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The Software View: Should Linux be written in Java?

Editor’s note: This article was originally sent via an
E-Mail mailing list, distributed on Linux Today at the request of
the author. Subscription instructions to this list are available at
the bottom of this story. -lt ed

By Mark
Kuharich

Welcome back, gentle readers. Your intrepid reporter and
faithful correspondent has traveled the entire galaxy and the
software industry. All in an effort to bring the latest news to
you.

Now, dear readers, on with this week’s episode of “the Software
View”!

The inspiration for this article came from Nathan Stevens.
Gentle reader, I hope that you have had the pleasure of viewing the
classic 1977 motion picture, “Star Wars”. If you have not yet seen
it, I would wholeheartedly encourage you to see it some time. This
movie was directed by the redoubtable director, Mister George
Lucas. This film hearkens to the action adventure science-fiction
fantasy genre.

Episode IV in George Lucas’ masterpiece, the plot of “Star Wars:
A New Hope” is about young Luke Skywalker leaving his home planet,
teaming up with a Rebel ally named Han Solo, and finally defeating
the evil, tyrannical Empire. Luke survives personal tragedy and
deep pain, and overcomes impossibly high odds to become a hero of
the Rebel Alliance. It is an adventure that takes Luke on a voyage
of self-discovery, with his bravery and commitment to the light,
true, good side of the Force tested at every step. Luke constantly
faces challenges that would test any mortal.

Roger Ebert writes, it is “a deceptively simple, really very
powerful, story. It was not by accident that George Lucas worked
with Joseph Campbell, an expert on the world’s basic myths, in
fashioning a screenplay that owes so much to man’s oldest
stories.”

Today, if I were to cast my gaze upon the current expanses of
the software industry horizons, I would cast Linux as the young
Luke Skywalker, a straight shooter fighting evil for the sake of
good. I would cast Java as Han Solo, a helpful, reckless scoundrel
and mercenary-turned-hero, moved to do good by Skywalker’s example.
And I would cast, as Darth Vader’s Empire, the behemoth Microsoft
Corporation, the 800 pound gorilla of the software industry
headquartered in Redmond, Washington.

Patrick Porter writes, “Linux is an open-source Unix clone
operating system that was hatched eight years ago by an obscure
University of Helsinki graduate student named Linus Torvalds. Linux
outperforms all other operating systems, including Microsoft
Windows NT, when ranked by customers according to inter
operability, cost of ownership, price, and availability. Everything
about Linux goes against the grain. For example, instead of trying
to get rich by selling his new product, Torvalds gave it away,
posting his source code on his university’s server and inviting
contributions from programmers around the world. Before long, these
programmers were submitting code that he could incorporate into his
next release. The decision to make it open-source and free created
a virtual support and development group. One reason Linux has
quickly become one of the most robust and stable operating
environments around is because more developers support it than any
other operating system, including Microsoft Windows NT. Linux has
entered the mainstream. As of September of the year 1998, 14% of
all corporate businesses used Linux, according to a Gartner Group
survey. More than eight million and growing copies of the operating
system are installed. It is a reliable enterprise operating system
that meets the needs of the world’s most demanding customers. It is
robust, reliable, flexible, free, and best of all, it is
open-source.”

Ann Harrison writes, “Linux is the only operating system in the
world not made by Microsoft that is expanding its market share from
year to year. Impressive numbers if you consider that Linux was
created eight years ago by a self-effacing twenty-one-years-old
native of Finland. Linus Torvalds was then a University of Helsinki
student frustrated with the limitations of Microsoft’s DOS and too
poor to purchase another operating system. Torvalds began
experimenting with Minix, a tiny Unix-like operating system for
Intel 386 microprocessor machines, which he eventually completely
rewrote. In keeping with the hacker tradition, Torvalds posted his
kernel to the university’s server – thus making it available for
peer review and modification. Before long, other hackers around the
world began downloading Torvalds’ source code and sending back
their improvements. Thousands of volunteer programmers eventually
pitched in to refine the kernel, which was later combined with
large portions of a free operating system called GNU (GNU’s Not
Unix!) and dubbed Linux. Much of Linux’s success is due to
Torvalds’ skill in recognizing good ideas and making contributors
feel appreciated. He eventually copyrighted Linux under the GPL
(GNU Public License) license, which means that anyone could sell a
version of Linux, but the source code or any changes or
improvements must remain public.

This collaborative development project has produced a
particularly stable and reliable computer operating system. Unlike
proprietary software vendors, such as Microsoft, who reveal only
the binaries – machine language versions of executable programs –
OSS (open-source software) like Linux allows users to see the
source code, enabling them to repair flaws and customize the
program. In the case of OSS, with so many people scrutinizing the
code, bugs are located, fixes are created, and features are allowed
to evolve much more rapidly. This feature is known as “massive,
independent peer review”, reminiscent of academia and scientific
fields.

“We offer a price performance benefit and millions more
programmers than Microsoft users can only dream about, but the
benefit of the model is not only the price,” says Bob Young,
President and Chief Executive Officer of Red Hat Software
Incorporated, one of several companies which offer free Linux
downloads. Young says that anytime a corporation has an application
that requires a fair amount of engineering, access to the binary is
not enough. “If there are some inconsistencies in how the
application interfaces against the operating system, they have no
way of fixing it because they have bought a car with the hood
welded shut.”

Linux is now running everywhere from 3Com’s hand held PalmPilot
personal digital assistant computer, to the Los Alamos National
Laboratories, which used 68 Compaq Digital Equipment Alpha
microprocessors to build a Linux-based super cluster computer that
cost only $150,000 United States dollars, yet in benchmarks
performed more than 19 billion operations per second. Linux even
went Hollywood when it handled all the special effects renderings
for the movie, “Titanic”.

Linux is being used at Boeing, Sony Development Corporation,
Mercedes Benz, Southwestern Bell, NASA, the Federal Bureau of
Investigation, Cisco Systems, and many other organizations. Oracle,
Informix, Netscape, Sybase, Inprise Corporations, Computer
Associates, Corel, and many other organizations have announced that
they are all porting or have ported server products to Linux.

Linux is an incredibly robust, extremely usable computer
operating system. It is incredibly cheap, secure, and very
effective. The Internet is awash in open-source software. Look at
the stability of open-source workhorses like TCP/IP, DNS, Perl, and
Apache, which keep the World Wide Web running more smoothly than
any commercial equivalent. 80% of all Internet e-mail is routed by
an open-source software called Sendmail. As more businesses start
to depend upon the Internet, access to source code becomes more
significant to programmers and Web site operators.

As the complexity of software increases, open-source software
allows the number of people analyzing these programs to increase
and scale proportionately. As proprietary software programs such as
Microsoft’s Windows become bigger, the relatively small number of
in-house and beta testers means that more bugs will slip through.
In the open-source software model, the large number of
co-developers means that there is a greater chance of catching
problems, even in complex systems. As the open-source software
advocate, Eric S. Raymond, says, “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs
are shallow.”

Without close attention to technical standards, Linux would
never have come this far, but sheer technical superiority is not
enough to win converts in the business community. You would be
quite impressed by how quickly fixes and software patches are
generated for Linux. Linux culture traces its roots back to the
early MIT programmers who felt duty-bound to give their solutions
away so their peers could move on to new problems. Since good
programmers are already well-paid, this community is motivated by
the satisfaction of advancing a good idea, dispensing advice, or
collectively building something superior to what any one person or
entity could create. This is the same community that created Unix,
the Internet, Usenet, and the World Wide Web. Raymond says that
open-source software, created in what anthropologists call a “gift
culture”, is better at producing high quality software because
status is gained by giving ideas away. Companies that value secrecy
miss opportunities to get wealthier by sharing ideas and creating
information pools.”

Java is a software technology platform invented at Sun
Microsystems, Incorporated and created by Doctor James A. Gosling.
It consists of not only the Java programming language itself, but
also of the Java virtual machine and its associated core Java Class
files and applications programming interfaces, or API’s.

Java has the potential of becoming the de facto programming
language for the Internet and World Wide Web, and the standard for
cross-platform executable content. Its mantra is “Write once, run
anywhere”. Java annihilates the switching costs associated with
portability between operating systems for software
applications.

So, my question is: Should Linux be written in Java? “Sun was
way too scared of Microsoft, and as a result they created a
contract that didn’t help them. Java is in the die-back stage –
it’s going into niche markets.”

No less a software industry luminary than Linux creator Linus
Torvalds spoke the above quote at the Oracle Open World conference
on November 11th of the year 1998. Torvalds has been quite vocal
and openly critical of Sun’s control of Java.

Using Java, a technology for portability between operating
systems, to create Linux, an open-source computer operating system,
would seem to be much like staring at works of graphic art by
Maurits Cornelis Escher for hours upon end. After a while, it all
becomes a bit recursive.

But I ask that Linux advocates and supporters not be too hasty
or quick to judge Java. I wish to submit the following: Java
applications run on Microsoft Windows, Linux, and numerous other
computer operating systems. Thus, the very success of Java ensures
the further success of Linux. Java provides the critical software
applications necessary to spur the adoption of the open-source
Linux computer operating system.

TyroneZero writes that “Star Wars” is an “epic modern myth, an
account of an enterprise conspicuous for courage and endeavor”,
much like the story of Linux. “Epics present characters in a series
of adventures which form an organic whole through their relation to
a central figure of heroic proportions and through their
development of episodes important to the history of a nation or
race. The scale of an epic is larger than life. Its heroes take
part in events that set them apart for glorification by their
community. This is the story of Luke Skywalker (Linux), the young
heroic man called to adventure, the hero going out to face the
trials and ordeals, and coming back after his victory with a boon
for the community. Han Solo (Java) is the archetypal outcast of
this epic.” In the end, Han Solo proves to be noble, as well, and
refuses to abandon our hero.

I would like to solicit responses from the Linux community. Do
you think Linux should be written in Java?

Sincerely,
Mark Kuharich

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