September 4, 2007

A Linux user group in a Pacific paradise

Author: Ladislav Bodnar

What springs to your mind upon hearing the words "Tahiti" or "Fiji"? White sandy beaches? Spectacular sunsets? Blue lagoons with colorful marine life? While natural beauty is indeed one of the most attractive aspects of the South Pacific, you might be surprised to learn that on some of these paradise islands there are active Linux user communities and even officially registered Linux user groups (LUG). New Caledonia, which I had the pleasure to visit last month, is one such place.

New Caledonia, an archipelago the size of New Jersey, is located about 900 miles east of Australia. There are no undersea communication cables connecting the territory with the outside world; instead, like everywhere in the South Pacific, all Internet and telephone services are provided via a satellite connection. "The way it works is simple," says Bertrand Cherrier, the founder and president of the Linux User Group of New Caledonia (GULNC). "Our national telecom company, the Office des Postes et Télécommunications (OPT), applies for the bandwidth on behalf of the territory and then distributes it to the individual ISPs."

Having worked for one of them (Micro Logic Systems) for several years, Cherrier knows all there is to know about island bandwidth. "With a satellite connection," he says, "your throughput is limited to 512Kbps. This is also what the local ISPs advertise as the feature of their ADSL services, but in reality, these kinds of international connection speeds are unrealistic. In fact, during peak hours, connecting to the outside world is no faster then using a dial-up modem -- that's how bad things get." What about businesses that rely on the Internet for timely information? "Yes, we do offer a guaranteed 512Kbps connection, but it costs the equivalent of $1,300 per month. We have a grand total of two customers who subscribe to this service," laughs Cherrier.

"Everything is so much harder to do on the Caillou," he laments, referring to New Caledonia by its affectionate nickname, which translates as "pebble." "The bandwidth is limited and extraordinarily expensive, and during the times of high demand, the World Wide Web is barely accessible." But then his face brightened. "On the positive side, most of our Internet service providers (ISP) and major Web sites are powered by Linux, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a Web server running Microsoft anywhere on the island."

We were sitting in a small beachfront restaurant in Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia. The magnificent fireworks on a nearby atoll reminded us that the day was July 14, Bastille Day, the national holiday of France. New Caledonia is a French overseas territory, and observes the same holidays as its old colonial master. Besides the LUG founder, several other Linux enthusiasts also turned up for the meeting, which had been announced on the LUG's Web site and mailing list.

If any of the South Pacific islands ever gets an undersea telecom cable, then surely New Caledonia will be the first. Unlike most of the countries and territories in the region, it is a relatively prosperous place, with a per capita GDP much closer to that of New Zealand or Australia than to any of its Melanesian neighbors. Also unlike other countries in the South Pacific, New Caledonia has industry, thanks to the generous deposits of nickel ore on its principal island, the breathtakingly beautiful Grande Terre. It is estimated that the territory, populated by just 230,000 people, possesses a quarter of the world's reserves of this important metal. With one nickel refinery in full production and two more under planning or construction, the future of the nation looks bright.

But how popular Linux is here, I ask. "On the desktop, there isn't much to write home about," replies Cherrier. "But on servers, that's an entirely different story." His employer runs exclusively on Linux, as do OPT and Canal Calédonie, a satellite TV company that also offers Internet services. The territory's most popular Web sites, including the 40,000-hits-per-day Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes, a local newspaper, and Météo Nouvelle Calédonie, which can get extremely busy during the cyclone season, are also powered by Linux. "Our servers used to run Mandriva, but we are slowly switching to Ubuntu," Cherrier says. "Personally, I prefer Gentoo -- I think it's the best server operating system ever created."

Does he use Gentoo on the desktop as well? "Not a chance," he shakes his head. "I used to, but I spent too much time compiling and maintaining the box instead of working on it." As it has seemingly everywhere else, Ubuntu has become the number one Linux distribution in New Caledonia too. "It's the best of the lot at the moment. In fact, there is so much demand that I've recently set up a local Ubuntu mirror so everybody can download the CD images and software updates from our LUG's server." Of course, not everybody agrees with Cherrier's assertion, but even Jean-Yves Le Goff, sitting on my right and wearing a Mandriva T-shirt, allows the remark pass without protest.

The talk then turns toward the beginnings of the GULNC. Cherrier recalls, "I started the group in September 2000 in order to bring like-minded individuals together. At first, it was all very informal, with just a few meetings and installfests, but it wasn't long before we registered the LUG as a nonprofit organization." This was apparently necessary in order to obtain the right to use the linux.nc domain name. "According to the local law, we needed to get a permission from the trademark holder before we could register the linux.nc domain. So we wrote to the Linux Mark Institute to apply for the necessary permission." They received it promptly, after proving that the organization doesn't make more than $50,000 a year. "This was easy," laughs Cherrier. "We have trouble raising the $100 it takes to renew the domain!"

As is often the case with voluntary organizations, getting the members together and staging activities isn't always easy. "We don't meet as often as we used to," Cherrier says. "Not that there isn't enough enthusiasm, but when it comes to actually doing something, suddenly everybody becomes very busy." Nevertheless, the LUG is still running and is available for anybody interested in organizing things and spreading the word. "I can't do everything," says Cherrier. "I have a full-time job and a family. But if there is anybody who has a good idea or wants to do something, they are welcome to contact me and use our LUG as an umbrella."

As the fireworks continue to light up the sky, I fall into a happy reverie. These are ordinary guys who love Linux. Some of them use it at work, but most are just enthusiasts who enjoy the freedom and benefits that this alternative operating system provides. And despite all the limitations of a small island nation, such as slow Internet or lack of IT infrastructure, Linux is alive and well here; perhaps not very visible, but still responsible for serving the vast majority of local Web sites, delivering email messages, and connecting thousands of New Caledonians to the world. All thanks to a few motivated individuals who make things happen.

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