Fate of Linux guru's life, and life's work, hang in balance

As Linux visionary Hans Reiser goes on trial for murder, the Linux file system he created risks becoming obsolete.

The fate of a Linux visionary who is charged with murder will be decided in a trial starting Tuesday in Oakland, California, while the fate of the file system he created remains left in the hands of an open-source community rapidly losing interest in the technology.

Hans Reiser is accused of killing his Russian-born wife, Nina Reiser, who disappeared in September 2006 in Oakland, but whose body has never been found. The Reisers were living apart at the time, in the middle of a contentious divorce and battle for custody of their two children. Hans Reiser was arrested a month later for his wife's murder after traces of her blood were found in his home and automobile.

Reiser created a Linux file system called ReiserFS, which in the mid-1990s was important for Linux. The first version of it, known as Reiser3, is part of the core Linux kernel. But since his arrest, work on the file system has been all but abandoned, and the successor to ReiserFS, Reiser4, has only a slim chance of survival in the community, said Jonathan Corbet, a well-known Linux expert and founder of LWN.net, a Linux Web news site that has been covering the OS and open-source software community for nearly 10 years.

In an e-mail, Corbet said that despite "years of effort," Reiser4 has still not made it into the Linux kernel and the future of the technology does not look good.

"There are still a couple of people putting some volunteer effort into Reiser4, so it could, just maybe, still make it into the mainline [kernel] someday," he said. "But progress is very slow and there's not a whole lot of people who are interested anymore."

To be fair, Reiser and the Linux community were split over Reiser4 before he was arrested, so support for the technology had already been waning, Corbet said. Reiser4 was supposed to provide better performance and be more feature-rich than its predecessor, but many of its features ran counter to how the community thought a Unix-like file system should work, and there were issues of security, he said.

A spokesman from Novell corroborated Corbet's opinion that Reiser4 was on the outs even before Reiser's troubles began. Kevan Barney, a spokesman for the company that maintains the Suse Linux distribution, for which ReiserFS has been the default file system, began plans to phase out ReiserFS in favor of another Linux file system, EXT3, in the middle of last year. "That's a decision that was made long ago ... and is driven by customer demand," he said.

A Suse Linux engineer, Jeff Mahoney, also posted on the Linux and Open Source Blog about issues with Reiser's file system before his arrest last year. Mahoney cited problems with the file system's scalability and performance as reasons Suse would no longer use ReiserFS as its default file system.

ReiserFS is one of several file systems supported in Suse Linux Enterprise and is the default file system in the current version of the commercial OS, Suse Linux Enterprise 10, Barney said. And even though it won't be the default in the next version of the distribution, it will still be supported along with others, he said.

Indeed, EXT3 is now the file system of choice for Linux, though another file system, XFS, also is being used for some high-end applications, Corbet said.

Still, Reiser's arrest certainly didn't help an already tenuous situation for his work, not just because the community lost his technical contribution and promotion of the file system, but also because Reiser sold his company, Namesys, to fund his legal defense, Corbet added. Namesys had been paying developers to work on Reiser4.

"Had Hans not been arrested, there is a reasonable chance that Reiser4 would have made it into the kernel by now," he said. "The end of Namesys as a functioning company is what really stopped progress with Reiser4."

Opening arguments in Reiser's murder trial were postponed from Monday and are now scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. PST on Tuesday at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland. The case has gotten a lot of publicity from local and national news outlets.