October 3, 2003

Free software in Russia? Da!

- by J. Quinn Martin -
MOSCOW, Russia -- Stuffed into a small office on the top floor of the Institute of Philosophy in downtown Moscow, Alexei Smirnov and a dozen other techies sit hunched over laptops, pecking rapidly at their keyboards as open source code flickers across their screens. This is the nerve center of the ALT Linux team, a chain of Russian-speaking Linux programmers that stretches from Siberia to Israel. In many ways, this is also the core of this country's burgeoning open source movement. In this nation long known for its skilled programmers and a love for anything that is free, open source is starting to take hold.

Six years ago ALT Linux began as a volunteer corps of coders eager to improve programs and show off their programming skill. In the last few years it has morphed into a company with 30 staff employees in four cities, plus another 120 unpaid programmers who participate just for kicks.

The company's flagship product is a nine-CD set of 4,000 packets of programs in Russian (and other languages) and complete documentation. It sells for some 1,400 rubles, or about $45. The company's one-CD version for an individual desktop user, called Junior, costs $7.

But the core of ALT Linux's business is developing and supporting open source-based applications for corporations and sometimes government agencies.

The same is true for the other main Russian open source developers: Moscow-based ASPLinux and St. Petersburg's Linux Inc.

Can Linux make rubles?

"The status of open source in Russia is basically the same as in other countries," said Kirill Koyagin, technical director of ASPLinux. "Everyone is trying to figure out whether it can be profitable or not." His company has done work for the local office of footwear maker Reebok and for ENTEK, a Moscow research and development firm that develops software for nuclear power stations. For ENTEK, ASP developed a fast restore system for quick repair of workstations from a backup server and prepared a special version of a Linux distribution at their request.

You can find ASPLinux's code in the XFree and QT projects. On SourceForge they take part in the gaim instant messaging project and actively participate in the yum project, a set of utilities to keep systems up-to-date as well as to install, upgrade, and remove program packages to and from systems which was recently included in Red Hat's distribution.

Koyagin said his company is breaking even financially. "The market isn't formed in Russia," he said. "There just isn't a big demand yet."

Smirnov of ALT Linux agreed. "Until 1999 or 2000, open source [in Russia] was exotica," he said. "It's only starting to become a serious business choice."

The same is true of Linux in government. ASPLinux said it has had multiple contracts consulting state agencies about implementation of open source solutions, but no agency has actually made the switch yet.

Russia is among the countries participating in Microsoft's Government Security program, the company's initiative that allows controlled access to the Windows source code.

Community and philosophy

All three major open source companies operating in Russia work in Linux.

In July, more than 200 Linux enthusiasts from across the former Soviet Union met up in Borovsk in Russia's Kaluga region -- in other words, in the middle of nowhere -- for Linuxfest. Linux devotees from as far away as Kazakhstan and Ukraine showed up to pitch tents in the woods and share experiences and expertise. The informal weekend conference has become an important annual event for open sourcers here, underscoring how the movement remains as much about philosophy and community as about making money.

ASPLinux, for instance, has only 25 employees, but more than 1,200 registered participants of its programming projects. They chat in Linux discussion groups and exchange info and programs online. They might get a small prize from the ASPLinux Moscow office, their name might appear on a prestigious Top 10 list, or they might perfect a program that is useful for their own projects, but they won't get a paycheck for their work.

On the other hand, at least one Russian company, software outsourcer Auriga, has been making money with Linux since it began working with San Jose, California-based LynuxWorks in 1996. LynuxWorks' technology is based on two operating system products targeted for embedded devices: BlueCat Linux, which is their distribution of Linux, and LynxOS, a proprietary operating system. Auriga provides engineering for the Silicon Valley company.

Vladimir Khusainov, who leads the LynuxWorks team at Auriga in Moscow, said open source has a promising future in Russia. "I think it's here to stay," Khusainov said. "Russians, traditionally, are reluctant to pay for something if they don't have to. And open source is by definition free."

Na khalyavu!

A love for free stuff is practically a part of the Russian national character. Almost all home computers run on pirated Microsoft programs that can be purchased on streetcorners and in underpasses for $2-3. Businesses and the government, of course, are held to a higher standard, but piracy exists in these spheres too.

The cultural roots of Russia's love of free stuff run deep. One of the richest words in the Russian language is khalyava, which roughly means "free." Khalyava does not mean free in the sense of liberated, though, nor is it an exact synonym for "gratis" or "free of charge." Khalyava is most commonly used in reference to free food or free drink (vodka, say). But the word has also been used in its adjectival form to describe open source: khalyavny software.

The cultural heritage that makes free software particularly appealing, combined with resources of three growing companies, some of the best programmers in the world, and an expanding economy make for a bright outlook for the future of open source in Russia.

"Percentage-wise, I don't think Russians have contributed a lot so far," Auriga's Khusainov says. "On the other hand, when projects begin to appear that require significant software, we're going to be here."

J. Quinn Martin is a Moscow-based freelance journalist. He travels throughout the former Soviet Union and writes on business, technology and culture.


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