions have a way to manage patent risk, by separating out the Free Software that may have patent problems into separate downloadable repositories that are not enabled by default," Allison writes.

"I think it is time for the Mono implementation and applications that use it to be moved into the 'risky' category, until the patent situation around it is deemed to be truly safe to use by default in Free Software."

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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