SUSE CTO Takes Issue With ‘Backporting’

TORONTO — SUSE’s chief technology officer said he believes the practice of “backporting” features from the 2.6 Linux kernel into older versions is a “bad thing” because it interferes with standardization of the open source operating system.

During a keynote address at the Real World Linux Conference here Thursday, Juergen Geck also chided industry players to avoid practices that could further fragment open source standardization efforts.

Geck’s comments came just weeks after Novell , SUSE’s parent company, offered its YaST (Yet another Setup Tool) systems management tools to the open source community under the widely used General Public License . The move was seen as a bid to improve SUSE’s own competitive position — and market position — against its rival, number one Linux distributor Red Hat .

“All management consoles share a common joke. All management consoles are cross architecture and cross platform; they run on every overhead project regardless,” he said.

Geck compared Linux systems management without YaST as about as fruitful as talking to a toaster. “With YaST,” Geck explained, “now the toaster listens.”

He claimed the newly-GPL’d toolset has had an immediate impact with SUSE partners, including IBM . Geck described how Big Blue has embraced YaST and integrated support for DB2 setup with it. “IBM did it on their own,” Geck said. “It wasn’t SUSE/Novell trying to play catchup with IBM software. It was the release of YaST under the GPL so there was no control point from us. We detached ourselves from our own baby so to say.”

At times, the SUSE CTO struck a reassuring tone during his remarks, such as when he pointed out that the perceived chaotic nature of open source development is smoothed by the company’s Autobuild system, which builds the various SUSE LINUX distributions.

He said SUSE’s Autobuild tools also make extensive use of RPM, the term for rival Red Hat’s Package Manager. “Yes it’s an open source world and we use RPM, just as much as we expect Red Hat to embrace YaST,” Geck said.

When asked during a question and answer session whether SUSE had, in the open source spirit, considered using Anaconda, Red Hat’s own version of a GPL’ed installer/management tool like YaST, Geck said he thought so.

“But why wouldn’t we want to use
something different than YaST? The easy answer is that it’s a homegrown solution and fits our needs,” he added.

But the larger point he made was about addressing open standards among Linux distributors.

“Why would Linux not fork at some point? It’s a question that is asked time and time again. The answer is money,” he said. “Any deviation from an open source-defined API is something where we go out on a limb.”

Take the 2.6 kernel, he continued. “We have the 2.6 kernel as the foundation for everything that we do today. There is another contender out there that has a 2.4 kernel with backports (from the Linux 2.6 kernel),” Geck said.

“I think it’s a mistake, I think it’s a big mistake,” he said. “It’s a big mistake because of one reason, this work is not going to be supported by the open source community because it’s not interesting anymore because everyone else is working on 2.6.”

“We don’t want to go out on that limb,” he continued. “We’ve always been more standards compliant than anyone else not because we’re much better but because we understand it’s an investment case and that we can’t harvest any gain if we did.”

According to Red Hat’s Web site, features from the Linux 2.6 kernel that would be of most value to commercial/enterprise customers and ISVs are backported for use with the latest and most stable Linux 2.4 kernel in order to provide more stable features.

It’s not that open source projects don’t do a marvelous job of maintaining various version and code streams, he stressed to the audience. His only point, he added, is that SUSE offers a degree of support and reliability that enterprises demand.

For example, Debian is “a wonderful distribution no strings attached,” Geck said. “It’s just that its not useful to deploy Debian in a situation where you have certain support constraints maybe on the hardware or software side.”

Geck later clarified his position about older open source versions of software in response to a question about whether SUSE supports Apache 1.3.x. He said SUSE currently supports Apache 2.x.

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