Complaining about the kingdom of kernel

| categories: complaining, fedora

Jonathan Corbet of LWN gave a keynote at Linaro Connect about The kernel's limits to growth. The general summary was that the kernel had scaling problems in the late 90's (A single "B"DFL does not scale) but the developers figured out a method that was more sustainable. There's a growing concern that we're about to hit another scaling problems with insufficient maintainers. Solving this has gotten some attention of late. I have a lot of thoughts about maintainership and growing in the kernel (many of which can be summarized as "well nobody has told me to stop yet") but this is not that blog post. The talk mentioned that kernel development can be described as "A bunch of little feifdoms". This is a superb metaphor for so many things in Linux kernel land.

The terrible secret of Linux kernel development is that there really isn't a single kernel project. Sending stuff to just LKML is unlikely to go anywhere. Using get_maintainer.pl will tell you who the maintainers are and what mailing lists to use1 but it won't tell you how the maintainer actually maintains or their preferences. There are some common documented guidelines for getting things in but there always seems to be an exception. The networking stack has a long list of the ways it is different. Some subsystems use patchwork as a method for tracking and acking patches. The ARM32 maintainer has his own separate system for tracking patches. DRM is embracing a group maintainer model.

The end result is that sending patches to different subsystems means figuring out a different set of procedures. This problem is certainly not unique to the kernel. The hardest part of open source is always going to be the social aspect and dealing with how others want to handle a project. No one tool is ever going to solve this problem. The kernel seems to be particularly in love with the idea of letting everyone do their own thing so long as it doesn't make anyone else too mad. I'm sure this worked great when all the kernel developers could fit in one room but these days having one set of procedures for the entire kernel would make things run much smoother.

If the kernel community is made up of feifdoms, then the kernel community itself is a strange archaic kingdom2. Many of Ye Olde kernel developers love to talk about why e-mail is the only acceptable method for kernel development. I'm going to pick on this talk for a bit. I can't deny that many of the other options aren't great. I refuse to believe that github having pull requests separate from the mailing list is actually worse than each subsystem having a completely separate mailing list though. Good luck if someone forgets to Cc LKML or if your mailing list3 doesn't have patchwork. Having everything go to mailing list also doesn't guarantee anyone will actually review it or learn from it. The way to learn from an open source community is to make deliberate time to read and review what's being submitted. People can learn whatever tool is available to make this happen if they want to be engaged with the community. Maybe this is e-mail, maybe this is github. Whatever. The harder part is making sure people want to use the preferred communication method to review what's going on in the community.

Once again, I seem to have come around to the point of community building, something which the Linux kernel community still seems to struggle at. The kernel community problems are well documented at this point and I don't feel like enumerating them again. The scaling problems of the kernel are only going to get worse if nobody actually wants to stick around long enough to become a maintainer.


  1. Among my list of petty grievances is that mailing lists can be hosted on a variety of servers so there isn't always a unified place to look at archives. RIP GMANE. 

  2. Insert Monty Python and the Holy Grail joke here 

  3. I love you linux-mm but either your patchwork is incredibly well hidden from me or it doesn't exist, both of which make me sad.