Subject: The future of NetBSD
To: None <email@example.com>
From: Charles M. Hannum <mycroft@MIT.EDU>
Date: 08/30/2006 19:27:23
The NetBSD Project has stagnated to the point of irrelevance. It has
gotten to the point that being associated with the project is often
more of a liability than an asset. I will attempt to explain how this
happened, what the current state of affairs is, and what needs to be
done to attempt to fix the situation.
As one of the 4 originators of NetBSD, I am in a fairly unique position.
I am the only one who has continuously participated and/or watched the
project over its entire history. Many changes have taken place, and at
the same time many things have remained the same -- including some of
our early mistakes.
I'd like to say that I'm some great visionary, who foresaw the whole OSS
market, but the fact is that's BS. When we started the project, Linux
and 386BSD were both little hobbyist systems, both pretty buggy, and
both lacking a lot of important hardware support. Mostly we were
scratching an itch: there was no complete package of 386BSD plus the
necessary patches to make it run on more systems and fix bugs, and there
was no sign that Bill Jolitz was going to resurface and do anything.
Much of the project structure evolved because of problems we had early
on. Probably our best choice was to start using central version control
right off; this has enabled a very wide view of the code history and
(eventually) made remote collaboration with a large number of developers
much easier. Some other things we fudged; e.g. Chris got tired of being
the point man for everything, and was trying to graduate college, so we
created an internal "cabal" for managing the project, which became known
as the "core group". Although the web was very new, we set up a web
site fairly early, to disseminate information about the project and our
Much of this early structure (CVS, web site, cabal, etc.) was copied
verbatim by other open source (this term not being in wide use yet)
projects -- even the form of the project name and the term "core". This
later became a kind of standard template for starting up an open source
Unfortunately, we made some mistakes here. As we've seen over the
years, one of the great successes of Linux was that it had a strong
leader, who set goals and directions, and was able to get people to do
what he wanted -- or find someone else to do it. This latter part is
also a key element; there was no sense that anyone else "owned" a piece
of Linux (although de facto "ownership" has happened in some parts); if
you didn't produce, Linus would use someone else's code. If you wanted
people to use your stuff, you had to keep moving.
NetBSD did not have this. Partly due to lack of people, and partly due
to a more corporate mentality, projects were often "locked". One person
would say they were working on a project, and everyone else would be
told to refer to them. Often these projects stagnated, or never
progressed at all. If they did, the motivators were often very slow.
As a result, many important projects have moved at a glacial pace, or
never materialized at all.
I'm sorry to say that I helped create this problem, and that most of the
projects which modeled themselves after NetBSD (probably due to its high
popularity in 1993 and 1994) have suffered similar problems. FreeBSD
and XFree86, for example, have both forked successor projects (Dragonfly
and X.org) for very similar reasons.
Unfortunately, these problems still exist in the NetBSD project today,
and nothing is being done to fix them.
I won't attempt to pin blame on any specific people for this, except to
say that some of it is definitely my fault. It's only in retrospect
that I see so clearly the need for a very strong leader. Had I pursued
it 10 years ago, things might be very different. Such is life. But
let's talk about the situation today.
Today, the project is run by a different cabal. This is the result of a
coup that took place in 2000-2001, in which The NetBSD Foundation was
taken over by a fraudulent change of the board of directors. (Note:
It's probably too late for me to pursue any legal remedy for this,
unfortunately.) Although "The NetBSD Project" and "The NetBSD
Foundation" were intended from the start to be separate entities -- the
latter supplying support infrastructure for the former -- this
distinction has been actively blurred since, so that the current "board"
of TNF has rather tight control over many aspects of TNP.
Were TNF comprised of a good set of leaders, this situation might be
somewhat acceptable -- though certainly not ideal. The problem is,
there are really no leaders at this point. "Goals" for releases are not
based on customer feedback or looking forward to future needs, but
solely on the basis of what looks like it's bubbled up enough that it
might be possible to finish in time. There is no high-level direction;
if you ask "what about the problems with threads" or "will there be a
flash-friendly file system", the best you'll get is "we'd love to have
both" -- but no work is done to recruit people to code these things, or
encourage existing developers to work on them.
This vacuum has contributed materially to the project's current
stagnation. Indeed, NetBSD is very far behind on a plethora of very
important projects. Threading doesn't really work across multiple CPUs
-- and is even somewhat buggy on one CPU. There is no good flash file
system. There is no file system journaling (except for LFS, which is
still somewhat experimental). Although there's been some recent work on
suspend support, it's still mostly broken. Power management is very
primitive. Etc. Even new hardware support is generally not being
originated in NetBSD any more; it's being developed by FreeBSD and
OpenBSD, and being picked up later. (I think the only recent exception
to this of any significance is Bluetooth support.)
For these reasons and others, the project has fallen almost to the point
of irrelevance. (Some people will probably argue that it's beyond that
point, but I'm trying to be generous.) This is unfortunate, especially
since NetBSD usage -- especially in the embedded space -- was growing at
a good rate in 2000 and 2001, prior to the aforementioned coup.
At this point most readers are probably wondering whether I'm just
writing a eulogy for the NetBSD project. In some ways, I am -- it's
clear that the project, as it currently exists, has no future. It will
continue to fall further behind, and to become even less relevant. This
is a sad conclusion to a project that had such bright prospects when it
I admit that I may be wrong about this, but I assume that most people
who have contributed to NetBSD, and/or continue to do so, do not desire
to see the project wallow away like this. So I will outline what I
think is the only way out:
1) There must be a strong leadership, and it is not the current one.
The leadership must honestly want NetBSD to be a premier, world class
system with leading edge features. The leadership must set
aggressive goals, and actively recruit people to make them happen.
2) There must be no more "locking" of projects. Just because one person
is supposedly working on a problem, that doesn't mean you shouldn't.
If there ideas are dumb, or even just suboptimal, do it better! If
there is no progress, hop on it. Don't wait for someone else.
3) The project must become an *actual* meritocracy, not what I call a
"volumetocracy". Right now, the people who exert the most influence
are often the people who produce the least useful product. Indeed,
they are often people who produce little more than fluff (e.g.
changing line-ending whitespace!), and often break things.
4) Speaking of which, there must be negative feedback to discourage
people from breaking stuff. This has been a continual problem with
certain "developers" for more than a decade.
5) There are a number of aspects of the NetBSD architecture that are
flat out broken, and need serious rehabilitation. Again, the
leadership needs to recruit people to do these things. Some of them
* serious problems with the threading architecture (including the
user-kernel interface), as mentioned earlier;
* terrible support for kernel modules;
* the horrible mess that is 32/64-bit compatibility, resulting in
32-bit apps often not working right on 64-bit kernels; and
* unbounded maintenance work due to inappropriate and rampant use of
"quirk" tables and chip-specific tables; e.g. in SCSI, ATAPI, IDE,
ACPI and SpeedStep support. (I actually did much of this work for
SCSI, but am not currently able to commit it.)
6) The existing NetBSD Foundation must be disbanded, and replaced with
an organization that fulfills its original purpose: to merely handle
administrative issues, and not to manage day-to-day affairs. The
extra committees, which mostly do nothing, must be disbanded -- they
serve only to obfuscate things. Everything else must revert to the
historically separate entity, the NetBSD Project, to be managed based
on technical merits. There must be no perceived glamour in
participating in the Foundation; it must be composed of people doing
it because they are dedicated and want to help the project.
(I will note here that this is not due to bitterness over the coup.
Keeping the NetBSD Project as an unincorporated association actually
helps protect it.)
7) The "core" group must be replaced with people who are actually
competent and dedicated enough to review proposals, accept feedback,
and make good decisions. More to the point, though, the "core" group
must only act when *needed* -- most technical decisions should be
left to the community to hash out; it must not preempt the community
from developing better solutions. (This is how the "core" group
worked during most of the project's growth period.)
8) There must be a set of commit standards -- e.g. about when it is or
is not acceptable to commit changes that do not change functionality;
when multiple changed must be batched in one commit; etc. Right now
it is difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. In addition, there
must be standards of review.
I must repeat a point I've made earlier. The current "management" of
the project is not going to either fix the project's problems, or lead
the project to solutions. They are going to maintain the status quo,
and nothing else. If the project is to rise from its charred stump,
this "management" must be disbanded and replaced wholesale. Anything
less is a non-solution.
To some of you, I would like to apologize. There *are* NetBSD
developers doing good work even now. I'd like to particularly recognize
and thank those working on kernel locking and UVM problems; wireless
support (though I'm not sure what happened to my extensive set of rtw
bug fixes); Bluetooth; G5; and improved ARM support. This is all good
stuff. In the bigger picture, though, the project needs to do a lot
- Charles Hannum - past founder, developer, president and director of
The NetBSD Project and The NetBSD Foundation; sole proprietor of The
NetBSD Mission; proprietor of The NetBSD CD Project.
[I'm CCing this to FreeBSD and OpenBSD lists in order to share it with
the wider *BSD community, not to start a flame war. I hope that people
reading it have the tact to be respectful of their peers, and consider
how some of these issues may apply to them as well.]