February 20, 2001

2.4 kernel: Contributor Ts'o's practical approach to Linux

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -

Open Source people
Thirty-three year old Theodore
Ts'o
remembers when the Linux kernel was small enough to print out and read
cover to cover, when "it was about an inch thick." That was around 1991,
when he first joined the then scanty ranks of kernel hackers. He was a
hobbyist, working as a lead developer of Kerberos and as an
information technology architect for MIT during
the day and working on Linux at night, until VA Linux hired him, in 1999,
to be a principal
engineer
.

(VA Linux owns NewsForge.) Ts'o (pronounced "Cho") was giving a presentation at Chicago Comdex in June 1999, on how companies could benefit from using Linux. Afterward, while Ts'o was cruising the show floor, VA's Larry Augustin approached him. "So Ted, you want to move to California right?" Ts'o was laid back about it. "Aaah, no, but we can talk."

He says he's not a big city guy and besides, he suggests, "I'd have
trouble living in a place where school teachers and firemen earning
$50,000 a year are homeless. Plus, I have a lot of friends
and ties in Boston." Now he telecommutes from the home he owns in Medford,
a suburb just north of Boston. At 6:30 on a Thursday night he eases out
of our interview, anxious to be more productive. But before he gets restless
he tells me about his beginnings.

I am surprised by his compulsion to justify his resistance to
relocating. Proximity, after all, had never for him been a prerequisite for working
on Linux.

"I had the first FTP site for Linux on this side of the Atlantic,
mainly because I was tired of having to wait while I FTPed stuff from Finland
all the time, so I set up a mirror at MIT.

"I first saw Linux in September of 1991. Linus had just released
version 0.09. I thought it was a really cool thing. I saw it was missing a
whole lot of features but figured I could add them, so I started work and made
some contributions. The first thing I ever added was called POSIX job
control. That's something that allows you to run a program in the background by
putting an ampersand at the end of a command line. Previous to that it
couldn't actually do that. I had the POSIX specification, which is
sort of the industry standards for how Unix was supposed to be done, and the
job control specification was an optional part of the spec that Linux
didn't actually support at that point. So I just sort of sat down and looked
at the specification and said, 'yeah, I can do that,' and just started
coding. It was probably two weekends worth of work, more or less."

He reports all this without nostalgia, maybe a bit impressed at how
Linux has grown but overall, unperturbed. Everything seems, right down to
his annunciation, to be practical, thorough, complete. Maybe it is his
faith that provides such poise. Even that appears to be a dedication driven
by cognizance, not passion. Starting on the finance committee and now
\warden, Tes'o has not shied from taking on responsibility at the Episcopal Church of Our
Savior
. He recently gave hi
s first sermon
and practices and performs with the Church choir.
He is loosely designated a baritone, boasting the flexibility to go high or
low. He grew up practicing piano and violin, so the choir membership
satisfies the musical side of him.

Folk dancing is one of his other favorite hobbies. That and hiking, taking regular day trips around Boston with a group of friends. I imagine him folk dancing, or hiking and I see his steps, economical, unfantastic, not overtaken with energy but far from inadequate.

He took on a good deal of responsibility as an undergraduate at MIT,
too. He graduated from there in 1990 with a degree in computer science, but
he was treasurer for both the Student Information Processing Board, and The MIT Gilbert and Sullivan
Players
, for whom he also produced a show (H.M.S. Pinafore).

Recently, he added amateur radio to his list of activities, but he
is most appreciative of the opportunity to work full time on that which he
enjoyed enough to perform as a hobby.

He was in grade school when he first started programming. His
father, a psychiatrist, used a couple of PDP machines in his research lab.
Later, Ts'o continued learning in high school where he had regular access to a
couple of Apple IIs and a timesharing system that ran an operating system called
TSX-11, running on a PDP 11.

"That's where the FTP site TSX-11 got its name. It was originally my
personal work station and I was using PDP 11 operating system names as
the naming convention for my computers, which is horribly geeky but what
can I say? One thing led to another and before I knew it, it was a major FTP
site for Linux.

"The most interesting thing about that period is that Linux really
is a child of the Internet. Back in 1990, that was when the Internet really
became reliable enough that it was easy to use it as a means for
collaboration. Previous to that you had projects such as the X
Consortium and the original BSD work but that had a very physical focus of
activity. The X Consortium was located at MIT and the BSD work was based at UC
Berkeley. There were a few people that contributed things over the
network but primarily most of the development happened in one central place for
each subsystem. The Internet back then was much slower and much less
reliable.

"The extended two file system, the Ext2fs which is
the major file system used by Linux today, the collaborators on that were
myself in Boston, St
ephen Tweedy
in Edinburgh and Remy
Card
in Paris, France. We just communicated electronically via
email. The first time I met any of the Linux development group was three years
later in '94 in Amsterdam when there was a Linux conference."

"Linux at that point was getting big enough that there were actually
people willing to pay to hear some of us talk about Linux."

Since 1994, he has had paid passage to almost all of the various
Linux congress conventions, each of which is held in a different city in
Germany. Consequently, he has added a working knowledge of German to the Chinese
and Cantonese he learned in his parents' house. He also studied Spanish
consistently enough to gain fluency.

Even his sentiment is pragmatic.

"One of the really nice things about open source is that as long as
there are people interested in working on it it's going to be there. There's
a lot of stress these days about 'are the various Linux companies making
money,' layoffs by SuSE and companies like
Linux Care and Turbolinuxmerging,
and all of that and it's real but at the same time it's important to remember
that that's not all of the Linux community. There's all these Linux
companies but the Linux community existed before these companies came around and
I'm sure it will exist after the fact, if it ever comes to that. I feel
lucky and privileged to see VA grow from the inside but at the same time if
it ever happens that it's time to move on or something happens, Linux will
still be there."

The fact that he is not swept up in the romance of things makes him,
perhaps, the most valuable of all proponents of Linux. Like any good
journeyman his dedication is a sober one, he works on Linux because
it's good.

Theodore Ts'o's favorites

What he likes most about 2.4: "The fact that it's out."

Favorite music: Folk, Celtic, most things from the singer/songwriter
tradition.

Some favorite DVDs: The Sting, No Way Out, James Bond, Wallace and
Gromit.

Books: The Harry Potter Series, Tom Clancy, intrigue and science
fiction/fantasy genre.

What he looks like after wrestling with a Van de Graaf generator: Picture is here.

Simple pleasures: Good port, single malt scotch.

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