In search of a quality kernel

Linux developers wonder if the kernel's famous code quality is in danger. If it is, they might not know until it's too late.

Bisection works so well that developers will often ask a tester to use it to track down a problem they are reporting. Some people see this practice as a way for lazy kernel developers to dump the work of tracking down their bugs on the users who are bitten by those bugs. Building and testing a dozen kernels is, they say, too much to ask of a tester. Mark Lord, for example, asserts that most bugs are relatively easy to find when a developer actually looks at the code; the whole bisect process is often unnecessary:

I'm just asking that developers here do more like our Top Penguin does, and actually look at problems and try to understand them and suggest fixes to try. And not rely solely on the git-bisect crutch. It's a good crutch, provided the reporter is a kernel developer, or has a lot of time on their hands. But we debugged Linux here for a long time without it.

On the other hand, some developers see bisection as a powerful tool which has made it easier for testers to actively help the process. David Miller says:

Like the internet, this time spent is beneficial because it's pushing the work out to the end nodes. In fact git bisect is an awesome example of the end node principle in action for software development and QA. For the end-user wanting their bug fixed and the developer it's a win win situation because the reporter is actually able to do something proactive which will help get the bug they want fixed faster.

Returning to original bug list: another issue which came up was the use of mailing lists other than linux-kernel. Some of the bugs had not been addressed because they had never been reported to the mailing list dedicated to the affected subsystem. Other bugs, marked by Andrew as having had no response, had, in fact, been discussed (and sometimes fixed) on subsystem-specific lists. In both situations, the problem is a lack of communication between subsystem lists and the larger community.

In response, some developers have, once again, called for a reduction in the use of subsystem-specific lists. We are, they say, all working on a single kernel, and we are all interested in what happens with that kernel. Discussing kernel subsystems in isolation is likely to result in a lower-quality kernel. Ingo Molnar expresses it this way:

We lose much more by forced isolation of discussion than what we win by having less traffic! It's _MUCH_ easier to narrow down information (by filter by threads, by topics, by people, etc.) than it is to gobble information together from various fractured sources. We learned it _again and again_ that isolation of kernel discussions causes bad things.

Moving discussions back onto linux-kernel seems like a very hard sell, though. Most subsystem-specific lists feature much lower traffic, a friendlier atmosphere, and more focused conversation. Many subscribers of such lists are unlikely to feel that moving back to linux-kernel would improve their lives. So, perhaps, the best that can be hoped for is that more developers would subscribe to both lists and make a point of ensuring that relevant information flows in both directions.

David Miller pointed out another reason why some bug reports don't see a lot of responses: developers have to choose which bugs to try to address. Problems which affect a lot of users, and which can be readily reproduced, have a much higher chance of getting quick developer attention. Bug reports which end up at the bottom of the prioritized list ("chaff"), instead, tend to languish. The system, says David, tends to work reasonably well:

Luckily if the report being ignored isn't chaff, it will show up again (and again and again) and this triggers a reprioritization because not only is the bug no longer chaff, it also now got a lot of information tagged to it so it's a double worthwhile investment to work on the problem.

Given that there are unlikely to ever be enough developers to respond to every single kernel bug report, the real problem comes down to prioritization. Andrew Morton has a clear idea of which reports should be handled first: regressions from previous releases.

If we're really active in chasing down the regressions then I think we can be confident that the kernel isn't deteriorating. Probably it will be improving as we also fix some always-been-there bugs.

Attention to regressions has improved significantly over the last couple of years or so. They tend to be much more actively tracked, and the list of known regressions is consulted before kernel releases are made. The real problem, according to Andrew, is that any regressions which are still there after a release tend to fall off the list. Better attention to those problems would help to ensure that the quality of the kernel improved over time.

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Jonathan Corbet

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