October 12, 2011

Shaping the Future of Linux: Ken O'Brien


Greening Linux—with a little gaming on the side

Can computer science change the world? Ask Ken O’Brien, a first-year Ph.D. student at University College Dublin’s Complex and Adaptive Systems Laboratory, and he’ll answer with a resounding “yes.” With his focus on green scientific computing at CASL, Ken works with physicists, mathematicians, statisticians and computer scientists to develop new energy optimization solutions for scientific applications.

“Optimization in all its forms interests me,” says Ken, whose expertise centers around high performance computing and power consumption on Linux. In his Ph.D. program at CASL, he’s currently studying tools and methods for measuring power consumption across systems to increase energy efficiency.

“I want to learn about best practices for measuring, timing and altering the kernel in order to contribute performance enhancements to Linux,” he says. “I also want to explore Linux’s power management features.” As one of our 2011 Linux Training Scholarship winners, he’ll have the opportunity to delve deeply into the complexities of the kernel in our 5-day, hands-on Linux Kernel Internals and Debugging class. With the knowledge he gains, he’ll continue his work on performance, optimization, and energy efficiency.

Sysadmin, gamer, hacker.

Ken has embraced Linux for his work, his hobbies and his life. As Head Systems Administrator of Netsoc, a UCD student society that provides web hosting for the school’s students and organizations, Ken and a few friends configured a hosting infrastructure comprised mostly of Linux racks. With Linux powering the fun, the society “acquired members, funding and pizza while providing web hosting, a lecture from a Googler, and an OpenArena LAN party.”

But web hosting, gaming, and pizza parties are just the beginning. Ken is also an avid kernel hacker, and his first Linux patch was accepted this summer. It all started after Ken watched a video by Greg Kroah-Hartman entitled “Write and Submit your First Linux Kernel Patch.” He decided to try his hand at it.

“I fired up vim on the kernel sources and noticed a small problem in a driver's code formatting, which made a macro ambiguous,” he explains. “So I corrected it and sent the patch on its way. A few days later I received an email from Greg himself saying the patch had been approved.”

Looking under the hood with Linux

For Ken, Linux is the OS of choice because “it's free, it's fast and it's secure.” And since error messages can generally be followed to a solution, there’s a do-it-yourself aspect to Linux that’s especially appealing. “Open source practices often allow people to follow a thread of the developers as they fix things,” says Ken. “Without this ability, it’s like having car trouble with your car’s bonnet sealed shut. People shouldn't have to wait for a manufacturer for help.”

But even though he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Linux fan, he doesn’t always have his face glued to a computer screen. “I draw inspiration from the arts,” he says. “Anything from a stroll round a museum or listening to a good song can spur me on. I’m also inspired by the successes of my colleagues in fields like economics, engineering and chemistry. The work they’re doing often serves as a wake-up call to up my game.”

As Ken continues to up his game, the future continues to looks brighter—for all of us. “I don’t know where I’ll end up,” he says. “I’m just trying to keep it fun while solving problems.”

And although his future path is not fully defined, his direction on it is clear: He’ll be working with other visionaries and innovators to make technology more powerful and efficient, so we call all live in a greener world.