Longterm kernel proposal signals ongoing Linux growth

One small step for the kernel, one giant leap for Linux demand

The Linux kernel development process may be getting a little tweaking if a proposal by -stable kernel maintainer Greg Kroah-Hartman is accepted; tweaking needed to meet growing commercial interest in Linux.

The proposal is simple, on the surface and all the way down: Currently, the 2.6.32 kernel is maintained as a -longterm kernel, a kernel release that is maintained as a stable release with bug fixes and patches for a relatively lengthy period of time. This is opposed to the official -stable release of the Linux kernel, which is the kernel release most suitable for general use, and is dropped when the next release is moved into the -stable category. (The current -stable release, for example, is the 3.0.1 kernel.)

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According to Kroah-Hartman, the notion of a long-term Linux kernel release got started when he was working at then-Novell on SUSE Linux.

"...[M]y day job (at SUSE) picked the 2.6.16 kernel for its 'enterprise' release and it made things a lot easier for me to keep working at applying bugfixes and other stable patches to it to make my job simpler (applying a known-good bunch of patches in one stable update was easier than a set of smaller patches that were only tested by a smaller group of people)," Kroah-Hartman wrote in his blog Sunday.

Evidently, this worked well enough that Kroah-Hartman would start implementing the -longterm strategy on other releases, the next being 2.6.27, now maintained by Willy Tarreau, who is also the Linux 2.4 kernel maintainer. But Kroah-Hartman wanted to push this past just SUSE, so after working with other kernel developers, decided to promote an "official" -longterm release, which time for the aforementioned 2.6.32, released in December, 2009.

Linux 2.6.32 is now 21 months old, and "a huge success," according to Kroah-Hartman, and other -longterm releases have been started by Paul Gortmaker and Andi Kleen. With this success in mind, Kroah-Hartman wants to formalize the -longterm release schedule, but not necessarily for the enterprise Linux distributions like SUSE and Red Hat. Instead, the demand for a -longterm release is coming from the mobile sector, as vendors there need a long-term supported release, too:

"Consumer devices have a 1-2 year lifespan, and want and need the experience of the kernel community maintaining their 'base' kernel for them. There is no real 'enterprise' embedded distro out there from what I can see. MontaVista and Wind River have some offerings in this area, but they are not that widely used and are usually more 'deep embedded.' There's also talk that the CELF group and Linaro are wanting to do something on a 'longterm' basis, and are fishing around for how to properly handle this with the community to share the workload. Android also is another huge player here, upgrading their kernel every major release, and they could use the support of a longterm kernel as well."

Because of the needs of these vendors, Kroah-Hartman is making the proposal that a new -longterm release, which will be supported for two years, will be chosen annually. After the two years, the -longterm release will be dropped. -stable kernels will keep to their existing schedules, and the rules for the -stable kernel for patching and updates will be applied to the -longterm kernel.

"This means that there are 2 -longterm kernels being maintained at the same time, and one -stable kernel," Kroah-Hartman wrote.

The very proposal gives insight into what's happening in the Linux ecosystem: rather than stagnating on the same old development process that's led by large enterprise distros, kernel developers are finding themselves responding to increasing commercial demand from many sectors. There's not stagnation here, and anyone who thinks differently has got a screw loose.

In the grand scheme of things, Kroah-Hartman's proposal is minor procedural change in the Linux kernel development process, but the fact that a -longterm process is being formalized is a strong indicator that the demand for Linux in many hardware and software offerings is growing quite well.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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