Specifying the Problem

Like any engineering project, a successful kernel enhancement starts with a clear description of the problem to be solved. In some cases, this step is easy: when a driver is needed for a specific piece of hardware, for example. In others, though, it is tempting to confuse the real problem with the proposed solution, and that can lead to difficulties.

Consider an example: some years ago, developers working with Linux audio sought a way to run applications without dropouts or other artifacts caused by excessive latency in the system. The solution they arrived at was a kernel module intended to hook into the Linux Security Module (LSM) framework; this module could be configured to give specific applications access to the realtime scheduler. This module was implemented and sent to the linux-kernel mailing list, where it immediately ran into problems.

To the audio developers, this security module was sufficient to solve their immediate problem. To the wider kernel community, though, it was seen as a misuse of the LSM framework (which is not intended to confer privileges onto processes which they would not otherwise have) and a risk to system stability. Their preferred solutions involved realtime scheduling access via the rlimit mechanism for the short term, and ongoing latency reduction work in the long term.

The audio community, however, could not see past the particular solution they had implemented; they were unwilling to accept alternatives. The resulting disagreement left those developers feeling disillusioned with the entire kernel development process; one of them went back to an audio list and posted this:

There are a number of very good Linux kernel developers, but they tend to get outshouted by a large crowd of arrogant fools. Trying to communicate user requirements to these people is a waste of time. They are much too „intelligent“ to listen to lesser mortals.

(http://lwn.net/Articles/131776/ ).

The reality of the situation was different; the kernel developers were far more concerned about system stability, long-term maintenance, and finding the right solution to the problem than they were with a specific module. The moral of the story is to focus on the problem – not a specific solution

  • and to discuss it with the development community before investing in the creation of a body of code.

So, when contemplating a kernel development project, one should obtain answers to a short set of questions:

  • What, exactly, is the problem which needs to be solved?
  • Who are the users affected by this problem? Which use cases should the solution address?
  • How does the kernel fall short in addressing that problem now?

Only then does it make sense to start considering possible solutions.