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+3: EARLY-STAGE PLANNING
+When contemplating a Linux kernel development project, it can be tempting
+to jump right in and start coding. As with any significant project,
+though, much of the groundwork for success is best laid before the first
+line of code is written. Some time spent in early planning and
+communication can save far more time later on.
+3.1: 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.
+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.
+3.2: EARLY DISCUSSION
+When planning a kernel development project, it makes great sense to hold
+discussions with the community before launching into implementation. Early
+communication can save time and trouble in a number of ways:
+ - It may well be that the problem is addressed by the kernel in ways which
+ you have not understood. The Linux kernel is large and has a number of
+ features and capabilities which are not immediately obvious. Not all
+ kernel capabilities are documented as well as one might like, and it is
+ easy to miss things. Your author has seen the posting of a complete
+ driver which duplicated an existing driver that the new author had been
+ unaware of. Code which reinvents existing wheels is not only wasteful;
+ it will also not be accepted into the mainline kernel.
+ - There may be elements of the proposed solution which will not be
+ acceptable for mainline merging. It is better to find out about
+ problems like this before writing the code.
+ - It's entirely possible that other developers have thought about the
+ problem; they may have ideas for a better solution, and may be willing
+ to help in the creation of that solution.
+Years of experience with the kernel development community have taught a
+clear lesson: kernel code which is designed and developed behind closed
+doors invariably has problems which are only revealed when the code is
+released into the community. Sometimes these problems are severe,
+requiring months or years of effort before the code can be brought up to
+the kernel community's standards. Some examples include:
+ - The Devicescape network stack was designed and implemented for
+ single-processor systems. It could not be merged into the mainline
+ until it was made suitable for multiprocessor systems. Retrofitting
+ locking and such into code is a difficult task; as a result, the merging
+ of this code (now called mac80211) was delayed for over a year.
+ - The Reiser4 filesystem included a number of capabilities which, in the
+ core kernel developers' opinion, should have been implemented in the
+ virtual filesystem layer instead. It also included features which could
+ not easily be implemented without exposing the system to user-caused
+ deadlocks. The late revelation of these problems - and refusal to
+ address some of them - has caused Reiser4 to stay out of the mainline
+ - The AppArmor security module made use of internal virtual filesystem
+ data structures in ways which were considered to be unsafe and
+ unreliable. This concern (among others) kept AppArmor out of the
+ mainline for years.
+In each of these cases, a great deal of pain and extra work could have been
+avoided with some early discussion with the kernel developers.
+3.3: WHO DO YOU TALK TO?
+When developers decide to take their plans public, the next question will
+be: where do we start? The answer is to find the right mailing list(s) and
+the right maintainer. For mailing lists, the best approach is to look in
+the MAINTAINERS file for a relevant place to post. If there is a suitable
+subsystem list, posting there is often preferable to posting on
+linux-kernel; you are more likely to reach developers with expertise in the
+relevant subsystem and the environment may be more supportive.
+Finding maintainers can be a bit harder. Again, the MAINTAINERS file is
+the place to start. That file tends to not always be up to date, though,
+and not all subsystems are represented there. The person listed in the
+MAINTAINERS file may, in fact, not be the person who is actually acting in
+that role currently. So, when there is doubt about who to contact, a
+useful trick is to use git (and "git log" in particular) to see who is
+currently active within the subsystem of interest. Look at who is writing
+patches, and who, if anybody, is attaching Signed-off-by lines to those
+patches. Those are the people who will be best placed to help with a new
+The task of finding the right maintainer is sometimes challenging enough
+that the kernel developers have added a script to ease the process:
+This script will return the current maintainer(s) for a given file or
+directory when given the "-f" option. If passed a patch on the
+command line, it will list the maintainers who should probably receive
+copies of the patch. There are a number of options regulating how hard
+get_maintainer.pl will search for maintainers; please be careful about
+using the more aggressive options as you may end up including developers
+who have no real interest in the code you are modifying.
+If all else fails, talking to Andrew Morton can be an effective way to
+track down a maintainer for a specific piece of code.
+3.4: WHEN TO POST?
+If possible, posting your plans during the early stages can only be
+helpful. Describe the problem being solved and any plans that have been
+made on how the implementation will be done. Any information you can
+provide can help the development community provide useful input on the
+One discouraging thing which can happen at this stage is not a hostile
+reaction, but, instead, little or no reaction at all. The sad truth of the
+matter is (1) kernel developers tend to be busy, (2) there is no shortage
+of people with grand plans and little code (or even prospect of code) to
+back them up, and (3) nobody is obligated to review or comment on ideas
+posted by others. Beyond that, high-level designs often hide problems
+which are only reviewed when somebody actually tries to implement those
+designs; for that reason, kernel developers would rather see the code.
+If a request-for-comments posting yields little in the way of comments, do
+not assume that it means there is no interest in the project.
+Unfortunately, you also cannot assume that there are no problems with your
+idea. The best thing to do in this situation is to proceed, keeping the
+community informed as you go.
+3.5: GETTING OFFICIAL BUY-IN
+If your work is being done in a corporate environment - as most Linux
+kernel work is - you must, obviously, have permission from suitably
+empowered managers before you can post your company's plans or code to a
+public mailing list. The posting of code which has not been cleared for
+release under a GPL-compatible license can be especially problematic; the
+sooner that a company's management and legal staff can agree on the posting
+of a kernel development project, the better off everybody involved will be.
+Some readers may be thinking at this point that their kernel work is
+intended to support a product which does not yet have an officially
+acknowledged existence. Revealing their employer's plans on a public
+mailing list may not be a viable option. In cases like this, it is worth
+considering whether the secrecy is really necessary; there is often no real
+need to keep development plans behind closed doors.
+That said, there are also cases where a company legitimately cannot
+disclose its plans early in the development process. Companies with
+experienced kernel developers may choose to proceed in an open-loop manner
+on the assumption that they will be able to avoid serious integration
+problems later. For companies without that sort of in-house expertise, the
+best option is often to hire an outside developer to review the plans under
+a non-disclosure agreement. The Linux Foundation operates an NDA program
+designed to help with this sort of situation; more information can be found
+This kind of review is often enough to avoid serious problems later on
+without requiring public disclosure of the project.