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Tom Hanrahan, Linux Engineering, OSDL

Tom HanrahanTen years ago, you might have thought hiring an IBM employee to head up Linux development at the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) a strange move.

After all, IBM was once the poster child for a business culture that emphasized conservatism, dark suits and white shirts; the roots of the Linux movement, on the other hand, were found in the independent computer enthusiast who cared more about writing great code than following a dress code.

As the saying goes, that was then and this is now. Linux is now firmly entrenched in corporate networks around the world and lauded for its stability and performance, while Big Blue has become one of the biggest open source advocates in the software industry.

IBM -- along with HP , Computer Associates , Intel and NEC -- founded the OSDL in 2000. It has since become the home of Linus Torvalds, the developer who first created the Linux kernel back in 1991, and who works exclusively on the Linux kernel while the OSDL focuses on enterprise computing.

So it shouldn't have come as a surprise when OSDL officials announced the appointment of Tom Hanrahan, IBM's Linux Technology Center (LTC) senior program manager in charge of software development and testing, as director of Linux engineering in late September.

Hanrahan will do many of the things he did at IBM, overseeing OSDL's efforts in helping the Linux community develop code that bolsters Linux in the enterprise world, whether that comes in the form of technical support and guidance for developers or equipment to test code on different architectures.

He talked with internetnews.com recently to discuss the challenges ahead for Linux and some of his goals as director.

Q: When I think of the coordination needed to support the worldwide Linux development process, I think of that commercial with the cowboys herding cats on the open range. Any similarities?

Herding cats and organized chaos are kind of two sides of the same coin. I would say this: development in the open source environment is significantly different than development in a proprietary environment. What we're finding is that the strengths of working in the open source environment are pretty exciting right now. And really, the key is you have so many people who are able to contribute and who are able to review code that you can accelerate the code development process while maintaining the quality of the code. To me, that's the real benefit that we get by having this new model.

As far as how you manage it, you do have to think more in terms of how you influence the direction things are going rather than dictating how things are going. I guess that's the sense you have when you talk about herding cats or having organized chaos.

Q: How much different was the corporate culture at IBM?

I worked at the Linux Technology Center [LTC] at IBM, so I was involved in the exact same activities that I'm doing now. Part of the training that IBM gave us before they brought any of us into the LTC was that you do have to understand how this different model of software development works. IBM did a pretty good job of preparing us and training us for what to expect. So when we started entering the community, we entered in a way the community would expect developers to enter, and we didn't come in with a proprietary mindset. I think that's what made IBM's participation in the community successful.

Q: What are your first impressions of the OSDL?

My first impressions are that it's confirmed the good work I thought OSDL was doing all along. That they really do provide value to the community in terms of human resources, such as developers writing code and testers providing test information to the development community, as well as equipment resources so that if people have a need to test on a particular architecture, a good place to look is the OSDL.

Q: When you're sitting at your desk, do you ever get the impression, "oh man, Linus is looking at me," the sense he may be watching and seeing what you're up to?

[Laughs] Not so much. I've met him a couple of times and he's a really good engineer, but I'm used to working with really good engineers. So I don't feel intimidated by having him being a part of the OSDL.

Q: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for Linux in today's market?

I think one of the things OSDL can do is to help better integrate the ISV development process with the Linux community development process. I'll give you a specific example.

ISVs tend to work in a cycle that's six months to a year. They expect to be able to have a stable platform underneath them in order to recoup the amount of money they've invested during that development effort. The Linux community is at a much more aggressive development cycle; there are some times when the code is updated daily; weekly updates are not unusual; [and] monthly updates are common.

We have to find some way to help ISVs work in that kind of environment, and one of the initiatives we're starting right now is something called the "binary regression test." Our thought behind that is we would work with the ISV to see what kind of binary regression testing they do as part of their six-month to one-year cycle.

We would create a test suite that mimics that regression test suite, and we would begin running that on a much more aggressive schedule so that we could quickly identify any break in binary compatibility so that we can work with the community to fix that break or we can better prepare the ISVs for what they're going to have to do when they move on to the next version of Linux.

On the desktop side within the enterprise, that's one we're still learning what the challenges are. The biggest challenges I see are how we can better co-exist with proprietary operating systems, particularly Windows. The more that Linux can work in a mixed environment, and the better that Linux can work in a mixed environment, the greater its adoption rate is going to be.

Q: There are some who are worried Linux might be chasing the tail of Windows functionality. At what point do you decide which function is good for Linux or is just a Windows copycat, or any other operating system?

We don't make those decisions at all. It's really the Linux community that decides the direction it wants Linux to go in. In general, there's such a wide variety of people who use Linux that the right thing happens for each usage at every step along the way. For example, the graphical user interfaces right now for Linux are really pretty good; someone coming from a Windows environment to work on GNOME or KDE is going to be pretty comfortable with how things work. And these were just decisions that are made by the community as they start wanting to use Linux themselves as individuals.

Q: Have you set any goals for where you want to see Linux two years, five years down the road?

I'd definitely like to see us continue to grow on the server side. The Web server market, for example, is pretty well penetrated by Linux right now. The telco market is becoming much more comfortable with Linux, and I think there's pretty good penetration of it there. I'd like to see Linux make advancements in the data center, and there are a number of markets, like financial services, where we'd like to see faster adoption rates.

On the desktop side, I'd like to see us have better support for the independent software vendors; I think that's the big challenge we're facing on the desktop side. Getting a big pool of applications available is a challenge, because it's still pretty hard for ISVs to kind of pick the combination of Linux and GUI that they want to target.