Linux guru: Programming is ‘like knitting’

It could be Bruce Perens, that guy sitting next to you on the plane, tapping out software code on his laptop.

Though he is best known as an open source pioneer (he published the Electric Fence free software program in 1987) for the last several years Perens has spent more time as evangelist

than engineer. This is due, in part, to his two-year-old role within Hewlett-Packard Co. as its official Linux advocate, but his job history as project leader for the Debian GNU/Linux project and co-founder of the Open Source Initiative means he fields a variety of public speaking requests. On Monday, for example, Perens was in Toronto where he was to give an evening lecture on open source business models as part of a monthly series organized by the Canadian Film Centre.

Weighing in on complex standards issues doesn’t mean Perens has lost his sense of play, however. This is, after all, a former Pixar Animation Studios senior programmer who worked on A Bug’s Life and Toy Story II. For Perens, creating code remains a source of pleasure he saves for rare moments of luxury.

“”I end up working on software a little when I’m on a plane or something, just to relax me,”” he says, adding that he is close to publishing a “”new wrinkle”” on stacks smashing security attacks. “”It’s like knitting!””

It is this image, however, of the programmer as hobbyist, that may have created some perceptions in the IT industry that Linux doesn’t belong in corporate enterprises. In an interview with Computing Canada, Perens explained why that’s changing.


CC: You’ll be speaking tonight about open source business models. How has the audience’s perceptions about Linux’s potential changed in the last five years that you’ve been talking about it?

BP: There’s been this really radical change in perception, starting this year or maybe as early as December of last year. Of course, five years ago, the main question was, “”Linux is a toy. Will it remain a toy?”” And then, a while later, it was, “”Hey, Linux is credible, and it doesn’t crash, and it doesn’t get all these viruses. Will it make it in business or will commercial factors keep that from happening?”” Then it was, “”Hey, people are actually using Linux in business, but it’s not credible for the enterprise.””

We are so far beyond that. The question is not, “”Should we deploy Linux?”” The decision for many businesses is already “”Yes,”” on that. Business is on the “”how,”” now. They’re asking how to deploy Linux. They’re not asking us to give them a sales pitch on why they need Linux. Now they give me a sales pitch on why open source is important to their company. It’s been absolutely shocking. I mean, I had the CEO of a major freight company — this is a guy who has 6,000 people on his IT staff — sat me down and gave me a lecture on open source.

CC: That may be happening, but do we have enough people fluent in Linux programming to help companies with the “”how?””

BP: If you know Unix, going from that to Linux is really just a matter of keeping a couple of books on hand, because you want to look up a couple of little implementation details. But Linux presents some Posix-API, it implements the x-Windows system that these guys were already familiar with, and it has different GUI tool kits, but these are not a tremendous leap. We have an experienced cadre of Unix programmers already in the industry. In fact, most businesses have not switched over to XP or NT Server or anything like that. They still have their Unix staff, and these are the first people in a corporation who would transition over to Linux.

When HP went to form its Linux department — and this is the old HP, not the Compaq side, because I don’t know how they did it. Well, actually, I do: they bought DEC — when we went to form our Linux department we found that we didn’t have to recruit outside of the company because we had this vast resource of engineers in HP who were already in Linux at home. Then we found that they were actually running Linux at HP and weren’t telling us. So to transition them over to being responsible for Linux was no big deal. In fact, we had the guy who is now the Debian project leader, his name is Bdale Garby. He was an HP employee in IP services when I was Debian project leader, and he gave Debain IP services from HP, at that time non-officially. He is now employed by HP to work on Linux, and part of that is official support from HP to act as Debian project leader.

CC: You also have an affiliation with HP as their sort of official Linux evangelist.

BP: Okay, but you have to remember that I have two hats. I can speak for the open source community, and I can visibly disagree with HP or even criticize HP if necessary. That was necessary for us to agree on before I joined the company, because, obviously I’d have no credibility in the community if I was just an HP shill.

CC: Why did you join the company, though? How has it helped you in some of the various projects you work on?

BP: I need some money. I’ve been lucky in the Pixar IPO, and my house is mostly paid for. But, I figured, why not get paid for what I want to do? I sent a one-line e-mail off to a number of companies that just said, “”Would you like to be associated with a high-status Linux evangelist?”” HP had the best answer, and was the most aggressive about recruiting me, and it turned out that HP was the right company anyway, because who else — even in the old HP — had such a broad line going all the way to consumer equipment up until supercomputers? The fact was HP was not only already deploying Linux in that line when I came on, they were deploying my software! They had BusyBox, which is my embedded systems toolkit, in a lot of their products already. They had Samba in their printer boxes and in storage boxes — I haven’t worked on Samba, but that’s just to illustrate they have a lot of free software. In contrast, I don’t feel I would fit in the corporate culture of IBM.

CC: Why not?

BP: Well, can you imagine IBM having this wild employee who is authorized to publicly criticize the company and speak for himself?

CC: Yeah, but they’ve also made a big commitment to Linux in terms of development and pushing the platform. You’d think they would have to sort of change their mindset and be open to that.

BP: If I didn’t exist, maybe they’d tried to have a person like me. Actually, they have a bit of a corporate dual-personality disorder. For example, you will see IBM, in the guise of their licensing department, publicly asking the World Wide Web Consortium to go for RAND licensing on patents and standards. That would totally lock out Linux and open source. But the way that IBM has organized its licensing department is as in independent fiefdom and it can really tell the Linux folks what to do about any IP licence issues, rather than the opposite way. My surmise is that IBM’s stance on software patenting and embedding it in standards will ultimately be harmful for Linux because, you know, they’re making US$1 billion a year on licensing and they want it to be US$2 billion. To do that, they are actively pursuing their patents included in public standards so that everyone will have to pay.

CC: Prior to the big merger last week, how would you have evaluated Compaq’s involvement or support of the open source movement?

BP: Compaq did not give much publicity to the extremely creative people they had in Linux technical. For example, Compaq employed — and now, of course, HP employs — Jim Geddes, who with Robert Schiffler co-founded the x-Windows system. Jim Geddes is in a lab there doing things like re-targeting so that it boots and runs on the iPaq, and the iPaq is the main platform for Palmtop Linux so far. I mean, only now has Sharp deployed a commercially-viable Palmtop that has Linux in it from the start — and just to blow my own horn, that has BusyBox in it, too — you know, all this work on the two Palmtop Linux distributions, Familiar and Intimate, was going on on the iPaq. It was supported by guys in Compaq’s labs, and I’m glad they’re in HP’s labs now. At the management level, there were some people who really got it and some people who really didn’t and so obviously I have an evangelism within HP now.

CC: You must come up against a lot of attitudes. I mean, you’ll hear things like, ‘Oh, those Linux people,’ as though they’re all crackpots or something —

BP: Who says that?

CC: Oh, you know, you’ll hear that in sort of casual discussions with people in the industry.

BP: It’s because we have philosophy, and a good many of us feel that there is an ethical mission to our software. In the face of what has been going on with Microsoft’s antitrust (trial) and things like digital rights management where the industry resoundingly rejected it. A lot of people are coming to the resolution that not only were we there first but that we knew that these things would happen. And we were working on an agenda about them for something like 15 years now, if you count when Richard Stallman started with the GNU project. There is a tendency in the business world to dismiss the ideological in the favour of the pragmatic, but in the end, you need the freedom to do business, and you need the freedom to make the choice of where your company is going.


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