Date: 2002-02-12 Category: Interviews
Alan Cox, Kernel Hacker, Linux ®By Matthew Pearce
Alan Cox is one of the most influential IT innovators in the world. A graduate of the University of Wales, Swansea, he has been a key developer of the Linux kernel for nearly a decade. Currently working for Red Hat writing kernel and application code, Cox was previously responsible for the original Linux multiprocessing support, and for much of the early work on networking. Here we ask him about his changing role at Red Hat, and learn about the benefits Linux brings to business.
itwales.com: Youre a leading kernel developer on Linux. What exactly does your role entail?
Alan: Mostly I am involved in making sure changes get integrated and that the changes are of a high enough quality. Often this also means working through longer-term plans for the Linux kernel. It also gets to be fun because many of the contributors have conflicting aims and it is necessary to find problem solutions that work for all cases - from Linux on a PDA to Linux mainframes.
itwales.com: The Linux kernel is a modular one. What benefits does this bring to the OS user?
Alan: Modularity is an essential part of a reliable system. If you cannot change one part of the system without needing to modify the rest of the system you cannot fix a bug without risking introducing thousands more.
The modularity is more important to developers. With developers working on Linux on all continents its essential that everyone can make changes without full communication.
itwales.com: You recently stated that you plan to work more closely with customers. How do you see your role changing in the near future?
Alan: Red Hat is starting to pick up a number of enterprise customers. These people pay for - and expect - a very high standard of service. That includes improving the OS kernel to provide facilities that they depend on in legacy platforms they want to discard. One of the things Red Hat has to be able to do is to deliver those facilities.
itwales.com: The Linux OS is renowned for being stable, fast and virtually virus-immune. How have you achieved this?
Alan: Open development. People have spent ten years looking over each others code able to refine the existing code and to spot security holes. The same process of peer review that ensures university research quality and that bridges dont fall down has simply been applied to software, which as an engineering discipline should always have been the case.
itwales.com: As a student, you installed Linux on the Swansea Computer Society computer. Is this how you began experimenting with the Linux kernel and became interested in Linux?
Alan: At the time the 386 based PC began to take off it was apparent that this was the better longer-term option for the society. We had two old minicomputers kindly donated by the computer center but we needed to move on. It also appealed to quite a few of the society people because it was not a closed box. The computer societys goal was educational and a bunch of students attempting to debug their own kernel certainly proved that.
itwales.com: Open source means software is owned by everyone, and anyone can contribute to it. Is the sharing of ideas important to you? Was choosing to work within the free software community an ethical decision?
Alan: Technically the software is still owned by the person who wrote it, but that is more of a credit thing - which is important in the community. For me it wasnt really an ethical decision, its simply the right way to do engineering. You dont build reliable bridges by refusing to let anyone see the plans.
There is a real problem in both the US and Western Europe today with people trying to own and control ideas, but that is something bigger than just software or free software. Ironically it is having the same effects on free software as other things - all the great innovation is moving to Eastern Europe, India and South America.
itwales.com: What are the advantages of an open community when it comes to product development?
Alan: From the developer point of view it means there is a huge range of talent. No matter how obscure a problem or a requirement is there will be someone who wants to solve it and who understands the field.
It also allows the sharing of development work. A large part of a computer system nowadays is generic and the revenue is in customisation and services. In the open community the cost of building the generic parts of a system are shared not duplicated. For researchers it has turned out to be a very big blessing too. It is possible to take an open source OS and modify it to test research theories and algorithms in real world environments without building costly throwaway mock ups. Furthermore, if it works out, it can be folded into the main project.
itwales.com: Linux has yet to be widely adopted as an OS by businesses, but the expense of Windows new XP operating system might change that. How are you targeting businesses?
Alan: Larger companies are adopting Linux rapidly for server systems in particular. Getting further into that market is now mostly about growing the quality of high-end support services.
The desktop is more challenging because desktop users are an extremely varied bunch of people. It demands a high quality and an easy-to-use environment - which is now mostly there - and it demands a large application portfolio which tends to be the chicken and egg problem.
At the moment the desktop market for Linux is growing in two areas. Firstly in providing large numbers of easily managed desktops running either custom or very standardised software such as the Star Office suite, secondly in the technical desktop market where the tools wanted are primarily the powerful development tools Linux has had for many years.
The ever-rising price of MS Office is increasingly pushing companies to look at Star Office both on Windows and on Linux. In many ways the effective forty per cent price hikes in Microsoft pricing have been the biggest driver of Linux on the desktop.
itwales.com: Are the merits of Linuxs business applications attracting users?
Alan: The main things that attract business at that level are the pricing, reliability and the reduced business risk. The fact that there are multiple suppliers of the operating system gives a great deal of comfort to companies using it. In addition the license ensures that they can always get a custom change made for their own use, even if the main distributors are not interested. In the open source world one example of this was Y2K. When packages had Y2K problems and were no longer maintained by their authors, anyone or any group of users could fix or pay for fixing work. There was no "enforced upgrade" risk.
itwales.com: Its been said that in the last year, particularly with IBMs use of Linux technology, Linux has become a mass-market alternative to Windows. Was 2001 a turning point for Linux?
Alan: It didnt strike me as a turning point. There has been a continuous trend in the increasing use of Linux particularly server side. With some of the big names now using and supporting it, visibility has increased.
itwales.com: Do you think Linux markets itself effectively to businesses?
Alan: That is really a job for the vendors, and I think they are doing a good job. There is a difference between effective marketing and claiming to be the one true solution to all problems. Linux is not the one true solution if such a thing truthfully ever can exist, but we are working on it.
itwales.com: Why should an SME choose Linux as an operating system?
Alan: Because it will save them money and do the job better. If at this time that isnt true for their application set then they shouldnt choose it. The desktop monopoly has perhaps clouded things but with any tool the same fundamental rules apply, be it a hammer or a web server. Is it the right price, is it reliable, will it do the job?
itwales.com: How does it save SMEs money, specifically?
Alan: As an SME you can pick from multiple vendors, or download it yourself. You can install it on as many machines as you like without expensive software auditing. If you need specialist features you can go to a company with experience directly in the matter. You can buy support from where you feel happiest, including companies that actually listen to their customers. No single company controls the ability to modify the software.
In many ways the lack of a per seat license to install the software is a side effect of the recognition that its more efficient to develop openly. The better overall pricing, improved reliability and removal of vendor lock-ins are the really important factors.
itwales.com: How can Linux overcome Microsofts dominance at the desktop? Will you have to come up with radical new technology?
Alan: In part this depends on the legal settlements. One of the big problems right now is getting Linux pre-installed on a PC. When you investigate why this is hard you end up looking back at questionable monopolist influences.
With the settlement, the large number of civil lawsuits pending, possible EU action, and the question now raised in the US about whether business practices of not paying dividends are in fact allowable or an illicit tax haven there are several chances for justice to be done.
Beyond that, the open source model is faster and more cost effective. It improves more rapidly, and for less investment. Its very hard to compete against a fundamentally more efficient model.
itwales.com: Microsoft recently implied that its going to seriously target Linux in 2002 as a competitor, plus any vendors that support it such as IBM. They are especially concerned with the server marketplace, and aim to find out about the use of Linux in their customer base. How can Linux combat this assault from the IT giant?
Alan: Primarily by being cheaper, more reliable and higher quality. End users believe their own experiences over a salesman. Company directors talk to each other as well as to sales people. In terms of advertising, IBM have already been running Linux TV advertising in the USA.
itwales.com: In recent years, commentators have warned of a fragmentation of Linux in a similar fashion to Unix. Because the OS is open source, programmers can come up with different versions, and applications may not run on every version of the OS. Do you think a level of competition will be introduced by this?
Alan: Competition and product differentiation dont have to mean incompatibility, and in fact the incompatibility story is mostly a marketing myth put about by a certain large vendor. The Linux companies care about compatibility a great deal, and one recent result of this was the Linux Standard Base, which defines precisely the base behavior of the core Linux software that applications rely on. You can expect to see compliance statements in the next series of vendor releases.
itwales.com: You resigned from the Usenix ALS committee earlier this year, reportedly because Dmitry Sklyarov, the Russian programmer, was arrested in the US. What do you think of the situation in the US at the moment with regard to the Digital Millennium Copyright act?
Alan: At the moment I consider the USA not a safe place for a software engineer to visit. Money and lobbyists buy many things but when it comes to the courts I dont think that the DMCA aim to send people to jail for even discussing security flaws is going to stand well against the US constitution. Until then Id rather play safe. These things happen. Right now the UK Government is busy trying to pass the similar European copyright directive into law in a way which may well make it a criminal offence to help a blind person read an electronic book if it has been protected by some mechanism that interferes with their screen reading software. It also puts web caches that do filtering for example pornography filtering for schools on questionable legal ground.
itwales.com: What is your opinion on the Governments involvement with Microsoft? Do you think that governments, as a rule, should use open source technology?
Alan: When the prime minister is appearing at product launches by a company twice found by courts to be abusing a monopoly, and facing billions of dollars in lawsuits you have to ask questions.
Governments should evaluate open source technologies certainly. The fact they get the source code and can audit it has been a reason for some countries to adopt open source, pricing is another. However, I dont think its right that government should have fixed rules beyond "fair review". There may be situations where proprietary software is genuinely the right choice.
itwales.com: In terms of its skills base and its WDA initiatives, do you think Wales is improving as a venue for software development?
Alan: In some ways - and the lack of London pricing means it is cheaper for an SME to get the staff as well as a higher standard of living for the staff than in the South East. Right now we seem to have a problem in that all the IT literate people move to the South East because there is little Welsh IT employment. As a result of them moving there is no expertise here so there are not enough Welsh IT companies. Thus the cycle continues.
It is a very hard problem, and one I am glad I dont have to solve!
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