Torvalds knifes Tridgell

Kernel source row turns nasty


Linux founder Linus Torvalds has followed up his weekend condemnation of reverse engineering with an astonishing personal attack on the integrity of one of the most respected figures in the open source community, rsync author and Samba co-lead Andrew Tridgell.

Torvalds accuses Tridgell of playing dirty tricks with his proprietary source code tool of choice, Bitkeeper and destabilizing the product. These are serious accusations to make.

Torvalds uses the pay-for proprietary software to manage the Linux source code (obliging other kernel developers to follow suit), but last week its owner, Bitkeeper CEO Larry McVoy, yanked the license, pushing Torvalds to look for an alternative. He's now going to write his own. For this inconvenience, he blames Tridgell.

Tridgell, we've learned, was attempting to gain knowledge of the Bitkeeper protocols on the wire, so he could allow the Linux kernel developers to retrieve their source code metadata from the dark dungeons of Larry McVoy's back garden (ie, Bitkeeper). This metadata is one piece of information that Bitkeeper regards as proprietary - to itself - so, if you're not a paid-up Bitkeeper licensee, you never get to see it. But kernel developers like to have this information, and Tridgell was trying to open up the possibility for a third-party client to work with Bitkeeper.

Torvalds strongly disputes this characterization of Bitkeeper, but McVoy has made his position clear: no Bitkeeper license, no metadata.

"You need to understand that this is all you get, we're not going to extend this so you can do anything but track the most recent sources accurately.  No diffs.  No getting anything but the most recent version.  No revision history," he wrote in a post to the kernel mailing list on December 14, 2003.

When a developer pointed out: "All existing methods of getting information out of a bk repository either involve running bk yourself, or getting incomplete information," McVoy was adamant: "sorry, we're not in the business of helping you develop a competing product," he replied.

Many online services (such as AIM, Yahoo, and in its day, Napster) happily allowed third-party clients on to their networks. Our banks private networks even engage in such promiscuity... with each other!

So Tridgell's process of enquiry seems neither unreasonable, nor unprecedented.

Morality in software: now you see it, now you don't

In a post on the Real World Technologies discussion board appropriately titled "Hypocrisy the worst of human traits", Torvalds takes advantage of Tridgell's vow of silence on the matter. For the first third of his response, Torvalds gently tries to persuade us that ethics doesn't belong in the software business, taking a strictly utilitarian view. Or, as he puts it,

"So I think open source tends to become technically better over time (but it does take time), but I don't think it's a moral imperative." he writes.

This is an odd statement for the leader of Linux to make. Openness and interoperability are values that many Linux supporters view as moral imperatives. It's even odder then, for Torvalds to devote the remainder of his reply to blasting Andrew Tridgell for being morally inadequate. And he lays into him with quite some fury.

Tridgell "screwed people over", claims Torvalds, portraying him as a hooligan who had no purpose other than willful destruction.

"'[Tridgell] ... tore down something new (and impressive) because he could."

Much as hooligans do.

"He didn't write a 'better SCM [source code management tool] than BK [Bitkeeper]'. He didn't even try - it wasn't his goal. He just wanted to see what the protocols and data was, without actually producing any replacement for the (inevitable) problems he caused and knew about."

But this outburst doesn't add up for several of reasons.

Firstly, Tridgell legitimately wanted to get at data valuable to the Linux kernel developers: this motive cannot be described as selfish. Linus already had access to this having been given a Bitkeeper license by McVoy, but developers who declined the Bitkeeper license of course didn't. So at core, it raises issues of privilege and accountability: the Linux kernel developers need their metadata so they can do their work, they want to be able to that work using tools they choose; and it helps them keep an eye on what Linus is doing.

This is exactly what Tridgell had been doing on his Samba project. Microsoft's protocols are now "documented" - and you can even buy a license for them - but their usefulness is dubious, because Microsoft obfuscates its protocols on the wire. So you need to deploy a Tridgell to make sense of these signals, if you're going to interoperate, and it's an essential principle of open source to allow such exploration.

Secondly, we know that Tridgell wasn't trying to scupper McVoy's services based model. He wasn't trying to build a server and no one in the Torvalds/McVoy camp has made such an accusation. At most, Tridgell is accused of wanting to create a client, or tools for a client, that isn't under McVoy's control. Anyone but McVoy would consider this is a win for open source.

What, we wonder, makes writing one open source access tool to a proprietary product (such as Samba) good, and writing another open source access tool to a proprietary product (such as Bitkeeper) bad? We're not alone in asking.

"Why would doing this (wanting to know the protocols and data) cause problems?," asks a baffled Jeremy Allison in reply. "That's the issue you're not addressing with your post. Why does doing this with BK cause problems, and doing it with SMB does not ?""

"I *know* tridge didn't want to tear down BK, as I'm sure you do also. You have to ask yourself where the blame for that outcome really lies."

With key participants outside the Torvalds/McVoy camp declining to participate and Tridgell staying tight-lipped, it's hard to piece together the sequence of events that led up to this mugging. But we'll keep trying. ®

Related link

"Hypocrisy the worst of human traits" - Torvalds attack and discussion thread

Related stories

The Larry and Linus Show: personalities vs principles?
Linus Torvalds in bizarre attack on open source
Linus Torvalds defers closed source crunch


Other stories you might like

  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading
  • Conti: Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy?
    Also, Chinese IT admin jailed for deleting database, and the NSA promises no more backdoors

    In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn't pay a $20 million ransom. 

    Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government's computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti's leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

    Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that "We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency." 

    Continue reading
  • China-linked Twisted Panda caught spying on Russian defense R&D
    Because Beijing isn't above covert ops to accomplish its five-year goals

    Chinese cyberspies targeted two Russian defense institutes and possibly another research facility in Belarus, according to Check Point Research.

    The new campaign, dubbed Twisted Panda, is part of a larger, state-sponsored espionage operation that has been ongoing for several months, if not nearly a year, according to the security shop.

    In a technical analysis, the researchers detail the various malicious stages and payloads of the campaign that used sanctions-related phishing emails to attack Russian entities, which are part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corporation.

    Continue reading
  • FTC signals crackdown on ed-tech harvesting kid's data
    Trade watchdog, and President, reminds that COPPA can ban ya

    The US Federal Trade Commission on Thursday said it intends to take action against educational technology companies that unlawfully collect data from children using online educational services.

    In a policy statement, the agency said, "Children should not have to needlessly hand over their data and forfeit their privacy in order to do their schoolwork or participate in remote learning, especially given the wide and increasing adoption of ed tech tools."

    The agency says it will scrutinize educational service providers to ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations under COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

    Continue reading
  • Mysterious firm seeks to buy majority stake in Arm China
    Chinese joint venture's ousted CEO tries to hang on - who will get control?

    The saga surrounding Arm's joint venture in China just took another intriguing turn: a mysterious firm named Lotcap Group claims it has signed a letter of intent to buy a 51 percent stake in Arm China from existing investors in the country.

    In a Chinese-language press release posted Wednesday, Lotcap said it has formed a subsidiary, Lotcap Fund, to buy a majority stake in the joint venture. However, reporting by one newspaper suggested that the investment firm still needs the approval of one significant investor to gain 51 percent control of Arm China.

    The development comes a couple of weeks after Arm China said that its former CEO, Allen Wu, was refusing once again to step down from his position, despite the company's board voting in late April to replace Wu with two co-chief executives. SoftBank Group, which owns 49 percent of the Chinese venture, has been trying to unentangle Arm China from Wu as the Japanese tech investment giant plans for an initial public offering of the British parent company.

    Continue reading
  • SmartNICs power the cloud, are enterprise datacenters next?
    High pricing, lack of software make smartNICs a tough sell, despite offload potential

    SmartNICs have the potential to accelerate enterprise workloads, but don't expect to see them bring hyperscale-class efficiency to most datacenters anytime soon, ZK Research's Zeus Kerravala told The Register.

    SmartNICs are widely deployed in cloud and hyperscale datacenters as a means to offload input/output (I/O) intensive network, security, and storage operations from the CPU, freeing it up to run revenue generating tenant workloads. Some more advanced chips even offload the hypervisor to further separate the infrastructure management layer from the rest of the server.

    Despite relative success in the cloud and a flurry of innovation from the still-limited vendor SmartNIC ecosystem, including Mellanox (Nvidia), Intel, Marvell, and Xilinx (AMD), Kerravala argues that the use cases for enterprise datacenters are unlikely to resemble those of the major hyperscalers, at least in the near term.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022