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Kernel Development, Desktops, and Scooby Doo: The Alan Cox Interview - page 5

A Connoisseur of Indian Food and Scooby-Doo

  • February 10, 2000
  • By Paul Ferris

Alan: The funny thing about Linux, there's so much going on. Things like the UNESCO distribution of Linux into third-world countries and stuff. Because not only is it something to run on cheap hardware, especially if you're careful about which distributions you pick and sort of what your expectations are. But also it's something that is literally sustainable.

So you don't you don't have this problem where you've shared all of these computers and software technology out to the country, and then they have to all come back to Redmond and say, "OK, we need this and we need that and the other."

The translations and such can all be done locally. For things like translation and localization, that's exactly how it should be. Because I've never seen something translated that has been done well, unless it's been done in the country for which it has been a target.

LT: What's the name of the distribution? UNESCO?

Alan: The UNESCO thing? Part of it has to do with providing more sustainable resources to other countries. Pulling the Red Hat press from a couple of years ago you should be able to find out more about it. You've got a big archive on Linux Today, so you should be able to find out about it.

LT: We're redesigning Linux Today a bit, but the archives will always be available. There's some really interesting stuff in there.

Alan: Keeping some of the earlier stuff would be important to me.

LT: We use it ourselves researching our own stuff. To me it's a snapshot of history, and it's sort of like the bloodline for a beast we call the Linux Community. It is really, it's a circulatory system. If, for example, you're interested in security, you likely get our security newsletter and so on...

Alan: If you want to go back before that, some of us have tried to keep all of the old mailing-list archives. I've got some 1993-1995 Linux lists, and Ted hopefully has 1991 to 1992. So maybe based on that we can put up an archive of all of the original Linux messages. So back from the very very first days of the actual mailing lists. ...

LT: There's some history there...

Alan: A fair bit of history. The first SAMBA list. SAMBA digest number one. [laugh] The origin of fvwm, which state that the F really stood for which is feeble. Because Rob Sanders was trying to write a very small window manager and terminal so that he could use X on a 4-megabyte machine.

So it was the feeble virtual window manager. But the feeble has mysteriously disappeared over the years.

LT: No, a different word is always suggested... I think the history is important here. This whole Expo floor, to a new person just walking in, appears to have just sprung up from nothing. Literally overnight.

Alan: I'm pretty sure the first Linux Expo I went to, the stand would fit in the Red Hat booth today. It's not that long ago if you think about it. The first time I met Red Hat was at one of the Expos, they brought me over.

We had a tour of the office, which was like two small rented office buildings. About a five-minute tour and we'd seen everything. And now there are like 450 people with the Red Hat and Cygnus combo. And it really has just sort of... well, it's kind of like at one point I was just sort of fiddling around and playing with an interesting little toy I had and then the rest of the world arrived.

It has been really amazing.

LT: I feel like I'm in the current now and I'm being swept along. Linux Today, for example, there's so much news now, this was my favorite news site. I say was, not meaning that it isn't now, meaning that I no longer am able to keep up.

Alan: That's one of the problems I find with it. As a site, there's too much going on. If you don't look at it for two or three days, you missed so much stuff.

LT: You almost feel like you've missed part of a soap opera, don't you?

Alan: [laughter] You need better filtering so you can sort out the stuff you're more interested in.

LT: Well, we're definitely working on that, as well as some other issues.

Alan: I know this kind of thing. What used to happen, I used to go in the morning, read my e-mail, and click across the Linux news sites. But that click across the Linux news sites started getting longer, and longer...

LT: It's quickly coming to a point where the amount of things happening is beyond the comprehension of most people.

Alan: I have to agree. I follow less and less of it. It's not so hard in my case because I can generally ignore most of the proprietary software developments.

I have some interactions with some of the vendors like Oracle and such. But we're getting useful stuff back from them because people like Oracle and SAP are coming to us and saying, "Linux works great, but we've got a little bit of a benchmark problem here, and that's showing up in some of these things that don't scale very well."

SAP is actually providing kernel fixes for them as well, as are some of the other vendors. Because of course, they all want their software to run really well on Linux. And if that happens to mean a few kernel fixes it's a good investment for them.

LT: This is another major advantage. Of course there's no way that a proprietary vendor can hope to compete with this.

Alan: It's not so hard for a big company [to get the attention of a vendor with proprietary code] to get attention, but if you're a small company it's very hard to get something [like a requested software feature] in. Even to get noticed by the people who otherwise control the software. Whereas in the free-software world you send in the patch.

LT: You can get as involved as you want.

Alan: Right.

LT: How much involvement is IBM having when you look at the integration of the port to the 390?

Alan: Basically, they put out the S/390 code, and they sent me a copy a few days before they did the official release so I could look through and comment on it. On the basis of the idea that I wouldn't jump their press releases and spoil their nice PR arrangement. There were a couple of places where I where had to [alter some minor things regarding official device names]. Other than that, the code went right in.

The only one that was really funny: in one of the console drivers there were lots of gaps, bunches of blank lines. I thought, what's with all of these bunches of blank lines in here? You could have at least tidied that file up. They said, "Oh, that's where the lawyers took out the comments."

Just on the one driver. I have no idea what IBM's issue was. But obviously IBM has a chunk of people who are supposed to sit there and protect IBM. But the S/390 code is really nice code.

LT: Have they looked at the kernel and done anything like what SAP did?

Alan: Not that I'm aware of in that way. But now they're offering their journaling file-system stuff.

LT: Yeah, we posted it the other day.

Alan: I haven't looked at it yet.

LT: I was going to ask you how it compares to EX3, Stephen [Tweedie]'s stuff.

Alan: Stephen's stuff is interesting in the sense that you can take an EX2 file system [EX2 is the default Linux file system type], make it journaled, and you can easily turn it back into EX2 trivially, whereas the others are all new file formats. As to whether we end up with one or a collection of them, I don't know. I mean there's obviously ways to support lots of file systems. We support things like the QNX file system, not because we expect all people to go off and store it as their main file system, but because people have got QNX hard disks.

LT: We want to thank you for the time for the interview. I especially want to thank you for your work.

Alan: Mostly other people's work. I mostly organize it is all.

LT: I know, I know--that you're part of the collective, but you I feel are a big part of the success of that work. Doing your own things. Linux means way more to me than an operating system means to most people. I can tell you in all sincerity that your work has affected my life in a really positive way. I'm very thankful.

Alan: Oh, good.

LT: I swear a lot less at my computer. It has automation tools where I want them, and it just plain works thanks to people like yourself. So, thank you, Alan.

Alan: You're welcome.

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