May 31, 2001

Stranger in a strange land: John 'maddog' Hall at small-business expo

Author: JT Smith

- By Tina Gasperson -
The Computer and Technology Showcase, in Clearwater, Fla., this week, is a place for vendors of IT products and services to display their wares to an audience mostly consisting of small business owners -- some of whom are involved in the computer biz themselves, but a large portion of which are just investigating new technology that could be useful in helping them get the job done.In other words, this ain't no LinuxWorld. With the exception of the "Linux Land" area in the back of the room, the show floor was heavily tipped toward the closed-source side of the scales. A short survey of several booths revealed that people just don't know a whole lot about Linux. Responses to the question "Do you know what Linux is?" included "No, who are they?" or "Is it a Microsoft product?" or "Basically it is like Novell, but everyone is going to NT these days."

One vendor, a provider of Web space for resellers, said its server runs on Red Hat Linux, but its display system was running Windows. Another, New Horizons Training Center, had "MCSE Training" emblazoned prominently in its booth, but a look at the course catalog revealed that it provides Linux certification and training. However, a prerequisite to taking the Linux training is MCSE certification.

Attendance was spotty the first day of the show, and the mood was mellow -- nothing to get excited about -- but for a place that was obviously dominated by closed-source natives, the big surprise of the day was the crowd at the Suncoast Linux Users Group booth. Not there to sell anything except maybe the free software philosophy, the group was handing out cool swag by the handfuls -- Linux CDs, little stuffed Tux dolls, bumper stickers, and other stuff.

And there were people all around, playing with demo computers, getting a feel for Linux and learning about some of the things Open Source software is capable of. There was a palpable "buzz" that drew numbers of curious onlookers. And while it was a good thing, it seemed to stretch one's sensibilities to even hope that this Linux presence would make a difference or change any attendee's mind about his or her operating system orientation.

Then there was the keynote speech given by John "maddog" Hall of Linux International. It seemed strange that on the day of Microsoft's much hoopla'd release of Windows XP, at an event attended by exhibitors and shoppers who were largely unfamiliar with anything other than the status quo, that the most esteemed place of honor would go to a Linux hacker.

About 40 people, most decidedly non-geek looking, sat listening to maddog talk about why Windows systems are not good multi-user environments and explain how Linux's multi-architecture capabilities are important for them. As he glibly related reasons why Linux can run on anything from a supercomputer to a 30-pin SIMM embedded chip, I chuckled to myself, thinking, "There is no way these people are getting even a little bit of what he's saying."

He's giving a talk for an audience that is not here, I decided; an audience much more tech-aware, less concerned with simply what works for their business. This was too advanced. I couldn't tell what they were thinking, but I imagined it to be something like, "What the hell is POSIX and who is this Leenus person?"

And he wasn't really pulling his punches on Microsoft, either. While talking about the history of Linux and comparing its breadth of influence to Microsoft's, a joke about Gates' brainchild having some 35,000 employees, 34,950 of which are marketing people, evoked a few laughs, but mostly from the Linux folks who had come up to hear maddog the legend hold forth.

As one would expect, and rightly so, Hall had an agenda -- to gain converts to the cause of Open Source. He went on to an emotional description of the "freeness" of Linux, referencing Memorial Day and tying the remembrance of soldiers who fought and died to keep us free to the philosophy that we should then be free to choose our operating system. The audience, a good number of whom were old enough to remember times of war in this country, was polite but didn't seem overly impressed by the comparison.

Yet, he captured a bit of their interest when he talked about the Information Week award for best technical support and how it was delivered to Open Source products vendors two years in a row. They leaned forward, ears and eyes trained on this bearded, bespectacled bearer of glad tidings from Linux Land. And then he dropped the "wow" factor on them. He started talking about supercomputers, beowulf clusters, and how one big cluster of 160 Alpha processors running Linux helped the makers of Titanic save $500,000 dollars and get their movie done a lot quicker.

He talked about the IBM SP-2, a scalable power, distributed memory machine with 12 nodes connected by a single switchboard in a network. It's a cluster, a supercomputer -- but its slower and costs more than a beowulf cluster made from Linux machines: $1.4 million more per year in maintenance. He described how a beowulf cluster can product a 100% accurate diagnosis of breast cancer, and do it in about 10 minutes, where it used to take 20 hours. By now, he had captured the imagination of the audience. They were into it.

Then he took a bit of a swipe at Richard Stallman, the leader and originator of the Free Software movement, and Eric Raymond, one of the heads of the Open Source initiative, saying that though these perhaps best-known representatives of information freeness believed no software should be proprietary, Linux International held to the idea that there is nothing wrong with creating and using proprietary tools, such as Oracle (a database program) to do our work.

He talked about embedded systems for business, perhaps the most practical part of his speech for those present, and why Linux is dominating the market. He added some more wow factor with talk of ubiquitous computing, a la Star Trek, where we will wear our computers and carry on conversations with them, never powering them down. And he used the coolness of supercomputers and ubiquitous computing, and the practicality of embedded systems, to drive his point home that Linux, while not yet the strongest OS for desktop use, is heading in that direction because of its dominance in supercomputing and mini-computing.

According to maddog, Linux isn't quite at the level of some other operating systems mostly because it needs more applications. He stressed that Linux isn't a solution for everyone yet. There are a lot of deployments that would suffer without Linux, like ISPs with all their need for servers and firewalls, and company print servers. As computing becomes more and more a part of our everyday existence, different methods of computing will be increasingly interconnected. And that's when software vendors are going to see a need for creating applications that work on all aspects of our interconnectedness: supercomputer, 30 pin SIMM chip, wearables, and even the desktop -- and when Linux has a full complement of stable applications, that's when we'll achieve world domination.

He even answered the age-old question: "How do I make money with Linux?" with a humorous short course in the obvious:

Step One: Think of all the ways people make money with Microsoft products.
Step Two: Carefully replace Microsoft with Linux.
Step Three: Repeat as necessary, at least twice a day.

maddog's speech was the perfect segue into a practical demonstration of the Linux desktop from a user's perspective, given by NewsForge and OSDN editor-in-chief, Robin "roblimo" Miller. His talk was standing room only, with many of the audience members having come straight from the keynote speech. As he demonstrated Star Office, Bluefish, IRC, a checkbook program, and the beauty of journaling filesystems, I could see that the "word" about Open Source and Linux was having a big effect on at least one in our midst -- a man whose ID tag said he was part of an enterprise called "The Computer Doctor."

"Did you just shut that computer off?" he asked.

"Yes, I did, and now I'm going to turn it back on," gloated Robin. We all watched the laptop boot up normally and restore the session.

"But you had files open," the incredulous one said. "And what about your registry?"

As Robin and several volunteers from the audience explained how Linux doesn't have registries to mess up, I leaned back, smiled and thought, "Yeah, we got one."

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