September 16, 2003

Oracle's unbreakable Linux guru

Author: Chris Preimesberger

SAN FRANCISCO -- Surprisingly, Wim Coekaerts wasn't worried a bit in 1995 when he accepted the job he still has today -- well, it's not exactly the same job -- at Oracle Corp. After all, here was an early Linux whiz from Belgium about to enter the lion's den at a hugely proprietary mega-corporation, smack in the middle of mostly closed-source Silicon Valley.

In a prior life before joining Oracle, Coekaerts managed software projects and Linux migration for the data center at the University of Leuven, Belgium. He could have been laughed and badgered right out of Temple Oracle there on the Redwood City banks of the San Francisco Bay. But he obviously knew his stuff, used his amiable personality to good advantage, and has survived to become officially enshrined as Oracle's one and only Linux Guru. His title is now Principal member of technical staff, Linux Kernel Group, Corporate Architecture for Oracle Corporation.

In the last year or so, Oracle has touted to no end the use of Linux in many of its products. Billboards along Highway 101 in Silicon Valley have been proclaiming "Oracle + Linux = Unbreakable" for months. Magazine ads, television and radio commercials, and Web ads all proclaim the same message. Coekaerts has been a mainstay in the company's emergence as a leading Linux innovator.

I first heard Coekaerts speak last July at Tony Perkins' Always On Conference at Stanford University and was impressed at his forthright approach and self-effacing manner. I had a chance to sit down with him for a few minutes at OracleWorld a few days ago. It was well worth it for the inside look at open-source attitudes within the famously feisty enterprise software fortress.

NewsForge: Why has Linux made such an impact on the Oracle business plan?

Coekaerts: Well, for one thing, the Linux kernel just works. The Linux technology for what we're doing at Oracle makes a lot of sense. Our customers had been asking for it from early on, and they continue to ask for it. To the company's credit, it made a decision very early to invest time, people, and money into Linux before a lot of other companies did. We don't need to mention any names ... (laughs).

NewsForge: Like, er ... IBM?

Coekaerts: No comment!

NewsForge: How did you first get involved with Oracle?

Coekaerts: My friends and I had been using Linux from almost the beginning, building our own stuff and debugging and tearing apart each other's apps. I still rely on these same friends to give me advice ... they keep me humble. Anyway, back eight and half years ago, Oracle realized it was going to need help integrating Linux into its product offerings; they had already made that decision. Someone contacted me. Larry (Ellison) was an early Linux enthusiast.

NewsForge: What were your first projects at Oracle?

Coekaerts: In 1995, I was assigned at Oracle Belgium to get the Oracle DB to run on Linux, that was the first job. Another early project was to build what Larry called an "Internet appliance," where people could surf the net on a cheap machine, without all the other stuff that comes with it.

NewsForge: That became ThinkNIC X (New Internet Computer), and you had built it in only about two weeks. Eventually the idea of an Internet-only box for the masses quickly passed. But you had made your mark. What are your main responsibilities now?

Coekaerts: Right now I'm working with a lot of our `high-rent' customers, doing a lot of troubleshooting, bug fixing, and custom design work. I'm involved with a lot of the certification processes and standards groups, which means I have to travel quite a bit. I also work closely with Linux companies like Red Hat and SuSe on bug-fixing and other issues.

One of the main things I'm working on right now has to do with the overall company crusade for Oracle 10g. We're working sometimes with 40 to 50 boxes in a room now, getting them fine-tuned so that they work optimally. The Linux Kernel 2.4 distribution supports clusters, ensuring that the Oracle database performs as well as it does under other operating systems. There's still a lot of work to be done there, especially in memory manageability and scaling.

I think Oracle showed at last year's (OracleWorld) conference that we were going to be serious about using Linux all through the product line. This year's conference shows that we have added the support and functionality that we promised last year.

NewsForge: What have been your biggest challenges to overcome at Oracle?

Coekaerts: No question about it: By far my biggest challenge is just keeping everybody on the same page with regards to Linux at Oracle. Just keeping the communication lines open and people up to speed is really difficult. This is because Linux has found its way into almost every group at Oracle. After all, we employ about 400,000 people [Editor's note: Actually, Oracle employs about 40,000]. And I need to know when somebody's doing or saying something that's not quite right with regards to anything Linux. When I find out, I set them straight - personally.

NewsForge: What would you say are your best contributions to Linux?

Coekaerts: We've done a lot of debugging over the years, my friends and I, especially with regard to drivers. And there are the residual asynchronous I/O issues; the AI/O library and test suite that Oracle uses now is the same AI/O code that's in Red Hat AS 2.1. We made some improvements in the Firewire driver to allow for shared disk usage. We also built a Firewire driver to do remote kernel debugging; you can now attach a debugger over the Firewire bus. In 2002, we built the cluster file system. This makes management of a cluster database much simpler because the file system is easier to work with than with raw disks.

NewsForge: What do you see as your biggest accomplishments at Oracle?

Coekaerts: Well, we wanted to be the first commercial DB to run on Linux, and we did that; I'm proud of our work there. We were so excited that it worked well and that our customers wanted it. We're also very happy with the way Linux is moving into other software within the company.

NewsForge: Did you have to evangelize within the company to get the people and material you needed to build that first DB on Linux?

Coekaerts: No, surprisingly, I didn't have to evangelize very much. The key people all through the company knew the value of what we were doing, so that wasn't much of a problem.

NewsForge: Of course, it helps a little to have Larry Ellison as one of your fans. His influence tends to trickle down through the company, I'm told.

Coekaerts: I guess so (laughs).

NewsForge: Can you just go in and see him anytime you want?

Coekaerts: Well, if it's REALLY important, I probably can ...

NewsForge: Tell me something about Oracle and Linux that the community may not know.

Coekaerts: Well, I think our Linux projects aren't well known enough by the open-source community. We don't really advertise it too much; but if you go to oss.oracle.com, you can see a list of all the projects we're working on. You can get a lot of good free assistance at the site, too.

NewsForge: If someone wanted to e-mail you with a question, could they?

Coekaerts: Sure. You can reach me at talkinglinux_ww@oracle.com.

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