ZFS and GPL terror: How much freedom is there in Linux?

There has been a long debate about whether man is able to learn from history. I’d argue that we can – at least to some degree. One of the lessons that we could have learned by now is how revolutions work. They begin with the noblest of ideas that many followers wholeheartedly support and may even risk their lives for. They promise to rid the poor suppressed people of the dreaded current authorities. When they are over (and they didn’t fail obviously) they will have replaced the old authorities with – new authorities. These might be “better” (or rather: somewhat less bad) than the old ones if we’re lucky, but they are sure to be miles away from what the revolution promised to establish.

Death to the monopoly!

Do you remember Microsoft? No, not the modern “cloud first” company that runs Azure and bought Github. I mean good old Microsoft that used to dominate the PC market with their Windows operating system. The company that used their market position with Windows 3.x to FUD Digital Research and their superior DR-DOS out of the market by displaying a harmless line of text with a warning about possible compatibility issues. The company that spent time and resources on strategies to extinguish Open Source.

Yes, due to vendor lock-in (e.g. people needing software that only runs on Windows) and to laziness (just using whatever comes installed on a pc), they have maintained their dominance on the desktop. However the importance of it has been on a long decline: Even Microsoft have acknowledged this by demoting their former flagship product and even thinking of making it available for free. They didn’t quite take that extreme step, but it’s hard to argue that Windows still has the importance it had since the 1990’s up to the early 2010’s.

They’ve totally lost the mobile market – Windows Phone is dead – and are not doing too well in the server market, either.

A software Golden Age with Linux?

In both areas Linux has won: It’s basically everywhere today! Got a web-facing server? It’s quite likely running some Linux distro. With most smart phones on the planet it’s Android – using a modified Linux kernel – that drives them. And even in space – on the ISS – Linux is in use.

All of us who have fought against the evil monopoly could now be proud of what was accomplished, right? Right? Not so much. There’s a new monopolist out there, and while it’s adhering to Open Source principles by the letter, it has long since started actually violating the idea by turning it against us.

For those who do not deliberately look the other way, Linux has mostly destroyed POSIX. How’s that? By more or less absorbing it! If software is written with POSIX in mind, today that means it’s written to work on Linux. However POSIX was the idea to establish a common ground to ensure that software runs across all of the *nix platforms! Reducing it basically to one target shattered the whole vision to pieces. Just ask a developer working on a Unix-like OS that is not Linux about POSIX and the penguin OS… You’re not in for stories about respect and being considerate of other systems. One could even say that they have repeatedly acted quite rude and ignorant.

But that’s only one of the problems with Linux. There are definitely others – like people acting all high and mighty and bullying others. The reason for this post is one such case.

ZFS – the undesirable guest

ZFS is todays most advanced filesystem. It originated on the Solaris operating system and thanks to Sun’s decision to open it up, we have it available on quite a number of Unix-like operating systems. That’s just great! Great for everyone.

For everyone? Nope. There are people out there who don’t like ZFS. Which is totally fine, they don’t need to use it after all. But worse: There are people who actively hate ZFS and think that others should not use it. Ok, it’s nothing new that some random guys on the net are acting like assholes, trying to tell you what you must not do, right? Whoever has been online for more than a couple of days probably already got used to it. Unfortunately its still worse: One such spoilsport is Greg Kroah-Hartman, Linux guru and informal second-in-command after Linus Torvalds.

There have been some attempts to defend the stance of this kernel developer. One was to point at the fact that the “ZFS on Linux” (ZoL) port uses two kernel functions, __kernel_fpu_begin() and __kernel_fpu_end(), which have been deprecated for a very long time and that it makes sense to finally get rid of them since nothing in-kernel uses it anymore. Nobody is going to argue against that. The problem becomes clear by looking at the bigger picture, though:

The need for functions doing just what the old ones did has of course not vanished. The functions have been replaced with other ones. And those ones are deliberately made GPL-only. Yes, that’s right: There’s no technical reason whatsoever! It’s purely ideology – and it’s a terrible one.

License matters

I’ve written about licenses in the past, making my position quite clear: It’s the authors right to choose whatever license he or she thinks is right for the project, but personally I would not recommend using pessimistic (copyleft) licenses since they do more harm than good.

While I didn’t have any plans to re-visit this topic anytime soon, I feel like I have to. Discussing the matter on a German tech forum, I encountered all the usual arguments and claims – most of which are either inappropriate or even outright wrong:

  • It’s about Open Source!
  • No it’s absolutely not. ZFS is Open Source.

  • Only copyleft will make sure that code remains free!
  • Sorry, ZFS is licensed under the CDDL – which is a copyleft license.

  • Sun deliberately made the CDDL incompatible with the GPL!
  • This is a claim supported primarily by one former employee of Sun. Others disagree. And even if it was verifiably true: What about Open Source values? Since when is the GPL the only acceptable Open Source license? (If you want to read more, user s4b dug out some old articles about Sun actually supporting GPLv3 and thinking about re-licensing OpenSolaris! The forum post is in German, but the interesting thing there is the links.)

  • Linux owes its success to the GPL! Every Open Source project needs to adopt it!
  • This is a pretty popular myth. Like every myth there’s some truth to it: Linux benefited from the GPL. If it had been licensed differently, it might have benefited from that other license. Nobody can prove that it benefited more from the GPL or would have from another license.

  • The GPL is needed, because otherwise greedy companies will suck your project dry and close down your code!
  • This has undoubtedly happened. Still it’s not as much of a problem as some people claim: They like to suggest that formerly free code somehow vanishes when used in proprietary projects. Of course that’s not true. What those people actually dislike is that a corporation is using free code for commercial products. This can be criticized, but it makes sense to do that in an honest way.

  • Linux and BSD had the same preconditions. Linux prospers while BSD is dying and has fallen into insignificance! You see the pattern?
  • *sign* Looks like you don’t know the history of Unix…

  • You’re an idiot. Whenever there’s a GPL’d project and a similar one that’s permissively licensed, the former succeeds!
  • I bet you use Mir (GPL) or DirectFB (LGPL) and not X.org or Wayland (both MIT), right?

What we can witness here is the spirit of what I’d describe as GPL supremacist. The above (and more) attacks aren’t much of a problem. They are usually pretty weak and the GPL zealots get enraged quite easy. It’s the whole idea to trade the values of Open Source for religious GPL worship (Thou shalt not have any licenses before me!) that’s highly problematic.

And no, I’m not calling everybody who supports the idea of the GPL a zealot. There are people who use the license because it fits their plans for a piece of software and who can make very sensible points for why they are using it. I think that in general the GPL is far from being the best license out there, but that’s my personal preference. It’s perfectly legitimate to use the GPL and to promote it – it is an Open Source license after all! And it’s also fine to argue about which license is right for some project.

My point here is that those overzealous people who try to actually force others to turn towards the GPL are threatening license freedom and that it’s time to just say “no” to them.

Are there any alternatives?

Of course there are alternatives. If you are concerned about things like this (whether you are dependent on modules that are developed out-of-kernel or not), you might want to make 2019 the year to evaluate *BSD. Despite repeated claims, BSD is not “dying” – it’s well alive and innovative. Yes there are areas where it’s lacking behind, which is no wonder considering that there’s a much smaller community behind it and far less companies pumping money into it. There are companies interested in seeing BSD prosper, though. In fact even some big ones like Netflix, Intel and others.

Linux developer Christoph Hellwig actually advises to switch to FreeBSD in a reply to a person who has been a Linux advocate for a long time but depends on ZFS for work. And that recommendation is not actually a bad one. A monopoly is never a good thing. Not even for Linux. It makes sense to support the alternatives out there, especially since there are some viable options!

Speaking about heterogenous environments: Have you heard of Verisign? They run the registry for .com and .net among other things. They’ve built their infrastructure 1/3 on Linux, 1/3 on FreeBSD and 1/3 on Solaris for ultra-high resiliency. While that might be an excellent choice for critical services, it might be hard for smaller companies to find employees that are specialized in those operating systems. But bringing in a little BSD into your Linux-only infrastructure might be a good idea anyway and in fact even lead to future competitive advantage.

FreeBSD is an excellent OS for your server and also well fit if you are doing embedded development. It’s free, ruled by a core team elected by the developers, and available under the very permissive BSD 2-clause license. While it’s completely possible to run it as a desktop, too (I do that on all of my machines both private and at work and it has been my daily driver for a couple of years now), it makes sense to look at a desktop-focused project like GhostBSD or Project Trident for an easy start.

So – how important is ZFS to you – and how much do you value freedom? The initial difficulty that the ZOL project had has been overcome – however they are just working around it. The potential problem that non-GPL code has when working closely with Linux remains. Are you willing to look left and right? You might find that there’s some good things out there that actually make life easier.

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