Linux: Duct Tape of the Technology Revolution
Duct tape. It’s both the perfect tool for anything and the best tool for nothing (with the exception of sealing ducts, perhaps). No, duct tape is the patch used in haste out of utter necessity.
On one hand, we adore duct tape. We marvel at its flexibility and capacity to survive the worst of conditions, while still getting a ‘reasonable’ job done. On the other hand, we would never apply the word ‘quality’ to any duct tape-based construction.
That’s why duct tape is the perfect metaphor for Linux. To understand why, we have to return to the beginning of the story with an enterprising young under graduate, Linus Torvald, who built a simple open-source operating system. It was lightweight, uncomplicated, and free. Coincidentally, the open-source GNU project was busy writing tools for the embattled GNU operating system around the same time. The GNU team wholly adopted the Linux kernel and absorbed it into the GNU ecosystem.
Since the moment of its humble beginning, Linux has been an open-source solution, so it requires an extended open-source development community to add tools and enhance its kernel. Without established standards, this type of development creates chaos—but sometimes this chaos creates spontaneous order and brilliant variant designs. This is the best and worst of what Linux offers—dozens of derivatives with varying degrees of quality, some of which are good, some unspeakably evil.
The various combinations of the Linux kernel and the GNU-based tools, among a few others, have created the many flavors of Linux we have now, and devices running this ‘little kernel that could’ are all around us. In fact, running Linux and its derivative kernels on enterprise and commercial electronics is so pervasive that everyone reading this article has at least one of these devices. (These are our smart phones, car stereos, Blu-Ray players, virtualization server technologies, NAS devices, firewalls, routers, switches, and so on.)
Duct tape is readily available at any hardware store. Likewise, having a free operating system that every geek in the world has learned and developed for is also good, right? Yes, in part I agree because I understand it’s not really about the operating system—it’s about the software running on that operating system. The software ultimately provides the functionality, killer apps, and gorgeous UIs that we love. Linux is merely the all-purpose duct tape that holds these otherwise elegant structures together.
Yet I still have reservations about the pedigree of Linux. The fact that VHS dominated Beta as a videotape standard had more to do with luck than quality. As luck would have it now, Linux is our horse.
So as an engineer, I’ll stand at the front of the conference room and brief you on the latest data management or data processing appliance, and no one will ever mention Linux. But most likely, I’ll be describing a new piece of software that runs on Linux. I’m not apologizing, but I am giving fair warning. This is what we can expect for the foreseeable future. Is this good? Is this bad? It is, as of now, normal.