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Larry McVoy on BitKeeper, kernel development, Linus Torvalds & Bruce Perens

Outspoken founder of Linus Torvalds's favorite proprietary source-management tool responds to Perens's claims about his company

Not long after the second part of the most recent Perens interview went online, we got email from Larry McVoy. He said there were some factual errors in the Perens piece and asked what our policy was on corrections. We assured him that we always tried to make corrections when they were needed and asked what the errors had been. He pointed out two: Perens' claims that BitMover (McVoy's company, which produces BitKeeper,) had trouble making payroll and that McVoy was constantly threatening to sue him.

Thinking that a story on BitKeeper — the controversial proprietary source management tool currently in use by Linus and others for Linux kernel development — that also carried McVoy's corrections would be more interesting to our readers than simply fanning the flames of an expectorating contest (to mix a metaphor), we took advantage of the opportunity to talk to McVoy and learn what we could of the BitKeeper saga. It's a fascinating story of the tensions between some closed and open source developers.

About McVoy

First, a little background on McVoy. If you've been a regular reader of the Linux-Kernel Mailing List (LKML) the past few years you probably know a lot of this anyway, but if you're like me and feel that daily reading of the LKML is like trying to swim against a constantly increasing volume of water flowing down a hill, sit back, grab a drink, and enjoy this Cliffs Notes version.

McVoy has been a kernel hacker for a long time. He believes he first got involved with Linux at about the 0.97 release level. He told me that "Alan Cox once described me as 'the old man who sits around and says no.'"

He has been a kernel developer for more than 15 years. He worked in the systems group at Sun, focusing on performance issues with file system and VM. He also worked on Sun's first cluster. But that's not all. McVoy said, "Andy Bechtolsheim and I were the guys who worked out that you really can signal at 100 megabits over copper." That work became 100 megabit Ethernet while everyone else was working on FDDI and ATM. Then he left for SGI and did more systems work there.

Given McVoy's experience with proprietary operating systems and systems programmers, I was curious about how he viewed the gifted amateur leading the Linux development effort, Linus Torvalds. McVoy said after "years and years of doing operating system work, including at Sun, which I still think is the best operating systems development team in the world, I've never met anybody like Linus. The guy is amazing." McVoy says Torvalds possesses two attributes that he has never seen together in the same person before. He adds, "I'm not sure I ever will see them (in one person) again."

Those attributes are exquisite taste and managerial skill. As to his taste, or perhaps technical instincts would be a better descriptor, McVoy told me, "He just sees the pictures in his head... and if he doesn't know what the picture should be, he's got good instincts about what it should be." McVoy notes he has seen similar taste in senior systems engineers at Sun and elsewhere. What sets Torvalds apart in McVoy's mind is the second attribute, his managerial skill. "He has the ability to get good work out of jerks," McVoy said.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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