Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Przemek Klosowski talks about Linux, Open Source software and DCLUG

Przemek Klosowski serves as Meeting Coordinator for The Washington DC area Linux User Group.

How did you get interested in Linux?

I work at a government research lab (NCNR/NIST), and we have been using a whole range of computers, VMS, Unix, DOS/Windows, Macintoshes. I started back in the late eighties, and I always  liked the flexibility of Unix but back in that time they were quite expensive. We used remote graphics XWindows terminals to talk to our few machines in the air-conditioned computer room. Black-and-white Xterms were quite affordable, but color Xterms seemed to be out of reach. Sometime around 1993 I thought "why not use a PC-based Unix boxes to do local and remote computing".

There were two available choices then: BSD and Linux.  BSD had excellent networking capabilities but Linux was ahead with the X Windows graphics. Once the Linux kernel got a rewritten decent networking stack, we just threw our lot with Linux and never looked back.

Initially we used Linux mostly for straight computing and communications, but the flexibility was so tempting that we adopted it for hardware data acquisition, connecting Linux to a variety of data collecting hardware, using serial ports, Ethernet, USB, GPIB, VME and other methods. It worked beautifully for us; we were among the original major users of Linux in a large scientific laboratory, and our accomplishments were featured on the cover of Linux Journal:  http://www.linuxjournal.com/issue/51

We also were recognized and awarded for spearheading the introduction of Free and Open Source Software in a Government environment.

How did DCLUG get started?

Early on I understood that Linux is as strong as the community of people that work on it. Since everything in Linux is a result of someone solving their problem and making the solution available to others, it seemed like a great idea to organize a local group where people could meet and talk and help each other. I posted signs in the area geek watering holes (computer stores, libraries, schools/universities) and to my delight our first meeting in July 1994 ended up overflowing the meeting room in the Gaithersburg library.

Later we found a larger meeting room at the NIH campus in Bethesda, and since the NIH campus was locked down after 9/11 we meet in downtown DC.

Do you do joint projects with other local Linux groups?

There is a gaggle of Linux User Groups in the area. We (DCLUG) cover the DC proper and suburban Maryland. NoVaLUG covers Northern Virginia, from Alexandria to Dulles Airport, and there are groups at various schools in the area, as well as in Baltimore. We formed a loose federation of LUGs in the official non-profit corporation TUX.org, and we had a multitude of common projects. For instance, early on we have been running Linux Installfests, where we'd help people install and improve Linux on their machines. It used to be much more difficult, because of the lower download speeds, and various compatibility issues. It certainly is nice now to be able to plop a CD into most computers and just boot Ubuntu or Fedora.

We participate in computer expositions, such as the FOSE  government computing trade show, and the Congressional Internet Expo, and in ad hoc computer events such as the Mapping Parties and encryption key signing parties. Our members sometimes take up public positions on important current events such as DRM, Net Neutrality, and other technology-related issues that affect their professional and personal lives. People have petitioned and presented themselves before various government bodies in hearings and demonstrations. Even more importantly, we try to educate and spread the awareness of all the good technology that is associated with FOSS software and Linux.

How, if any, has it changed over the years? Have the changes in the Linux industry been reflected in the local group?

Linux used to be a guerilla technology. Now that it is in the mainstream, there is less accent on development, and more on sound implementation practices, so I noticed that we have more sysadmin type members than developers. It used to be much more difficult to install and run Linux, so we have less installfest-like events, and more members that participate mainly on the discussion groups and mailing lists.

Why do you think interest in Linux has grown? What are the chief barriers to adoption?

The Freedom aspect is without any doubt the main attraction of Linux. I am  a pragmatist, and I am mostly interested in finding practical solutions to technological problems. Linux has been for me a wonderful experience where I could apply my knowledge to find and develop solutions that work in the long term. There is very little of the 'two steps forward one step back' oscillation, where a commercial solution would work for a while, and then a new version would come out, and things would stop cooperating, and we end up back to square one, having to purchase something again. My experience is that in Linux once something is fixed, it stays fixed. The end user is in control as to when things get updated or changed.

The issue of barriers to adoption is complicated  and there probably isn't  a single stopping block that, when eliminated, would result in a dramatic increase.

For starters, there's the issue of familiarity: it's easier and probably cheaper  to hire personnel familiar with using and running the Windows environment. Next, there is more commercial support for commercial platforms, in terms of applications, hardware, etc. This is a circular argument, but it's certainly there.

Cost, which is an obvious favorable Linux characteristic, turns out to be less important than one might think, for a variety of reasons: first, when economy is good, people don't think much about cost savings. Next, the Total Cost of Ownership, which includes personnel costs for maintenance, evens out the initial capital investment. Next after that, the lesser pricing of Linux also means less marketing, which, like it or not, is bound to influence market share. Finally, the commercial software vendors are skilled in compensating  Linux cost advantage by targeted discounts, such as cheap student licenses for their products---and I even suspect that they may sometimes turn a blind eye to software piracy in the expectation that it will increase their market penetration. I once asked a foreign colleague from a developing country why don't they use more Free software, and he responded that 'All software is free in ...".

The flip side of the cost argument is that in the current recessionary environment I expect to see an increase in Linux adoption, because it will allow people to run leaner, meaner business operations.

How would you characterize your audiences?

DCLUG is a forum for Linux and Free and Open Source Software users to participate in a mutual-help peer group. There are technology developers, system administrators, students, and all kinds of folks that use Linux in  personal and work-related projects.

How are speakers selected?

We are always on lookout for new topics; fortunately, there is a wealth of new material every month. A typical Linux distribution contains several thousands of pieces of software that was created to solve a myriad of problems, and the trick is to select ones with maximum general interest.

Besides locally run software, though, we have now the entire area of Web Services, which are more often than not deployed on Linux so that is another area rich in potential topics.

What makes a good presentation? Are there presenters who particularly stand out?

The technology community excels in solving problems, and gets a bad rap for communication skills, so getting good talks is always a challenge. Having said that, there is an amazing supply of energetic, enthusiastic people who enjoy sharing their knowledge and skill. Obviously, the leaders of the community have the charisma and communication skills---our most attended meeting was the talk by Linus Torvalds during one of the Linux conferences in town. We recently had an interesting talk by Richard Weait on OpenStreetMap, a project to create a Free world-wide geographic data base like Google maps: http://www.openstreetmap.org/. Think Wikipedia for maps!

How would you describe the current Linux industry, where do you see it going?

Linux is here to stay and flourish. It is making wonderful inroads in all kinds of environments that go beyond standard desktop computing. Linux runs the majority of webservers in the world, as well as the vast majority of high-end supercomputers. It is also making serious inroads into embedded computing, which drives pretty much every piece of modern technology, from MP3 players, to network routers, to cars, phones, airplanes,  and media recorders. Pretty soon they will cross over into refrigerators and garage door openers---this is guaranteed by the combination of market trends to include more intelligence and communication into our appliances, and by the relentless price markdowns.

Linux can be deployed cheaply onto amazingly inexpensive hardware: there are full-fledged ARM architecture microcontrolers capable of running Linux that cost well under $10. There are rumors of $99 laptops being made in China---there's simply extremely little  space for commercially licensed software at those price points. What's more, there's a trend to open up the previously closely held operating environment of consumer personal electronic devices---for instance consider the iPhone third-party application market---and Linux is ideally positioned as an open, vendor-neutral platform for third-party development.

See earlier interview with Klosowski with Linux Journal.

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