May 7, 2008

Interview with Bluewhite64 creator Attila Craciun

Author: Razvan T. Coloja

Slackware Linux has stood strong for more than a decade by refusing to compromise. There was a time when people used to say, "If you want to learn Linux and learn it well, give Slackware a try." Attila Craciun, a Romanian software developer and Linux enthusiast, has ported the Slackware tree to the AMD64 architecture to create the Bluewhite64 distro. We spoke with him to find out about Bluewhite64, where it came from, and where it's going. What is Bluewhite64 Linux and how does it differ from other 64-bit Slackware-based distributions?

Attila Craciun: The standard version of Bluewhite64 is a complex, open source operating system that runs on single and multicore AMD64 Sempron, Athlon, Opteron, Turion 64, Phenom, and Intel EM64T servers and workstations. It strictly follows Slackware's development line, offering the same user experience as Slackware does on the 32-bit Intel architecture.


Apart from the standard edition, I've also created three live versions, namely LiveDVD, LiveUSB, and miniLive. These versions have their base root in the standard edition and offer extra packages created by the Bluewhite64 community and me. The purpose of these live versions is to serve as a preview to those who wish to try the standard edition but don't want to install it yet, as well as providing some new features.

Bluewhite64 Linux 12.0 LiveDVD, LiveUSB, and miniLive are targeted toward beginners. A new distribution tends to make people skeptical, so I wanted to give them a chance to test Bluewhite64 without installing it by using a bootable media. They include Bluewhite64 standard edition plus some extra packages.

The standard, LiveDVD, and miniLive editions can be downloaded free of charge. Bluewhite64 Linux 12.0 Flash was specially crafted for an USB flash drive, and its purpose is to financially sustain the project. It includes some new features in comparison with the LiveDVD, the most important being the ability to save changes. You can use it as a mobile operating system without losing the files you created after a reboot. Bluewhite64 Linux 12.0 Flash is available from the Romanian online store in three versions -- 2GB, 4GB, and 8GB -- that cost ââ¬29, ââ¬49, and ââ¬69 respectively. The USB sticks are branded Kingston and Corsair and I test them before delivery.

The miniLive version was born because some users wanted a smaller Live edition and to satisfy my own curiosity. I wanted to see how much I could strip down a 64-bit operating system while providing a minimum of software packages. 64-bit packages are somewhat larger than the 32-bit versions of the same software.

Few people know that aside from the Bluewhite64 editions that are available online, I'm also working on an Enterprise Edition for servers (BW64EL). Sadly, time and money represent a problem in continuing work on the project. When I'm not working on Bluewhite64 I'm doing tech support and offering Linux training. Some of the money I make goes back into Bluewhite64. One of my dreams is to find the necessary financing and establish a development team that could help me with work on BW64EL: support, testing, training.

Lc: How many developers currently work on Bluewhite64?

AC: Only one, and that would be me. Everything that shows up on the distribution's site is my work, with the exception of some third-party packages compiled by Bluewhite64 users. There are however users who actively submit bug reports, either on the forum or through email, and I thank all those who contributed with packages and helped with testing.

Lc: Name something unique in Bluewhite64. Are there any applications or scripts specially developed for this distribution?

AC: Bluewhite64 strictly follows the development line of Slackware. If Pat [Volkerding] includes something innovative, then that thing will make it into Bluewhite64 as well. As for unique, that would be the installer for BW64EL. It is open-source software and can be downloaded from our SVN.

Lc: Why make BW64EL a commercial distribution?

AC: There has to be some kind of competition for today's commercial products. Furthermore, a new Linux certificate program and training never hurt anyone. Work behind BW64EL can't possibly be done by a single person if I want to create a quality product. There has to be a support team, testers, programmers, people that usually require payment. BW64EL sales will try to fill those needs.

Lc: How do you decide when a new version should be launched? What are the things that tell you it's time for another stable release?

AC: Given the fact that Bluewhite64 development is tied to that of Slackware, the launch date of the next version is set when it is considered to be stable and is believed that everything in the Bluewhite64 -current tree has been thoroughly tested. The same thing goes for the standard version.

As for the live versions, these are launched approximatively one to two months after the launch of the standard version, while every six months I try to release a revision of the previous version -- if another standard version hasn't already been released.

Lc: Did the fact that you're Romanian affect you in any way, strictly from the distribution point of view?

AC: Only concerning orders from the online Romanian store. Sadly, Romania has a dark history concerning Internet fraud and people from outside the country generally don't want to risks buying from an online Romanian store. I think that's the reason why I haven't been able to sell a single CD or DVD from Romania. The US store, on the other hand, did find clients for these products.

Lc: Do you prefer to include newer, beta-quality packages in Bluewhite64, or do you prefer to use software that has been proven stable?

AC: For the standard edition I follow the Slackware lead. The live versions include fresher package versions that have been tested by me or the Bluewhite64 community.

Lc: Pat Volkerding is sometimes criticized about the development model he adopted for Slackware. What's your position on the "one man army" vs. "the team calls the shots" issue?

AC: I tend to agree with Pat. He knows best what he includes in his distribution, knows how to deal with problems, should these emerge, and the number of bugs is kept to a minimum. I prefer this kind of autonomy because it gives me better control of the distribution.

In the "team calls the shots" scenario, problems tend to come up frequently and the number of bugs rises. To give you an example, the last Ubuntu release had a pretty serious bug concerning the upgrade system. Even if you had the latest version installed, the system still reported a new available version. That means a distribution that had millions of dollars invested in it has more bugs than the one maintained by a single person. I haven't seen such a thing in Slackware since I started working with it in 1999.

Working in a team is hard and has to be done in tree mode, meaning you have to form a subteam for each part of the distribution. Each of these subteams has a series of packages to maintain and test, and they all have to reach a more or less stable status at the same time. You have to pay attention to who is compiling what. If you make a single mistake, all who depend on you may have to redo your work, repair your mistake. This costs time and money.

Lc: Approximatively, how many people you'd say are using Bluewhite64 on their machines?

AC: After the release of the 12.0 version I received some download reports covering a two-month period and two mirrors hosting the Bluewhite64 InstallDVD and LiveDVD. An approximate sum at that time would reach 160,000 downloads. Sadly, I don't have access anymore to my main mirror's statistics. I used to have between 80,000 and 100,000 downloads per month starting with the 11.0 version.

Lc: Any plans for the future?

AC: Concerning Bluewhite64, I really don't have any. As long as I can't make a living out of it, I'm following the Slackware development line. If I manage to find a way to convince possible investors, I would say the future involves a Bluewhite64 Enterprise Edition, without interrupting work on the current editions.

Lc: What makes BW64EL special?

AC: BW64EL is standard Bluewhite64 12.0 with extra dependencies, a reorganized tree, and qinstall preinstalled. The package series have been renamed. For example, A became CORE, D became DEVEL, and so on. I added some new ones, like the LAMP series that includes Apache, MySQL, PHP, mod_security, and PHPMyAdmin. The slapt-get package manager and a graphical install can also be found among them. The purpose is to have a system up and running in 10 to 15 minutes, regardless of whether you're using a local or net install. This can be afterwards upgraded into a LAMP server by simply running slapt-get install lamp. Same goes for the qinstall-based qmail: in a matter of minutes you can have a complex email server that includes an antivirus, antispam, CLI and GUI administration tools for the email accounts and domains, webmail, and others.

Lc: What was the biggest issue you've ever come across during the development process of the distribution?

AC: I don't recall having major issues. They were mostly small bugs I managed to fix easily.

Lc: What about hardware? What do you use for compiling the packages?

AC: When I started work on Bluewhite64 in 2006, I had an AMD64 3200+ with 1GB of RAM and a 40GB IDE drive. This is the machine I'm now using for testing the -current version. For compiling purposes I use an AMD64 4200+ x2 with 4GB of RAM and a SATA2 HDD. 500GB hard drive space and 32MB of buffer should suffice for my needs.


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