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Google Invests in Linux Kernel Developers to Focus on Security

Google will fund two full-time Linux kernel developers to maintain and improve Linux security in the long term.

Google and the Linux Foundation have announced plans to fund two full-time maintainers to exclusively focus on Linux kernel security development. Gustavo Silva and Nathan Chancellor, both active Linux contributors, will work to strengthen kernel security and associated projects.

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Their goal is to make the pervasive operating system more sustainable as research indicates a need to improve open source software security, specifically in Linux. A report from the Linux Foundation's Open Source Security Foundation (OpenSSF) and the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard University (LISH) found a lack of security efforts in open source software.

It's worth noting Linux has more than 20,000 contributors and 1 million commits as of August 2020. But while there are thousands of Linux developers, Google's contribution to underwrite two full-time Linux security maintainers indicates the greater role security will play in its future. The company also hopes this initiative will motivate other organizations to contribute.

"Supply chain security and open source security are critical," says Google software engineer Dan Lorenc. "A lot of companies know that now and want to help but don't really know how to … we're trying to talk about it now and show people how we're doing it, so that they can get encouraged and get inspired and come up with other ways they can help out, too." 

Lorenc sees two key components in the issue of open source software security. One is the fact that it comes from people all over the world, some of whom might be malicious or have bad intentions – an inherent problem to open source security. The other is it's software, and all software has flaws, whether intentional or not, that need to be fixed.

"Just because that's not your code doesn't mean there aren't bugs," Lorenc adds. "That's kind of a misconception that a lot of companies are now starting to realize." These two factors, combined with the rise of people using open source software, is driving security as a priority.

Linux, which has become a bigger part of the supply chain and key enterprise systems, has also become an appealing target to advanced attackers. Strengthening the Linux kernel will be a key step in protecting open source software from both cybercriminals and advanced threats.

Chancellor, one of the two developers taking on this role, has been working on the Linux kernel for four-and-a-half years. Two years back, he began contributing to mainline Linux under the ClangBuiltLinux project, an initiative to get the Linux kernel building with the Clang and LLVM compiler tools. Chancellor hopes more people start to use the LLVM compiler infrastructure project and contribute fixes to both that and the kernel, as "it will go a long way towards improving Linux security for everyone," he said in a statement

Silva began working on the kernel as part of the Linux Foundation's Core Infrastructure Initiative, a program in which younger developers are mentored by engineers who work on the kernel. Now his full-time security work focuses on removing several classes of buffer overflows. He's also working on fixing vulnerabilities before they hit the mainline and developing defense mechanisms that cut off whole classes of vulnerabilities. Silva submitted his first kernel patch in 2010 and has consistently been among the top five most active kernel developers since 2017.

Both Chancellor and Silva report to David Wheeler, director of open source supply chain security at the Linux Foundation. 

Today's news is the result of several challenging pieces fitting into place. It can be tough, Lorenc says, to find adequate funding, to find people who can take on projects like these, and to find projects like the Linux kernel, which does a good job of onboarding new contributors and getting patches in so that developers have actionable things to do, he explains.

"It's really a matter of finding people willing to do the work, with people willing to mentor them and accept the work, and then [there's] important work to be done," he continues, noting that "matching everything up can be challenging." In this case, Google is providing the funding, but many people working on this already have full-time jobs and can't take on these side projects.

On that note, it can also be difficult to find projects willing to accept contributions, he adds. Many open source projects, especially some of the neglected ones, don't have people available to merge code and onboard new maintainers. Matching all these factors up can be a challenge.

While there are no concrete plans to add more maintainers, Lorenc says they're open to it.

"We see this as a great use of investment, so these are the types of things where we love to scale up where we can," he adds.

Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio

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