Toronto students behind Firefox browser’s amazing overhaul

Before Armen Gasparnian took an open source coding course at Toronto’s Seneca College, it had never even occurred to him to use a Web browser other than Internet Explorer.

“I didn’t understand why I’d use any other browser,” the graduate recalls. “Then I learned about the security and speed improvements in Firefox. It was an eye opener.”

Soon enough, Gasparnian found himself interning at Mozilla Corp., the company behind the open source browser.

His task was to dredge up the old infrastructure for the browser’s many supported languages and replace it with something shiny and new. Mozilla used PERL script to build each of the 48 languages supported in Firefox 3.0. Over the summer of 2008, Gasparnian was to replace that system with Buildbot.

“The people I met would laugh at me, and think I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Gasparnian says. “It was really challenging. There was a lot of code reading and a lot of interpreting to try to understand why code was written in certain ways.”

But the young intern stood his ground. Not only did he complete his work, he also added on other features not already included in Buildbot’s infrastructure.

With the new system, Mozilla could assemble a Firefox build using a cluster of computers in less than an hour — a dramatic improvement given that it earlier took six hours to compile the program together on a single computer.

With minor releases being put together every night, the time savings were a huge payoff.

Gasparnian now works full-time as a release engineer for Mozilla. For the upcoming Firefox 3.5 release, he plans to support 70 different languages.

It was thanks to Seneca’s decision to focus on open source as a pathway to education that the student got his chance.

He’s not the only one. Fifty Seneca students have worked with Mozilla through its partnership with the college.

The open source initiative has also garnered support from other well-recognized technology organizations, and attracted interest from other top schools across North America.

The program elables students to grapple with new challenges, while also opening up rewarding career opportunities.

Open source projects expose students to a code base with millions of lines of code, while proprietary projects often only have thousands of lines, notes Chris Tyler, professor at Seneca’s Centre for Development of Open Technology.

Students also get to interact with large development teams, and what they create is used on a daily basis by hundreds of millions of users around the world, Tyler says.

“I firmly believe the open source development model is becoming dominant in our industry.”

Around 200 students have completed the open source courses at Seneca – a mix of diploma, degree, and graduate-level varieties. The school has attracted interest from both industry and academia for its work on the educational program.

Tyler is also the administrator at TeachingOpenSource.org, a Web community intended to be a neutral educational ground where open source projects can be discussed. It brings together software developers from the open source community (including Red Hat, Novell, and Google) and schools interested in teaching it (including Carnegie Mellon University, Simon Fraser University, and Cambridge University).

“It’s been good to compare what the other schools have been doing,” Tyler says. “We are the accidental global leaders, I think, in open source education.”

Mozilla is also backing the teaching method championed by Seneca. It’s a way to get students away from the proprietary code they are traditionally trained in and tap new talent, says Mike Shaver, vice-president of engineering at Mozilla.

“It’s been very valuable because it gives us the opportunity to expose students to different types of software development,” he says. “One of the things we want to do is figure out how to expand this model to include other students.”

Mozilla has provided funding to Seneca for a professor to teach an open source curriculum on a full-time basis. Shaver has also visited the school to give lectures and answer students’ questions.

The initiative has also received funding from the Colleges Ontario Network for Industry Innovation (CONII), a network of 10 Ontario colleges with technology programs that focus on business applications.

Less than $10,000 was given towards the program to pay for some travel costs associated with faculty and students attending conferences, says Katharine Janzen, chair of CONII.

“Open source software is great for small businesses who can’t pay the exorbitant fees associated with proprietary software,” she says. “Our mandate is to find ways that colleges can assist smaller businesses.”

Seneca interns work at Mozilla’s Toronto office, as well as the firm’s facilities at Mountain View, Calif.. Assignments are given based on the student’s experience, Shaver says. Students have been ambitious in the projects they’ve tackled so far. They often do gruelling work, sifting through millions of lines of code written by former employees.

Perhaps none had a more daunting task than Ben Hearsum. The intern was tasked with moving Firefox’s build engine over entirely to Buildbot, a more modern build management system.

“It’s one of those things the engineers wanted to do, but it gets pushed to the side,” Tyler says. “The transition was so successful that it’s since become Mozilla’s primary build system.”

And Hearsum now manages that build system as his full-time occupation.

Gasparnian’s job has been to take that build system and localize it in many different languages. His goal is to eventually translate the build engine into Armenian, his mother’s native tongue. But he won’t have to do it alone.

“The openness that Mozilla brings to my way of working just amazing,” he says. “In an open source community, I can rely and get help not just from my own team, but from people all around the world.”

It’s a big contrast compared to a friend of Gasparnian who works at a company developing proprietary code. That friend is not allowed to discuss his code even within his own company, outside of his department.

Thanks to the work of students, Mozilla’s developers can now more easily test their code patches on a variety of different platforms, Shaver says.

“It’s been a great boon for us. It helps us develop a lot faster,” he says. The localization work on the build engine is “the nerve centre of our project. It’s really mission critical stuff for us.”

Students at Mozilla have also developed other improvements for Firefox. One student developed a monitor for the resources consumed by the plug-ins that can be installed to customize the browser. Another student added support to Firefox for animated PNG graphic rendering.

Students have also contributed to Fennec, Mozilla’s mobile Web browser in development, and Thunderbird, its e-mail client.

“I’m really lucky to help all these users around the world,” Gasparnian says. “If it wasn’t for Seneca’s open source courses, I never would’ve been able to join Mozilla.”

Gasparnian is proud to work on Firefox. He’s also proud to now call it his browser of choice as a user.

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