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LWN.net Weekly Edition for April 14, 2011

LFCS: Linux penetration, Yocto, and hardware success stories

By Jake Edge
April 13, 2011

The first day of the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit (LFCS) tends to have a wide variety of talks and panels that range all over the Linux ecosystem. This year's edition didn't disappoint, though the topics seemed a bit more focused toward the embedded space and Linux hardware support. There was also the always interesting kernel panel, which we cover elsewhere. LF executive director Jim Zemlin kicked things off with a look at Linux penetration along with some thoughts he has on where Linux (and the LF itself) is headed.

[Jim Zemlin and Angela Brown]

While he didn't reprise his "it's like kicking a puppy" comment regarding Microsoft bashing in his LFCS keynote, he did mention it earlier in the week at a Camp KDE talk. Kicking anything is not in Zemlin's immediate future, however, as he gave his talks from a wheelchair—"on heavy narcotics"—due to an ugly looking break in his leg from a skiing mishap. He showed before and after x-rays that made it very clear why no one will want to "get behind me at airport security".

Zemlin went through some examples of eye-opening places where Linux is running, including air-traffic control systems, supercomputing, nuclear submarines, and so on. He noted that 72% of the world's equities are traded using Linux (and that may be low as some exchanges are not releasing any information about their platform). Linux first appeared on the list of the top 500 supercomputers in 1998, by 2004 Linux was running over half of the raw computing power on that list; now that number is 95%.

Embedded and mobile devices are also an arena where Linux has made huge strides. The mobile space, in particular, is "massively hedged" because there are multiple big bets on Linux in that area (i.e. Android, MeeGo, WebOS, and others). He also said that there is "no declared winner" in mobile and that while he has no real predictions what the mobile landscape will look like in three to five years—they would "inevitably be wrong"—he is sure of one thing: the leaders will be running Linux.

Other trends worth watching in the future according to Zemlin are things like pre-integrated, minimal configuration computing based on Linux. Those systems will be for both the enterprise and consumer markets. They will come with pre-configured applications that are ready to use out of the box. Another trend is toward specialized high-performance computing systems as typified by "Watson", which is IBM's Linux-based supercomputer targeted at "solving" the Jeopardy game show. He did note that he thought the humans could have won if one of the answers (in the form of a question, of course) contained the commands used to format Linux disks.

"Don't believe a lot of the FUD [fear, uncertainty, and doubt]" that is being spread by Linux competitors, Zemlin said. There is an ongoing effort to discredit Linux and various Linux-using companies on the basis of copyright and patent issues. It is not very important in terms of Linux adoption, but more than that, it is not open-source-specific as any platform can be attacked in this way; it's based on how successful the platform is. It will lead to efforts to reform the patent system and increase the quality of patents that are issued, he said, but it won't slow down the adoption of Linux.

There are a number of changes at the LF, which Zemlin passed along, including the merger with the CE Linux Forum (CELF), which was announced in October, the first annual Android Builders Summit to be held the week following LFCS, and a new LinuxCon for Europe, which will be held in Prague in October. There is also a new high availability workgroup within the LF that was announced as part of LFCS as well as the release of Carrier Grade Linux 5.0.

Yocto project and panel

The release of Yocto 1.0 was another announcement that was made. The Yocto project is a collaborative effort to simplify the process of creating an embedded Linux distribution under the LF umbrella. There are multiple companies participating, "many of them are fierce competitors", but they see the advantage of working together on these tools, Zemlin said. The next breakthrough device or gadget will very likely be built on Linux, because no other platform has the breadth of architecture support. The role of the LF is not to find that product or the person who is building it, but help the community provide the best tools to create those products. "That's what's going on in the Yocto project", he said, and it is "all going on in the open".

The update on the project was a transition to a panel discussion that Zemlin led with three embedded industry veterans: William Mills of Texas Instruments, Mark Hatle of Wind River, and Steve Sakoman of Sakoman, Inc., which is an embedded consulting company. The overall theme of the discussion was collaboration—not surprising given the name of the conference—but collaboration is not something the embedded industry, or embedded Linux, is known for.

According to Mills, it is "far too difficult" to create embedded Linux distributions currently, but that Yocto changes that. It is important that Yocto is based on OpenEmbedded as there are a number of companies that already use those tools, and Yocto is not trying to start from scratch. Sakoman agreed that building atop OpenEmbedded is the right way to go, but that Yocto adds some credibility that was lacking because customers didn't "see any big names behind OpenEmbedded". Hatle pointed out that having each company create and maintain its own build tools doesn't make sense and is a waste of money, "let's do it once and share the results", he said.

The companies involved are still going to compete Hatle said, they will "just compete on a higher level, not on the version of grep" that one is shipping. Vendors can add better integration or better debugging, he added. Sakoman concurred, saying that there will always be opportunities available for companies that can assist in embedded development, particularly because the time to market for products is so short.

Embedded Linux is definitely important these days and only getting more so. Zemlin noted that a while back he was getting a lot of calls from companies looking to hire talented embedded Linux developers. More recently those calls have changed to: "Do you know any companies I can acquire to get Linux talent?"

When asked about their "dream participant" in the project, both Hatle and Mills pointed to the smaller players, who can't afford to hire companies like Wind River, as the ones they would like to see get involved. Mills said that there were more silicon vendors and operating system companies involved than he expected, but that he would like to see more community projects, like OpenWRT for example, switching to use Yocto. It is a highly usable system, Hatle said, that "works right out of the box", which is something that he has never seen for embedded Linux before.

Hardware success stories for Linux

Later in the day, Greg Kroah-Hartman moderated a panel targeted at hardware success stories for Linux. It featured Jason Kridner of Texas Instruments (TI), Mark Charlebois of the Qualcomm Innovation Center (QuIC), and Dirk Hohndel of Intel, who discussed their companies' reasons for supporting Linux, along with a number of other hardware-related topics.

Kroah-Hartman started things off by asking why it is that each company decided to contribute to Linux. Charlebois said that "Linux is a core part of the mobile ecosystem", which made it important to Qualcomm's customers. QuIC had worked out of tree for a long time and "felt the pain of doing that", so it needed to start working upstream. Hohndel noted that Intel has a "pretty long track record" of working with open source and that is because "open source is the shortest path to innovation". Kridner said that TI wanted to make its "huge investment in mobile processors more easily available" to its customers. Linux enables that and "a whole lot more things than just mobile phones", he said.

[The panelists]

How the panelists make the case for working upstream was the next topic tackled. It is "easy when customers are asking for it", Charlebois said. Building up a set of out-of-tree patches is "too painful" because integrating them with the upstream kernel takes too much time. Hohndel said that it is the financial argument that "really resonates with upper management". If you look at the costs of porting things forward, backward, and sidewards, he said, you will find that working upstream makes the most sense. "Fundamentally it is in your own best financial interests". Kroah-Hartman noted that he was happy to hear that, as he had always hoped it was true.

From the audience, Jonathan Corbet asked about Charlebois's statement that "the mobile space is about proprietary drivers", which he had made in a talk earlier in the day. Corbet noted that having proprietary drivers goes against all of the points described above. Charlebois said that it is "not always possible to open source" drivers due to third party intellectual property (IP). Kroah-Hartman pointed out that by doing so, QuIC and others were "weighing two legal risks" as some kernel developers would claim that distributing binary-only drivers violates their copyright.

While Charlebois didn't seem to have much more to say about that, Hohndel described the situation as a "rock and a hard place". When a vendor buys IP blocks, the third parties they purchase them from often have "strange ideas of GPL compliance". There are lots of constraints that go into building SoCs, he said, and vendors have to deal with the real world, not the one they wish they lived in. He noted that Intel had done a lot of work to get acceptable drivers for PowerVR-based graphics devices into the kernel.

Hohndel said he is pretty happy with how the staging tree is working out, in response to a question from Kroah-Hartman. He would rather have solid drivers developed, but that doesn't always happen, so the "halfway house" provided by the staging tree is valuable. It allows the community to help improve the drivers, which has been happening, "and it's awesome", he said. But the staging tree is "not a panacea", has failed in some places, and doesn't solve all the problems.

Making more open documentation available to the community was the topic of another question from the audience. Kridner said that documentation is "fantastic" and that TI is always improving theirs, but that personal contact with the engineers involved with a particular feature is even more important. Hohndel said that documentation is "incredibly expensive to produce" and is legally difficult if third parties are involved. Getting the driver is usually easier because there needs to be a belief that documentation will bring in more customers before it will be produced.

Grant Likely asked whether hardware companies felt that there was a lack of input from Linux developers, which was something that came up (in the context of disks) at the recently concluded Linux Filesystem, Storage, and Memory Management Summit. Hohndel said that Intel gets a "ton of direct feedback from community members" and was "very happy that we get it". Kridner said that TI gets input on device architectures from a lot of different places, while Charlebois said that QuIC is focused on customer requirements. Kroah-Hartman noted that both Intel and IBM have gotten kernel developers together with their employees at various times and the kernel hackers will give "unabashed input" on hardware architectures.

There were, of course, several other talks and panels on the first day, and one cannot help but be struck be the number of competing companies that shared the stage. Obviously, Linux and open source are providing a platform not just for those companies to build products with, but also a place for them to collaborate, something which shouldn't be much of a surprise at a summit that is targeted at accelerating that process.

Comments (1 posted)

Project Harmony decloaks

By Jonathan Corbet
April 11, 2011
The "Project Harmony" name has a long and not entirely encouraging history; it is usually applied to projects aimed at obnoxious licensing situations (examples being Qt and Java), and the projects have, on the face of it, failed to achieve their goals. The most recent use of this name looks like a variation on that theme: this project, which seeks to create a set of standard agreements for contributors to open source projects, has been widely derided as a secretive attempt by a specific vendor to push copyright assignment policies on the community. During a session at the Linux Foundation's Collaboration Summit, this project came out and actually showed the world what it has been doing.

Harmony was represented by none other than Allison Randal, perhaps best known for her work on Parrot and her current role as the technical architect of the Ubuntu distribution. Allison has put her hands into the legal realm before; among other things, she played a major role in the creation of version 2 of the Artistic License. She joined Harmony as a community representative prior to taking the job at Canonical, and, she said, she still is not representing her employer in this endeavor.

The idea behind Harmony is that contributor agreement proliferation is no better than license proliferation. A lot of the agreements out there are poorly thought out and poorly written; they are also causing developers to sign away a lot of their rights without always knowing what they are agreeing to. Corporate lawyers are also getting tired of having to review a new and different agreement every time an employee wants to participate in a new project. A smaller set of well-understood agreements, it is hoped, would make life easier for everybody involved.

Allison started off by stating that the project recognizes "none of the above" (no contributor agreement at all) as an entirely valid option. The Linux kernel was cited as an example of a successful project without an agreement in place, even though the kernel does, in fact, use the Developer's Certificate of Origin as its contributor agreement. The real point, perhaps, is that the Harmony project does not believe that its agreements are suited to every project out there, and that there will always be reasons for some to use something else.

Assuming that one of the project's agreements are used, contributors (and the projects they contribute to) will agree to a number of conditions, many of which can be thought of as standard. Both sides disclaim any warranty, for example, and the contributor has to certify that he or she actually has the right to contribute the code. There is a "generic" patent grant which applies only to the contributed code itself. After that, though, there are a few options which must be selected for each specific project, starting with how the code is to be contributed. There are two choices here:

  • The contributor grants a broad license to the project, but retains ownership of the contribution. The project is able to use the contribution as it sees fit (but see below).

  • The contributor transfers ownership of the contribution to the project and gets, in return, a broad license for further use of it. While the contributor no longer owns the work, the back-license allows almost anything to be done with it. There is a fallback clause under this option saying that if an actual transfer of copyright is not possible (not all countries allow that), an open-ended license is granted instead, and the contributor agrees not to sue over anything which cannot be conveyed in the license grant. It is worth noting that giving the license back to the contributor, while broad, does not include the agreement not to sue.

Missing from this list of options is one which says "the project may use this code under the terms of its open source license, and needs neither ownership nor a broader license to do so." Those are the terms under which many projects actually accept contributions. A similar effect can be had with a proper selection among the other set of options, but it's not quite the same.

The second choice controls what the project is allowed to do with the contributions it gets under the agreement. All of the options require the project to release the contribution under the project's license if the contribution is used at all; the sort of "we will ordinarily release your work under a free license" language found in Canonical's contributor agreement is not present here. Beyond that, though, the project can choose between the promises it will make to contributors:

  • The project can restrict itself to releasing the work under the original license, with the common "any future version" language being the only exception. This option yields results similar to simply accepting the contribution under that license to begin with; it does not allow any sort of proprietary relicensing.

  • The project can specify an explicit list of additional licenses that it may apply to the work.

  • There are options which allow relicensing to any license approved by the Open Software Initiative, or any license recommended by the Free Software Foundation. These options would not directly allow proprietary relicensing, but the OSI option, at least, would allow relicensing to a permissive license, which would have very similar effects.

  • The final option is the full "we can use it under any license we choose" language, which explicitly allows proprietary licensing.

The agreement also allows the specification of an additional license to apply to the "media" portion of any contribution. The intent here is to allow documentation, artwork, videos, and so on to be licensed under a Creative Commons license or under the GNU Free Documentation License.

After describing the agreements that the project has produced, Allison acknowledged that Harmony "failed" at marketing its work. In an attempt to do better, the project has set up a web site describing the agreements and allowing the public to comment on them. Comments will be accepted through May 6; there will be a meeting held on May 18 at the Open Source Business Conference to discuss the next steps.

The discussion in the room made it clear that there is some marketing work yet to be done. It's still not clear who was participating in the project, and it seems unlikely that the mailing list archives will be made available. There was a strange and tense interlude during which some members of the audience tried to bring out who actually drafted the agreements. It turns out that the Software Freedom Law Center had participated in the discussion, but had explicitly withdrawn (for unstated reasons) from the writing of the legalese.

It eventually came out that the author of the agreements was Mark Radcliffe, who is a bit of a controversial figure in this area; his previous works include Sun's CDDL license, the SugarCRM badgeware license, and The CPAL badgeware license. Bradley Kuhn also said that Mark has defended GPL violators in the past - a history which makes Bradley rather nervous. The unsolved mystery of who actually paid for Mark's time doesn't help either. Ted Ts'o suggested, though, that, now that the agreements are public, they should be read and judged on their own merits rather than by making attacks on the author.

Bradley had another complaint: the current agreements, with all their options, look a lot like the Creative Commons agreements. Some of them are more moral than others, but there is no moral guidance built in, and no way to guide projects away from the least moral alternatives. It will be, he say, confusing for developers. Just like "under a Creative Commons license" says little about what can be done with a work, "a Harmony agreement" does not really, on its own, describe the terms under which contributions are made. It took ten years, he said, to make some sense of the Creative Commons "quagmire"; the Harmony agreements will create the same sort of mess.

Allison responded that we already have that kind of mess, only worse. Ted said that, with the Harmony agreements, at least we'll have a set of reasonably well understood contracts which don't suck. We may disagree about some of the choices, he said, but they will at least be built on a decent base. He expressed hopes that Harmony would help end the problem of developers blindly signing away their rights.

What happens now depends, at least partly, on how the discussion goes; now that comments are in the open, the project will need to either respond to them or risk discrediting the entire process. Anybody who has an interest in this area should probably read the agreements and submit their comments; the alternative is to live with whatever they come up with in the absence of your input.

Comments (82 posted)

TXLF: Defining and predicting the mobile "ecosystem"

April 13, 2011

This article was contributed by Nathan Willis

At Texas Linux Fest (TXLF) on April 2, MeeGo advocate and Maemo Community Council member Randall Arnold took Nokia CEO Stephen Elop to task over his February comments about open source handsets — not on the reversal-of-strategy signaled by Nokia's deal with Microsoft, but on Elop's assessment of mobile devices as an "ecosystem." The Nokia chief misses the big picture of open source's effect on the ecosystem, Arnold argued, but the open source community hasn't done much to prepare for it, either.

Elop was installed as Nokia CEO in September of 2010, after two years heading up Microsoft's Business Division, which oversees Office and various Microsoft ERP and CRM products. On February 11, 2011, he announced that Nokia was pulling MeeGo from its future product lines (at least in the medium term), and would instead ship devices running Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 (a move predicted by many LWN readers as early as day one of Elop's tenure). Although it received less attention at the time, the February 11 partnership deal also placed Microsoft's Bing as the default search engine on Nokia hardware and Microsoft's adCenter as the mobile advertising service, and tied Nokia's mapping service into Bing.

All the mobile horses

In his talk, Arnold launched the discussion from what he considered two curious statements by Elop in the CEO's justification for the controversial Nokia-Microsoft deal: "The game has changed from a war of devices to a war of ecosystems," and "It's now a three-horse race." Elop's three horses are Apple's iOS, Google's Android, and Microsoft's Windows Phone 7.

That assessment of the marketplace rang false to Arnold, and he displayed a chart of the major mobile operating systems, including iOS, Windows Phone 7, Blackberry, HP's webOS, Android, Symbian, and MeeGo. Each was represented by a bubble roughly corresponding to its relative market share, with the bubble sorted on the horizontal axis by the openness of the platform. Windows Phone 7 rates solidly among the smallest.

In addition, Arnold said, although historically device makers have favored the more closed platforms because it simplifies the manufacturing and QA process, the chipmakers and carriers are increasingly interested in the open platforms because of the flexibility they can offer to customers. Chipmakers and carriers are driving much of Android's momentum, he said, and chipmakers already account for many of MeeGo's supporters. Considering those factors together, Elop's "three-horse race" comment seems way off base. The stock market did not care for Nokia-Microsoft deal either, Arnold observed, with Nokia's share price dropping 14% on the news and continuing to slide, which shows that the news was not what the mobile industry wanted to hear.

Arnold then paused to invite feedback from the audience on the bubble chart, both on the size of the various OSes' market share, and their openness. Naturally, considering Google's recent decision to withhold the source code to Android's "Honeycomb" release until an unspecified future drop date, some thought that Android belonged further on the "closed" end of the spectrum. Some also commented that Symbian was no longer open source, because Nokia had re-absorbed the Symbian Foundation. Although at the time the released Symbian source was still under the Eclipse Public License, Nokia has since taken the source code down, and moved Symbian to a proprietary license.

What exactly is an ecosystem, anyhow?

Aside from whether or not there is room for a "fourth horse" in the mobile device race, Arnold continued, the open source community ought to consider what a mobile device "ecosystem" really is, and how openness can be disruptive. As Elop used the term, it seemed to mean, broadly, anyone making money from the platform: device makers, carriers, even independent developers.

Device makers are facing shrinking margins on handsets as hardware prices fall and carriers subsidize phones. That accounts for Elop's decision to abandon MeeGo-based products, Arnold said — Elop simply couldn't see how Nokia could monetize an open platform, and viewed Apple's profitable locked-down iOS with envy.

But closing down the platform doesn't guarantee money either, Arnold observed, not even for the application maker. Apple takes a cut of all non-free apps in its App Store, but an ever-increasing number of those apps are becoming free (or at least, zero-cost). The chief reason, he said, is that independent developers are finding it difficult to compete in a marketplace of 100,000 apps, so they have had to look for other business models.

The most notable is the subscription service model, where the app itself is a free download, but a small fee is required to connect to the remote service on an ongoing basis. Second to that is the fee-based add-on model, where (for example) a game is available as a free download, but additional levels or content are sold.

In neither model is the openness of the underlying platform a particularly large factor. Furthermore, as is the case with "desktop" web services, Amazon (the de-facto web service infrastructure provider) may actually be poised to become the biggest money-maker of all in the mobile ecosystem. Arnold pointed to Amazon's "Cloud Drive" music-storage service, and asked "what's to prevent them from doing the same thing with videos, or games, or anything else?"

The challenge — and the open question to the audience — is how the open source community fits into the picture, at the platform level (with MeeGo, Android, webOS, and other projects), as well as higher in the stack. If in the long term, web services are where the money is to be made, does source code and hackability of the system matter? As one audience member added, HTML5 is poised to make the platform irrelevant altogether, even for profitable application categories like games.

Arnold, at least, seemed to think that source code and hackability are important. He is a staunch believer in open platforms, with experience on the mobile side to back it up. He was a QA engineer for Nokia's first Maemo device, the 770 tablet, and part of the launch team for the N800. As he explained to the audience, he wants to see handhelds reach the "commodity" point just as desktop PCs did in the 1980s, and get there faster. "I want to install anything I want to on my hardware," he said, without having to jailbreak it first, and without fear that the "IP police" will come after him.

The "open repository" model used by Maemo — where any project, no matter how alpha-quality, is installable if the user adds the right repository to the package manager — might not work for a lot of casual handheld users. But the "Ubuntu Software Store" implemented in Ubuntu is an example of building a user-friendly application store done right; Arnold referred to it as a good "best practices" example.

Feedback

About one third of the session time was reserved for questions and feedback from the audience. As one might expect from a "Linux crowd" the vast majority agreed on the importance of platform openness. One audience member likened the current handset market to the pre-1984 land-line phone market. Before the US government's anti-trust breakup of AT&T, he said, no one could even own their own phone; they had to rent it from the phone company. We are right back in the same position with cell phones today, he observed, and yet no one seems to care.

Where there was less consensus was on Arnold's predictions for the future of the third-party application market and how open source could influence it. Some did not seem convinced that service-based sales were really the future, citing the large volume of app purchases on iOS and Android. Others agreed with that premise, but could not see how the openness of the platform could have an effect. After all, if anyone can develop an HTML5-based application and offer it under proprietary terms, the browser is essentially a "write once, run anywhere" environment that makes the operating system irrelevant.

Arnold responded, in effect, that it was true that paid services would run equally well on closed and open platforms, but that predicting the economics did not make the underlying platform unimportant. Chipmakers and carriers may be pushing for more open platforms for their own reasons, but if the end result is a market filled with PC-like commodity handsets where the user can install any OS he or she wants, the user still wins.

Arnold closed out the session by inviting the audience to send him feedback to further refine the talk for subsequent conferences. As of this week, he said he has already heard from a number of attendees about Symbian and other recent events that may shake up the landscape.

Predicting the future is a risky business, but less so for the open source community than for Stephen Elop. No matter what ships on Nokia's phones in 2011 and 2012, the open source platforms will not disappear. Wherever there is money to be made in the mobile ecosystem, even if the bulk of it is web-delivered services, the cost pressures that come with proprietary platforms will certainly drive more of Nokia's competitors to examine the open alternatives. But now that Nokia's search, advertising, and map services are also intertwined with Microsoft, it may not have as much flexibility to adapt. In the meantime, no one else is standing still waiting to find out — Amazon has opened its own "app store" targeting Android devices, loosening Google's control over the ecosystem surrounding its own product.

Comments (4 posted)

Page editor: Jonathan Corbet

Inside this week's LWN.net Weekly Edition

  • Security: MeeGo rethinks privacy protection; New vulnerabilities in dhcp, kernel, moonlight, php, ...
  • Kernel: Native KVM tool; A JIT for packet filters; Explicit block device plugging; LFCS kernel panel.
  • Distributions: First Look at Elementary OS; CentOS, CyanogenMod, Yocto, ...
  • Development: Governmental contributions to Drupal; Flock, GottenGeography, LLVM, nginx, ...
  • Announcements: Groklaw shutting down, Project Harmony, DebConf11, ...
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