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13 November 2012, 15:16

Interview: Linus Torvalds – I don't read code any more

with Glyn Moody

I was lucky enough to interview Linus quite early in the history of Linux – back in 1996, when he was still living in Helsinki (you can read the fruits of that meeting in this old Wired feature.) It was at an important moment for him, both personally – his first child was born at this time – and in terms of his career. He was about to join the chip design company Transmeta, a move that didn't really work out, but led to him relocating to America, where he remains today.

That makes his trips to Europe somewhat rare, and I took advantage of the fact that he was speaking at the recent LinuxCon Europe 2012 in Barcelona to interview him again, reviewing the key moments for the Linux kernel and its community since we last spoke.

Glyn Moody: Looking back over the last decade and half, what do you see as the key events in the development of the kernel?

Linus Torvalds: One big thing for me is all the scalability work that we did. We've gone from being OK on 2 or 4 CPUs to the point where basically you can throw 4,000 [at it] – you won't scale perfectly, but most of the time it's not the kernel that's the bottleneck. If your workload is somewhat sane we actually scale really well. And that took a lot of effort.

SGI in particular worked a lot on scaling past a few hundred CPUs. Their initial patches could just not be merged. There was no way we could take the work they did and use it on a regular PC because they added all this infrastructure to work on thousands of CPUs. That was way too expensive to do when you had only a couple.

I was afraid for the longest time that we would have the high-performance kernel for the big machines, and the source code would be separate from the normal kernel. People worked a lot on just making sure that we had a clean code base where you can say at compile time that, hey, I want the kernel that works for 4,000 CPUs, and it generates the code for that, and at the same time, if you say no, I want the kernel that works on 2 CPUs, the same source code compiles.

It was something that in retrospect is really important because it actually made the source code much better. All the effort that SGI and others spent on unifying the source code, actually a lot of it was clean-up – this doesn't work for a hundred CPUs, so we need to clean it up so that it works. And it actually made the kernel more maintainable. Now on the desktop, 8 and 16 CPUs are almost common; it used to be that we had trouble scaling to 8, now it's like child's play.

But there's been other things too. We spent years again at the other end, where the phone people were so power conscious that they had ugly hacks, especially on the ARM side, to try to save power. We spent years doing power management in general, doing the kind of same thing – instead of having these specialised power management hacks for ARM, and the few devices that cellphone people cared about, we tried to make it across the kernel. And that took like five years to get our power management working, because it's across the whole spectrum.

Quite often when you add one device, that doesn't impact any of the rest of the kernel, but power management was one of those things that impacts all of the thousands of device drivers that we have. It impacts core functionality, like shutting down CPUs, it impacts schedulers, it impacts the VM, it impacts everything.

It not only affects everything, it has the potential to break everything which makes it very painful. We spent so much time just taking two steps forward, one step back because we made an improvement that was a clear improvement, but it broke machines. And so we had to take the one step back just to fix the machines that we broke.

Realistically, every single release, most of it is just driver work. Which is kind of boring in the sense there is nothing fundamentally interesting in a driver, it's just support for yet another chipset or something, and at the same time that's kind of the bread and butter of the kernel. More than half of the kernel is just drivers, and so all the big exciting smart things we do, in the end it pales when compared to all the work we just do to support new hardware.

Next: Architecture, community & Linus's role

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