Saturday, July 31, 2010

The world's most reluctant Linux advocate

In the fall of 1995, I had successfully brought to completion the project to comply with new federal and state reporting standards for school discipline for the consortium of school districts that our consulting firm served, and was busy cleaning up the master student demographics suite to properly incorporate the new discipline screens rather than have it be a stand-alone subsystem reaching into the student database. It was a hard slog -- the code was a mess. The guy who had written it, who I had replaced, was a math guy, not a computer guy, and he had no inkling of simple things like comments or code reuse, the product life cycle was a mystery to him. His notion of code reuse was to cut and paste the same code multiple places, and there were some significant bugs that I was cleaning up. The only good news was that the code was heavily componetized -- it was basically a hundred small programs tied together by a menu system and a common database, though some of the programs seemed to be bigger programs because they forked out to other programs to provide more screens to school secretaries. All of this was running on SCO Xenix or Unix, depending upon the school and when it had bought our software suite.

So during all this my boss calls me into his office and says, "one of our districts has asked if we're investigating Linux as a possible way to bring down costs for school districts. What do you think?" Now, one thing to remember is that my boss was a big old ex-IBM bull, a no-BS kind of guy, and we got on about like you'd expect from two people with strong opinions but mutual respect. "Linux is freeware downloaded off the Internet," I replied. "Don't we have enough trouble maintaining our own code right now without having to maintain some freeware downloaded off the Internet too?" And that was pretty much that. Still, I thought, "hmm, I have that new Windows 95 machine at home, I bet it'd run Linux." I'm a geek, and what geek wouldn't want to play with a free operating system?

So, after work I headed off to the local Barnes & Noble to grab a book about Linux. The one I bought had something called "Slackware 95" on CD in the back. I took it home with me that night and installed it on a partition on my home computer. So I installed it and figured out how to get "X" running and... well, it worked okay. fvwm was ugly and crude and limited, and there wasn't much desktop software, no real word processor, but I knew LaTex and it had LaTex, so that was good. It drove my laser printer fine too. So the next day at work, I went ahead and installed it on our eval machine at work, where we'd also installed Windows 95 to see what we could do about porting our UI to it. I compiled our source tree on Linux and... hmm, it just compiles, just like it compiles on SCO Unix? And it actually ran!

So I started developing on Linux instead of on SCO Unix, mostly because it was much easier to get Emacs up and going and I prefer Emacs to 'vi' (let the flame wars begin!), not to mention that the GNU tool suite is a lot nicer than the old-school Unix tools. When I finished a module and did initial smoke testing I'd then copy the code over to SCO Unix and compile again there. From time to time I'd also go into the menu system and create a Linux version of one of the SCO Unix system administration programs that we'd accumulated over the years to allow school technology coordinators to manage the system. But I still hadn't considered actually deploying Linux at schools. While it seemed the technology held up okay -- our software actually ran faster on Linux than on SCO Unix -- the business objections were formidable. "We don't want to trust our critical student data to some hackerware downloaded off the Internet!" was the least of it.

That changed in the Spring of 1996, however, when Red Hat Software came out with their 3.0.3 version of Red Hat Linux, which they marketed as "Linux for business". It came in a box! With a manual! From a real company! Complete with a shadow businessman logo wearing a red hat marching off to do business with his briefcase! For the first time, the possibility of actually using Linux as part of our business was not ridiculous. The only thing I really didn't like about 3.0.3 was that all of the system administration tools were TCL/TK GUI scripts, but given that I'd already written a number of menu-based system administration scripts, that didn't seem a fatal objection. I switched from Slackware to Red Hat 3.0.3, and kept on developing under Linux rather than SCO Unix.

So, early June 2006 came along, and we got another school district as a customer. My boss called me into his office again. "What would it take to port our software to Linux?" he asked. "I pretty much already have it ported," I said. "Maybe two weeks to do a thorough job of testing and filling in any system administration scripts that aren't yet rewritten, and it would be ready." "We have this new customer. With our winning bid we could make more money selling Linux rather than SCO Unix, the OS isn't specified in the bid, should we do SCO Unix or Linux?" "Well, Linux has some risks involved in it," I replied. "We still haven't tested it with real data, it should work, but there's no guarantee." He then said that we hadn't won the hardware bid, and there was no guarantee that it would work with SCO. I then suggested a dual-OS strategy -- plan on using *either* of the operating systems, depending upon which one worked with the hardware when the hardware came to us for us to install the OS and administrative software. Given the wholesale pricing I'd gotten from Red Hat Software, we could purchase an official copy of Red Hat Linux 3.0.3 for each school to counter the "hackerware downloaded from the Internet!" objection and basically it was lost in the noise compared to the significant cost of SCO Unix.

So the hardware came in, and the tape drive was supported by Linux, while it was not supported by SCO Unix. We had two options at that point -- delay the deployment until tape drives supported by SCO Unix could be procured, or deploy with Linux. We were scheduled in two weeks to have the machines at a high school gymnasium at the school district to train the school secretaries on how to use the software. It would take at least two weeks to argue with the school district and the hardware vendor about tape drives.

"We go Linux," I told my boss. And we did. I spent the next two weeks sweating the details, making sure everything worked, using real data from a real school district (with the student ID information masked out) to validate that all functions of the software itself did what they were supposed to do, going through all the management screens to make sure they worked properly with the hardware on the systems, and so forth. On the appointed day I drove the main Linux development machine to the school district myself, and stayed on hand while the secretaries all booted their machines, just in case something broke, and... it didn't. Everything Just Worked, without a hitch, all the demos went off as planned, and my inservice training on the discipline system went on as usual, the secretaries were quite attentive, laughed at the right points (i.e., when I produced an official state discipline form with a ridiculous discipline infraction for them to punch into their computers and made an offhand humorous comment about it), and... phew!

That's always the moment of truth: when the product hits the customer's hands. You either pass or fail at that point. I'm proud to say that we passed, and became one of the first of what eventually became a thundering storm of people migrating away from proprietary Unix systems to Linux. Over the next three years we transitioned all of our schools to Linux -- it simply made things easier only having to maintain one set of administrative tools, and it wasn't as if it cost any money, we usually did it when they were upgrading old hardware so we were getting paid for that service and Linux came along for the ride, and it Just Worked. And what more can you say?

I suppose there's a couple of lessons there. First, don't dismiss Open Source software just because it's "some hackerware downloaded off the Internet." Secondly: don't use Open Source software just because it's Open Source if you can't make a business case for it in terms of risks vs. benefits. We couldn't make a business case for it in the fall of 1995, we simply did not have the engineering cycles to handle a transition to Linux given the state of Linux at that time, the risks outweighed the possible benefits. By the summer of 1996, when the code base issues had been resolved, the primary objection of customers about using Linux had been resolved, and the issues of hardware compatibility and profit became key, Linux simply Made Sense. It still wasn't the safe choice. But the risks were limited enough at that time compared to the benefits to justify taking the risk.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

The value of an education

For some reason Americans seem to believe education is something people receive. People go to college to "receive an education". This implies that students are simply receptacles. The professor opens up their heads and drops knowledge in, then sews them back up. This worries me when I'm looking at the quality of the young people entering the computer science field today, because while they've had exposure to a lot of technology, by and large it's been as users, not as participants. The actual technology is something they don't even think about -- it's transparent, just a part of their world, not something they actually see and think about.

The problem is that education isn't something you receive. Education is something you do. I graduated from a middle-tier university. Which means nothing at all, actually, because I knew my **** when I left there, I'd actually designed bit-slice CPU's and microcode for them and built hardware and written programs in microprocessor assembly language *for fun* while the guy across the street with the 4.0 GPA knew nothing except what was on the test, I mean, he'd been writing software on Unix minicomputers for four years and he didn't even know what 'nroff' was or that he was using Unix! So yeah, it's all about what use you make of the experience. I spent as much time in professor's offices talking about my latest projects as I spent studying, which hurt my GPA, but (shrug). I'm still employed in the computer field today. The guy across the street? Nope.

That is one reason why Open Source is exciting to me, and why people who have a background in the Open Source community interest me far more than people who have a 4.0 average from Big Name University. I'm looking for doers, not regurgitators. What gets software shoved over the transom isn't the ability to memorize what's going to be on tests, it's what, for lack of a better term, I call "get'r'done". The problem I see is that the technology has become so capable, so complex, so difficult to grasp, that the number of people who could learn the basics of some simple technology like a Commodore 64 then build up to writing significant Linux kernel subsystems has basically slowed to a dribble. Simple and relatively open technology like the Commodore 64 where you could grasp the entire design all by your lonesome (the programming manual came with a schematic of the computer in it!) simply doesn't exist anymore. For good reason in most cases, today's computers have far better functionality, but how are we going to get the people with the "big picture" today when there's no "little picture" like a Commodore 64 to build up from?

So anyhow: That's a problem. It's a problem I find with a lot of the younger software engineers. I've managed some very bright youngsters, but that lack of what I'll call big picture thinking hinders them greatly. They simply don't understand why a busy loop waiting for input is not acceptable unless there is no alternative and why it should have a timer to put the process to sleep between samples, or what the hardware looks like and how to program the front panel that's driven by a PIC processor. They're like ferrets, it's all "oooh, shiney!" to them, with no rhyme or reason or understanding of what's actually happening under the surface. And I have no idea at all what's going to happen when all us older farts get put out to pasture either via corporate executives calling us "too old and expensive" or simply getting too tired and retired... there just isn't enough of the young folks who have the slightest clue. Not that we were the majority even when I was 21, but at least there was a sizable number who *did* have a clue then... and you can find a lot of their names looking at the early Linux kernel patch sets. But even the Linux kernel crowd is graying today... and what happens when we're no longer around, given that the number of young people today who understand technology at the same comprehensive level we do -- or that we did at age 21 -- is essentially zero?