Freely Redistributable Software is Alive and Well

The first conference of its kind, this historic meeting was attended by a small but knowledgeable group of freeware enthusiasts.

I have just returned from spending four days at the Freely Redistributable Software Conference. It was held in Boston on February 2 thru 5 and sponsored by the Free Software Foundation. The first conference of its kind, it was a real treat to attend.

With less than 200 attendees, it wasn't a large conference but I feel it was very significant. For those of you who have attended Usenix in the early to mid-80s, this conference has much the same flavor. For those of you who didn't, Nerdcon might give you an idea of what I am talking about.

It is not that the attendees were all Nerds but they weren't marketing people or novices to computers.

Discussions tended to be serious and technical and the participants had the knowledge to back up their positions.

How it Started

The conference began on Friday night with a reception. It was a good chance for attendees to meet each other. While I didn't see any important decisions being made, it was my first chance to get a feel for how significant the Linux influence would be.

Greg Wettstein of the Roger Maris Cancer Center came over to talk to me and said he hoped to meet Linus. I pointed out Linus who, along with his girlfriend, Tove, were at the next table. Greg went over, introduced himself and hung out with Linus for quite a while. Greg commented to me later on how impressed he was with Linus, for his work on the system of course, but also as a person. Greg was not the first or only person to make a very positive personal comment about Linus. Many, including myself, think that his personality, that is, his willingness to listen to other opinions—good or bad—is one of the major reasons Linux has become so popular. I think that his sense of humor is another important contribution.

A Full Saturday

Saturday offered a collection of tutorials including the two half-day sessions I presented on Linux—Linux:An Open System for Everyone and Installing and Running Linux. They were well attended (about 30 students) and there were definitely some new converts to Linux. While the tutorials were intended for Linux newcomers, there were a few serious Linux users in attendance. The general conclusion was that we had a good time and everyone learned something.

The auxiliary meeting location was the Cambridge Brewing Company (CBC), a brewpub with good food and good brew about two blocks away from the conference hotel. Linus and a large group of Linux-followers ended up there on Saturday night; ten of us including Dan Quinlan, Jon “Maddog” Hall, Erik Troan, Donnie Barnes, Eric Raymond ended up there for lunch on Sunday and another group including Greg Wettstein, Steve Imlach, Tom Sargent and Bryttan Bradley and myself ended up there on Sunday night.

While there were other important ideas discussed at CBC such as convincing 60 Minutes that they should do a segment on Linus and Linux, the quality of their stout was an important consideration. Personally I would call it a thumbs up.

The Sunday Conference

This was the only day of open sessions. The first keynote (by Linus) and five of the ten sessions were on an aspect or use of Linux. The sidebar outlines all the sessions and tells you how you can get a copy of the proceedings.

Sunday started off with a keynote by Linus (after I had fun waking up the crowd and attempting to make Linus sound like an important mainstream executive).

Linus originally planned his keynote around being the Dr. Ruth Westheimer of Software. With a fake German accent he intended to ask questions like “Do you go blind if you program alone?” “Is it ok to date different operating systems?” “How do I know when I met the right OS?”

He then intended to continue by answering the questions. But, that didn't work out so he went on to his second idea, “ Software is almost but not quite totally like sex”. He decided it just didn't have the same zing to it so he went on to present a talk titled “Write Free Software, Travel the World and Meet People”.

He said “Rather than writing a great operating system I wrote a small, not so great operating and then made it free. That turned it into a great operating system.” Certainly the right attitude to take at the conference and, in practice, it seems like he is right.

I personally found great interest in Victor Yodaiken's talk about using Linux at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Briefly, what he has done is slipped a real-time kernel between Linux and the hardware. This had made it possible to handle hard real-time processing (this is where processes must run at a required time, not just “soon” and yet still have the utility and versatility of a general purpose operating system running on the same hardware. Victor has promised Linux Journal an article on his work.

There is an interesting comment in the conference paper on the Yugoslav Experience that helps support the idea that Linux is viable in an open market: “even though the price of pirated commercial Unix-like operating systems is comparable to the price of Linux, and with practically no legal limitations to using pirated copies, Linux is being more widely used for Internetting in both [the] academic community and companies.”

The next presentation was on Linux on the OSF Mach3 Microkernel. This fits in with Apple's announcement of Linux on the PowerMac. Let's just say this was a surprise. Michael addresses this subject in Stop the Presses.

Greg Wettstein presented a talk on his work with Linux at the Roger Maris Cancer Center. An article on his work appeared in Linux Journal issue 5. To condense a serious effort into a sentence, the cancer center is using over 30 Linux workstations running a custom-built patient care information system using Perl and Tcl/Tk.

In the following session, Erik Troan presented a talk on the package management system developed at Red Hat software. This package, RPM, makes in possible to easily update an existing Linux system. The bottom line is that Red Hat is encouraging vendors of Linux software to use their packaging method. This will make it easier to distribute and maintain software for Linux.

Monday I decided to play the role of student instead of presenter and attended Tom Christiansen's all-day Perl tutorial. At lunch we had a lively discussion of Linux, NetBSD, software licenses, is Emacs the answer to the world's problems and all those other important subjects.

During the afternoon I mentioned to Tom that I was glad I had proofed Arnold Robbin's (excellent) Awk book before attending the Perl session because of the confusion that ensues when I am trying to think in Awk and Perl at the same time. This led Arnold and Tom into a “which is better” discussion at afternoon break. No bloodshed and I think they are both right but it was interesting to listen to them. As I have been an Awk user for about ten years and am just starting to work with Perl, I intend to write an article or two for LJ on how I see the two languages fitting into the world.


Phil Hughes