Opinion We concentrate on their technical aspects, but file systems can get pretty political. They’re one of the last fronts still fighting in the Interoperability Wars. While you can plumb any number of open file systems to Linux if you need what they have, NTFS remains a problem.
Why? Because it’s a very practical issue that can’t be magicked away into the cloud. There are any number of cases* where the best answer is to marry Linux-based functionality to an NTFS store reliably, flexibly and fast. And until fall last year, it was a case of choose any two.
Then a good thing happened – but if 2022 has any lessons for us, it’s that we can’t have good things.
Before October 2021, when Paragon Software’s full-fat NTFS3 driver was accepted into the Linux kernel, the easiest choice was the Linux kernel’s long-standing and resolutely read-only NTFS support. If you needed to write, which isn’t unknown in file system use cases, Tuxedo could give you read/write NTFS for Linux, only in userspace, not the kernel. Limited and slow. Not what you need to integrate Linux with the primary enterprise file system on the planet.
Then came late 2021’s revolution. Paragon’s NTFS3 driver was not sexy, not the stuff of analysts’ PowerPoint decks, but if you needed it, you needed it like crazypants.
Not so fast, said 2022. Paragon Software is a 200+ employee company that has been doing low level hard disk magic since 1994, but the maintainer of the Linux kernel driver is the company founder and CEO, Konstantin Komarov.
He saw it pushed live in 2021; by 2022, he’d stopped responding to messages. No code has been touched, no emails answered, nobody’s saying why.
The company was founded in Russia and he’s Russian, neither of which helps after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, so theories abound. In the end, though, people are free to vanish if they like, for whatever reason, and everybody hopes that Komarov is safe and well, of course.
It’s just that if they’re the sole maintainer of key open source software, we all have a problem. With nobody to fix bugs, patch vulnerabilities, or track Microsoft’s changes, that path is tricky to take.
Open source’s primary defence against alien abduction et cetera is that, well, it’s open. Anyone can pull the project from the repo, take over the reins, and rescue orphaned code.
You could, if only you knew NTFS internals backwards, write high performance kernel driver code. Of course you’d also need the time and energy to single-handedly cope with the fiery vortex of open source politics at the highest level, and the financial resources to do it all for free in a 24/7 world that needs its data NOW. What’s stopping you?
You can see why a person might vanish. The miracle of open source isn’t that it has taken over so much of IT, it’s that the darn stuff survives at all.
Here, it has taken decades to get it working properly, through the work of one key figure who’s spent his working life in the file system sector. Seeking another seems doomed to fail.
There is one way to get the expertise, motivation, resources and commitment to take on NTFS for Linux and make it golden for the long term: Microsoft. That sounds a ridiculous proposition for something the company has treated as one of its crown jewels, a centrepiece of its Windows strategy for both consumer and enterprise. Yet that’s fighting an antique war.
Why is NTFS proprietary in the first place? It came out of the OS/2 NT divorce with IBM, when the partners became enemies and wanted any advantage they could jealously guard.
Windows New Technology, with the New Technology File System, came out in 1993 as the first child of that battle.
For decades afterwards, Microsoft’s policy was fiercely exclusionary towards all rivals, big or small. It could not and would not stand the idea of anyone producing a better NTFS and gaining any sort of toehold in a market the company considered its exclusive territory.
These were the years when Microsoft’s hyper-aggressive approach to other people’s technologies saw it fined hundreds of millions of dollars for trying to squelch disk compression company Stac Electronics. These were the years Steve Ballmer described Linux as a cancer. These were bad times. NT as Nineties Tyranny.
Twenty years on, Microsoft loves Linux.
Moreover, Microsoft is severely relaxed about interoperability. It is hard to see how an open NTFS standard would damage the company commercially. Quite the opposite. It would add confidence in the future, but take away nothing from the present.
It certainly doesn’t conflict with Microsoft’s cloud strategy, where the choice of file system seems as obsolete a concept as decisions about tape formats. It would be a welcome gift to those who have to keep on with the old work, which is to say a very great deal of IT today.
For Microsoft, it would bestow a halo of good citizenship. Microsoft may have embraced the penguin, but it still thinks using Windows 11 as an advertising platform is a great idea.
We still have our memories. We still have our doubts. An act that was unambiguously beneficial to the corporate IT community would help enormously in losing misgivings. It will have some cost, but nothing compared to the billions habitually spunked on stuff nobody asked for nor cared about, let alone the sums spent on killing the competition that we desperately wanted back in the day.
Microsoft. Here’s your chance. Do a good thing. One that manifestly helps real world corporate IT, yet one of tremendous symbolic value. New Technology became Nineties Tyranny: let the final transformation be one of New Trust. ®
* Just a few examples include data security, migration, and platform integration.