Fate of Linux guru and his life's work hangs in balance

The fate of a Linux visionary who is charged with murder will be decided in a trial starting Tuesday in Oakland, California, while the fate of the file system he created remains left in the hands of an open-source community rapidly losing interest in the technology.

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The fate of a Linux visionary who is charged with murder will be decided in a trial starting this week in Oakland, California, while the fate of the file system he created remains left in the hands of an open-source community rapidly losing interest in the technology.

Hans Reiser is accused of killing his Russian-born wife, Nina Reiser, who disappeared in September 2006 in Oakland, but whose body has never been found. The Reisers were living apart at the time, in the middle of a contentious divorce and battle for custody of their two children. Hans Reiser was arrested a month later for his wife's murder after traces of her blood were found in his home and car.

Reiser created a Linux file system called ReiserFS, which in the mid-1990s was important for Linux. The first version of it, known as Reiser3, is part of the core Linux kernel. But since his arrest, work on the file system has been all but abandoned, and the successor to ReiserFS, Reiser4, has only a slim chance of survival in the community, said Jonathan Corbet, a well-known Linux expert and founder of LWN.net, a Linux Web news site that has been covering the OS and open-source software community for nearly 10 years.

In an email, Corbet said that despite "years of effort" Reiser4 has still not made it into the Linux kernel and the future for the technology does not look promising.

"There are still a couple of people putting some volunteer effort into Reiser4, so it could, just maybe, still make it into the mainline [kernel] someday," he said. "But progress is very slow and there's not a whole lot of people who are interested anymore."

Reiser and the Linux community were split over Reiser4 before he was arrested, with support for the technology already waning, Corbet said. Reiser4 was supposed to provide better performance and be more feature-rich than its predecessor, but many of its features ran counter to how the community thought a Unix-like file system should work, and there were security issues, he said.

A spokesman from Novell corroborated Corbet's opinion that Reiser4 was on the way out even before Reiser's troubles began. Kevan Barney, a spokesman for the company that maintains the Suse Linux distribution, for which ReiserFS has been the default file system, began plans to phase out ReiserFS in favour of another Linux file system, EXT3, in the middle of last year. "That's a decision that was made long ago ... and is driven by customer demand," he said.

A Suse Linux engineer, Jeff Mahoney, also posted on the Linux and Open Source Blog about issues with Reiser's file system before his arrest last year. Mahoney cited problems with the file system's scalability and performance as reasons Suse would no longer use ReiserFS as its default file system.

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