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Linus Torvalds
Linus Torvalds at LinuxCon in Seattle this morning.

The surprise guest at LinuxCon in Seattle this morning was none other than Linus Torvalds, the driving force behind the Linux kernel and a central figure in the open-source movement. Torvalds wasn’t on stage for long, speaking for less than 15 minutes in a Q&A with Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin, but he touched on several key topics, including the Internet of Things, security issues, and his ongoing role in overseeing the Linux kernel.

Zemlin started by quoting from a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article that said Torvalds “may be the most influential individual economic force of the past 20 years” — “as instrumental in retooling the production lines of the modern economy as Henry Ford was 100 years earlier.”

Torvalds joked in response, “I love open source and how all that credit goes to me.” Turning serious, he added, “Realistically, the only power I have is to say no, and sometimes I do that in a colorful manner. … I get a lot of kudos for these days being just a maintainer, and manager of a lot of very productive people.”

Asked about one of the hottest trends in software development, the use of container technology to package and deploy apps, Torvalds made it clear that he isn’t interested and doesn’t want to be involved. “I’m so happy that the kernel tends to be fairly far removed from all of these issues — all the buzzwords and the new technologies.”

Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin and Linus Torvalds at LinuxCon this morning.
Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin and Linus Torvalds at LinuxCon this morning.

Next up was another buzzword: the Internet of Things. Linux plays a key role in the emerging ecosystem of small, connected devices, but Torvalds said there will be challenges in attempting to make the Linux kernel “a lean, mean IoT machine.” He explained, “It’s always really hard to try to get rid of unnecessary fat, because as every developer knows, things tend to grow … and I do suspect that if you want to work on some really small devices, you’ll have to look at other alternatives.”

On the topic of security, Torvalds acknowledged that he is often at odds with the broader security community. “What I see is, security is bugs,” he said. “Most of the security issues we’ve had in the kernel haven’t been that big. Most of them have been just stupid bugs that no one really would have thought of as security issues normally, except for the fact that some clever person comes around and takes advantage of them.

“The thing is, you’re never going to get rid of bugs, and if any bug you have can be a security issue … if you think of it that way, then you just know that bugs are inevitable. Really it’s never going to be perfect. In the kernel we obviously try to do our very best. We try to be very careful.”

He added, “Even outside of kernels, the only real solution is to admit that a) bugs happen, and b) try to mitigate them by having multiple layers of security, so that if you have a hole in one component, the next component will catch it, hopefully. I think open source is doing it fairly well, but anyone who thinks we will be entirely secure is just not being realistic.”


Zemlin concluded with a simple question: “Linux, 10 years from now, where do you see it?”

Torvalds said, “You know what, that isn’t how I started Linux. I’m a very plodding, pedestrian kind of person. I look six months ahead. … I don’t think planning 10 years ahead is necessarily very sane, because if you think about 10 years back, and where Linux was 10 years ago, trying to plan for where we are now would have been completely insane.”

“Open source in particular, one of the advantages is, you have all of these companies that are trying to make the next 10 years happen. By using open-source, they can try to push their own agenda. … That actually helps. Even if I personally as the maintainer am not very forward-thinking, I think the whole process is very forward-thinking.”

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