Implication of Fragmentation in Linux

by kyolee310

At Eucalyptus we have been proud to say,

“Eucalyptus Cloud runs on almost all major Linux distros: Ubuntu, Debian, CentOS, Red Hat, Fedora, etc.. You name it, we will support it!”

The crowd erupts in cheers, with occasional tears of joy. There will be a parade later.

Yes, it sounds wonderfully majestic as it should be.

When developing open-source software, you need to support all major, stable Linux platforms so that the software can reach out to every single open-source enthusiast who is often loyal to a certain flavor of Linux.

But, what does all this mean to software developers?

A nightmare.

A nightmare accompanied with a horrible migraine.

In the ideal software utopia, all Linux platforms behave in an identical manner; you should be able to run things on Fedora in the same exact way you run those things on Ubuntu. After all, they are all “Linux”, aren’t they?

Welcome to the harsh reality called “fragmentation” in the software world.

It is true that all those distros feel like Linux; they share the same core — Linux kernel — and provide the same level of abstraction which can be described as “Linux experience.”

But, in reality, no two Linux distros are never the same.

The biggest problem with this inconvenient truth is that no one knows for sure what the exact differences are when going from one distro to another distro.

Let’s say we use CentOS as a default Linux distro for developing and testing software. If every function and feature works well on CentOS, can we safely assume that the software will also behave nicely with other Linux distros, such as Red Hat, Ubuntu, and Debian?

The answers to this simple question always fall somewhere in between “Maybe”, “It depends”, “Possibly yes”, “Theoretically it should”, “What is Linux?”, and “NO!”

The only assured way to discover the correct answer is to run tests on the software under all distros.

At present Eucalyptus officially supports three main Linux distros — Ubuntu, Redhat, and CentOS — and is working on adding two more distros: Debian and Fedora. Every time a new distro is added, we are to repeat the entire set of test suite for the new distro. If running a whole set of test suite takes X amount of resources, supporting 5 distros would mean 5X resources. Even further, per distro, we support two of the latest versions — for instance, for CentOS, Eucalyptus supports its version 5 and 6. This additional requirement brings up the total amount testing resources to be 10X.

When translated to the operation cost, if running a complete set of test suite under one Linux environment takes one day, due to the fragmentation of Linux distros, we need to add nine more days of testing in order to completely cover all corner cases in various Linux distros.

The real world implication of this nightmare is that whenever a little tweak goes into Eucalyptus, it might take up to 10 days, in the worst case scenario, to ensure ourselves that this seemingly innocent tweak will not bring down the house under some other Linux distros in strange, unpredictable ways.

In school we are taught to celebrate diversity, but they often forget to emphasize the beauty in simplicity. Handling the issue of the Linux fragmentation remains to be one of many challenges that Eucalyptus has to overcome.

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