JIM ZEMLIN is a busy man. The chief executive of the Linux Foundation took something of a back seat at this year's LinuxCon compared with previous years, but he was still master of ceremonies at the 2015 get together of the world's Linux developers.
In addition, he was very visible on the conference floor meeting and greeting. The INQUIRER managed to get some face time with him away from the hustle and bustle.
We started by noting that the overall vibe of LinuxCon sees the value of being in a shared community and taking the code base into 'real life'. The whole event is ridiculously friendly, with people clamouring to talk to each other, show each other what they've been working on and find reasons to work together. Did Zemlin notice that too?
"Of course. That's the reason I'm in it. I think everyone deep down has a desire to communicate with others and be part of something bigger than themselves - to be part of something that has meaning, that has impact on the world beyond them or their company - and Linux and many open-source projects fit that bill perfectly. So it's no surprise to me because I've been doing this for so long that it becomes infectious."
Zemlin is, as ever, very proud of his open-source credentials and his involvement in such an important movement.
"Where I'm from in Silicon Valley, it's regarded as one of the big strengths of the tech sector that open source has been known for decades. Sharing ideas is more important than hoarding ideas in any kind of endeavour."
Linux is the binding thread running through many developers' careers, he explained.
"In the course of your career you may work for half a dozen different companies but you work with the same individuals over and over again. As a result you tend to see people associate their career more with Linux than with a particular employer," he said.
But does working in open source change the dynamic of how people work together?
"I think that has a very powerful effect on how people interact with each other. It reduces some of the things that people don't like, whether it's work politics or interdepartmental competition. Here, you're having to collaborate to get the job done and that's kind of nice."
We've often heard that the demand for programmers is leading to a skills shortage in the coding sector. Linux already pumps a lot of money into education. Is it time we saw coding as a curriculum staple in schools? Zemlin reminded us that, while its an emphatic 'yes', there's more to it than just lines of code.
"In the US you are starting to see schools putting programming and coding into the curriculum. But coding can sometimes get in the way of actually understanding how a computer works, and that's where you get something like the Raspberry Pi which was designed to allow Cambridge students to actually understand how a computer works," he explained.
But having said that, there's still a huge demand for coding. "There's no doubt that, as software becomes a more important part of any technology, such as smart appliances, intelligent automobiles and smartphones, as it all becomes a more important part of our lives, someone's got to learn to program it," he said.
And with that demand comes reward. "It presents opportunities, it presents jobs with high wages, and from that aspect then, yeah, it's very important to learn how to code. And in my opinion the best way to learn is to participate in projects that shape the future of technology: Linux, Node.js, Cloud Foundry and any other projects out there," Zemlin said.
So with all those people working unchecked, how do you ensure that the code remains pure and free from vulnerabilities?
"All software has problems with the code. Microsoft has done a good job over the years of improving its codebase. The default answer to that is Linus's Law, which is that 'given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow'. Peer review certainly helps to find bugs and vulnerabilities more efficiently than a project with fewer people.
Of course, part of the Linux Foundation's work is swooping in when things don't work.
"Being open source alone doesn't guarantee you security. OpenSSL is the perfect example: the only people looking at that for a period of time were two guys named Steve," he said.
But where there's a problem, there's a solution. "The lack of a simple answer to the question is the basis for the Core Infrastructure Initiative [CII], which goes out and looks for open-source projects that are important and that contribute to society, and provides them with the resources to make sure their code is secure and vulnerability free," explained Zemlin.
"There are a number of tools to do this and the main one is to teach people to write secure code in the first place. We offer training and development courses. The second is better testing," he said.
Linux is like Switzerland
We pointed out that, because of its unique position and initiatives like the CII which is co-funded by big businesses working together, but managed and run by the Linux Foundation, it is increasingly becoming like Switzerland: a trusted pair of neutral hands for the tech industry.
Zemlin joked: "It's great and difficult at the same time. Oh, if it were only so good!"
Where there is honour, there is great responsibility and that, Zemlin suggested, is sometimes difficult.
"It's something we're really proud of. I think we found it by working on Linux for such a long time. A trusted way of working on intellectual property, of developing effectively as a group, of sponsoring and hosting communities that build the camaraderie that you're seeing at this show. We understand a set of ingredients that make for the kind of grand-scale collaboration that leads to $5bn of R&D," he said.
That figure of $5bn was announced in Zemlin's opening remarks to the conference, a staggering feat achieved in just a few years. Meanwhile, as he explained, the community is growing all the time with a variety of angles as 'Switzerland' expands its responsibilities.
"We have 400,000 people taking our Introduction to Linux mass open online course. We have ways of training companies in how to realise intellectual properties, we have a trusted entity that can maintain key intellectual property assets. But we also have the integrity to be a neutral actor for the 580 companies that do business with us because they recognise us as a safe pair of hands. And I sure as hell appreciate that observation," he said.
The to-do list
You're welcome, Jim. Now, with a compliment comes a difficult question: what's left to do?
"I think the networking space is where you are going to see a lot of innovative open-source projects, this year and throughout the next few years. If you ask me where the next big frontier for software is, I'll tell you hands down: it's networking," he explained.
Zemlin pointed out that there are lot of incumbent hardware manufacturers that are keen to keep the hardware stuff as hardware, but that the opportunities are there.
"Software progress development has not come as quickly to the networking sector as it has to the compute and storage sectors. People still buy hardware load balancers and DNS appliances. It'll soon be software. That is ripe for open-source projects," Zemlin said.
But why is software-defined networking (SDN) proving so slow to take off? Zemlin suggested that the skills required are proving elusive.
"There are large incumbent vendors creating a lower force of change, but if you look at SDN in general the talent pool for developers who understand networking intimately is small. There are some really talented software developers. You only have to go outside that door and look around. Some of the most talented in the world," he said.
"But find me a software developer that also understands networking very well and that's a rare combination because networking has been hardware-driven, which is a very different skill."
Enter the new breed of coders
The other big opportunity that Zemlin sees is in the "next tranche of companies" that have moved into technology by accident or necessity.
"The next big interesting work we're doing is around the next ring of customers outside the 600 we're working with. Out of, say, 1,000 maybe 100 of them have open-source offices that make decisions about what open source gets used," he said.
These are the car manufacturers and home security companies that are actively using open source as the smart market matures into the Internet of Things (IoT).
"They haven't got management in place to manage end to end how a company participates in the community, how it integrates software into its products and how it feeds code back into the community," Zemlin explained.
"We see a lot of opportunities with the next few hundred companies - car companies, for example - that aren't traditionally tech companies, but now have a million lines of code which they need to understand how to integrate because otherwise they're at a professional disadvantage.
"We want that next 1,000 companies to build that same open-source company so they can better harvest from the open-source community what is an increasing proportion of their code."
Opportunities in Linux
Bob Geldof spoke last year, as part of his work in education in the developing world, about the importance of education in coding to drag the developing world forward. For all we know, the next Linus Torvalds could be sitting in a slum in Bangladesh waiting for his first computer.
Zemlin explained the Linux Foundation's ongoing mission to make that happen. "What we're trying to do is create tools to find that person. E-learning classes at a very low cost that can help people anywhere learn Linux concepts," he said.
"An online certification programme that will allow anyone from anywhere at any time to show, using their machine and a webcam, that they have mastered the competencies that they say they have. We back that up with scholarships to nurture that talent even more."
And with that, our time was up, as we headed back to the conference floor to look at more of the work that Linux developers around the world have been doing, any one of which could be the 'next big thing'.
Linux is in a strong position right now, and it is only getting stronger, but as Zemlin has explained, it is powered by a global collective will to make positive change, in and out of the circuit board. µ
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