Linux is not reliable enough?

Mark Chambers markc at
Tue Jul 27 23:29:51 EST 2004

Ok, I promise (mostly to myself) that this is my last comment about this.
One point I was trying to make is that assuming the underlying hardware is
good, all software is theoretically perfect.  That is, given the same set of
input conditions it will always produce the same output.  So software can
only become unreliable when applied to some real world application, when the
deterministic outputs are not the ones we wanted.  So perhaps I'm being
overly pedantic here, but I think it's relevant to our discussion, because
people may make an apples to oranges comparison when comparing linux to
other OS's.  Other OS's may provide a shrink-wrapped solution which has been
extensively tested and is relatively guaranteed for some range of inputs.
Linux, on the other hand, is more a raw material.  But because linux is open
source it can be molded to your application.  The many flavors of hard
realtime or 'carrier grade' linux are perfect examples of this.  So it comes
down to evaluating what you need to do your job, and not applying some
mystical quality of 'reliability' to a piece of software.  I do understand
what we mean by 'reliable' as a practical matter, my point is just that you
can't say whether linux is reliable or not until you know what it's required
to do.  If I wanted to create a digital alarm clock, for an extreme example,
I bet I could write a linux app that would NEVER crash. (at least until

By the way, it's not my 'feeling' that linux can do 5 nines.  It's been
done.  Granted, the numbers come from clusters of PCs, so 100 PCs running
without failure for a year does not necessarily translate to one PC running
for 100 years.

And finally, this is all quite relevant to the discussion about dropping 2.4
for 2.6.  It's important for linux in general that well characterized
versions of the software are available.

So as Forrest Gump would say, that's all I have to say about that.

Mark Chambers

> Its not just the drivers: every line of kernel code (and there are over a
> million of those in linux) has the potential to crash the system. In order
> be *really* sure that the system is reliable, one would have to give all
> code a thorough examination. Depending on how "thorough examination" is
> defined (and there are approved standards for this), this effort results
> costs that quickly make the question wether the OS's source code is
> for free, or will cost a few hundred kilobucks, a non-issue.
> > The only operating system that doesn't allow a
> > clever programmer to crash is one that doesn't do anything.
> > they say, allow you to do nifty things like replace the file system
> > rebooting.
> This is not really a microkernel-specific feature. I believe Linux with
> kernel modules can do this as well.
> The important thing about the microkernel approach is that it allows to
> OS functionality from components, where each component runs in its own
> address space and only has access to the resources it needs to do its job.
> device driver only needs access to the registers of the device it is
> to handle, so it can only foul up this particular device (*). If such a
> driver goes haywire, it *can* not affect, e.g. other driver's hardware or
> memory: the bug remains local to the software that causes it. Such a
> affects only the offending component itself and the software modules that
> rely on the services this component offers.
> The benefit of this approach for safety-critical systems is that one can
> identify the components that are critical to the application. If a
> application does not require a big deal of OS functionality, then only the
> few components necessary to implement it need to be scrutinized. Other
> components may well exist in the system, for example to support
> parts of the application, because they can not affect the critical parts.
> Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying a microkernel (or even QNX) is
> safer than Linux. However, if done right, it can give you the freedom to
> trade functional complexity against functional safety.
> > So that means you could swap in a buggy filesystem and destroy
> > the data on your disc/flash.  Without rebooting.  Which is good since
> > won't be able to boot from your corrupted filesystem, which won't show
> > until the next power failure, while the poor nurse with a flashlight
> > to a guy on the phone who assures her QNX can't fail.  So every OS, and
> > every feature, has its pro's and con's.  The question for any CSA is not
> > 'is this reliable' but 'can I make a reliable system using this
> > Will the OS eat itself, or do I only have to worry about the mistakes I
> > make?  A carefully constructed linux system should be good for 5 or even
> > nines of reliability.
> This may be your gut feeling, but the CSA has to *prove* it for the OS he
> chooses (at least he should have to, that is his responsibility).
> (Honestly: would you fly in an aircraft whose steer-by-wire system is
> controlled by Linux/QNX/any other OS (name please)?)
> Rob
> (*) There are some more issues here which I left out for brevity: If the
> device being handled by a driver is capable of DMA, it *can* crash
> everything. Therefore, such drivers need special consideration. Also, for
> memory-mapped I/O, access permissions to device registers need to be
> by the MMU, so, if there are multiple devices with their registers within
> same physical page, they can not be protected from each other.
> the likelihood if a wild pointer causing spurious crashes is still greatly
> reduced.
> ----------------------------------------------------------------
> Robert Kaiser                         email: rkaiser at
> Am Pfaffenstein 14                    phone: (49) 6136 9948-762
> D-55270 Klein-Winternheim / Germany   fax:   (49) 6136 9948-10

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