LJ Interviews Przemek Klosowski

Mr. Klosowski tells us about his users group and why it is such a success.

Marjorie Richardson, Editor of Linux Journal, and Lydia Kinata, SSC Products Specialist, interviewed Przemek Klosowski, the founder of the highly successful Washington DC Linux Users Group. The interview was conducted via e-mail on January 21, 1997.

Marjorie: First, why don't you tell us a little about yourself?

Przemek: I was born in Poland, and I lived there until 1985. I came to the US to attend graduate school in Physics, at the University of Notre Dame. I now work as a researcher at University of Maryland. Besides work, I enjoy being with my wife, daughter and cat. We like nature walks, alpine skiing and socializing (we have been known to have 8-hour meals with our friends). My music tastes are rather eclectic—I like Bach as well as Bartok, Miles Davis and the band “Morphine”. I also like tinkering with things mechanical, electronics and computers. Therefore, my favorite radio programs are “Schickele Mix” and “Car Talk”, conveniently broadcast back-to-back on our local public radio station.

Marjorie: Tell us something about your club's history: when you got started, number of charter members, etc.?

Przemek: We started the club in July 1994. There are pockets of computer industry around the Beltway, including the suburbs north of Washington where I live. Hoping to reach such computer folks, I posted announcements to some mailing lists and newsgroups, and distributed leaflets in libraries and computer stores in the area. I expected a few people to show up for the first meeting, but my expectations were exceeded—over 70 people appeared. Since then, we have had about 30 people attend regularly, with some meetings attracting over a hundred folks. Our most popular meetings featured a WWW talk, when the Web was still a novelty, and a talk by Linus Torvalds himself.

Our DCLUG (DC metropolitan area Linux User Group) is the oldest and largest club, but other groups also serve people in farther regions of the DC urban sprawl—LUGMAN in Manassas, Northern Virginia, and UMLUG (University of Maryland folks). In addition to our Linux activities, we are friends with the Washington Area Unix User Group (WAUUG) and the DC System Administrators' Guild (DC-SAGE). We are cooperating on talks and activities; quite a few people are active in multiple groups.

Marjorie: How many members do you have now and what are the group's demographics (i.e., age, gender, profession, etc.)?

Przemek: We have a varied distribution: a bunch of Gen-Xers, and then a regiment of computer industry veterans—people who actually remember the beginnings of the computer revolution. I do worry that we have very few students; this is partly due to the fact that we aren't meeting anywhere near a school, meaning a long commute for the typical student.

Indeed, selecting a meeting place is very important. An ideal place would be near major highways and public transportation; a university campus might be a good idea. We meet in an auditorium at the National Institutes of Health—a nice place, but it's quite a commute for most of us.

As for gender, unfortunately we don't have many female members; we would certainly welcome more gender and ethnic variety, but the simple fact remains that the typical member is a young male.

Marjorie: Tell us about a typical meeting. Are they fairly informal, or do you have planned talks and activities?

Przemek: We normally schedule a speaker for our meetings. I believe it helps to keep up with the effort. If nothing in particular is scheduled, it is somehow easier to stay home. Featuring scheduled talks keeps the momentum up.

Marjorie: Do you host special training sessions and/or install fests? Any annual events?

Przemek: David Lesher and David Niemi did a wonderful job organizing our four Install Fests. Interestingly, our last fest had a small turnout compared to the previous ones—could it be that Linux has become so easy to install?

Actually, both Davids agree that the trickiest part in organizing the install fest is the preparation—choosing the right time, spreading the word and registration. We insist on registration not only to have a handle on what to prepare in the way of resources and equipment (desk space, network hookups, etc.) but, perhaps more importantly, to get the participants to collect solid information about their hardware.

Marjorie: Do you attend conferences as a group and set up a booth? If so, which conferences? Any experiences you'd like to share with us?

Przemek: We have attended the Washington DC conference (FedUnix/Open Systems World) for three years in a row; the organizer (Alan Fedders of the Washington Area Unix User Group) kindly lets us set up a booth there. We usually shift our November meeting to coincide with the conference place and time; this way, we can reach more people who might not hear about us otherwise.

We run the club with a minimal amount of organization. We do not have formal membership, club dues or formal leadership. This makes it more difficult to operate events. We can't rent space and/or equipment, and we look like poor cousins of better-endowed clubs such as PC User Group (the DOS/Windows folks) or even the area Unix user group. On the other hand, none of us want the club to develop into a part-time job, so we don't mind.

We haven't found the lack of funds to be a limitation—we get by through trading favors, borrowing things, doing the work ourselves and light fund-raising.

One coup we managed to pull off is our very own Linux server. David Niemi made arrangements with Erol's, a large ISP in our area, to let us use one of their computers connected to their internal backbone. This allows us to maintain a local high bandwidth Linux FTP mirror as well as our own WWW server (http://linux.wauug.org, with our club's home page at /dclinux/dclinux.html) and assorted mailing lists. Needless to say, the machine runs under Linux. In return, we try to help Erol's in various little ways.

For fund-raising, we distributed some vendor CDs during our install fest (we obtained them on commission, so we didn't have any up-front costs). The income will enable us to expand disk space on our server in the near future.

Marjorie: What are some of the reasons your members give for using Linux?

Przemek: I haven't asked widely, but my guess is that people use Linux because it provides a “turn-key” development platform, often with the capabilities not provided by commercial systems (Unix or Windows), and of course, you can't beat the price. Actually, for many people it is not the money that matters most. Rather, it is the aggravation of completing and configuring their system from many disjointed elements (a TCP stack from this company, an NFS server from that company, an X server from a third one, to give a Wintel-related example)--and that was just for basic system functionality. Then, one still has to load all the software that comes standard with Linux distributions: compiler tool-chain, multi-media/WWW tools, etc.

For those of us who have to develop solutions to nonstandard computer problems, as is often the case in my area of scientific research, Linux offers a better platform because of its openness and freedom. A perfect example is the adaptation of Linux to do hard real-time embedded computing (described recently in Linux Journal)--such a project would be impractical without the availability of the kernel source.

And, last but not least, Linux lets us (some say “forces us to”) hone our computer skills. I have learned many things about computers (hardware and software) while using my Linux system.

Lydia: How many of your members are primarily using Linux in their business? What applications do they use?

Przemek: Quite a few of our members use Linux at work, but in many cases it is low-key and/or their bosses don't know (or want to know) about it. There are some spectacular exceptions, e.g., Donald Becker uses Linux as the basis for the Beowulf project (http://cesdis.gsfc.nasa.gov/linux/beowulf/beowulf1.html). And Erol's uses Linux extensively as an Internet server platform, as do other ISPs in the area.

In general, people in science, research and development tend to have an easier time applying Linux—there is not as much enforced uniformity. For instance, in my laboratory, many researchers have their own Intel-based PCs. Some prefer Windows, some prefer Linux. Linux tends to be easier to maintain—once set to working, it stays working.

For those who require Microsoft applications in their work, we often set up Wabi. This gives us the best of both worlds: good, user-friendly applications, on a solid OS. If only the anti-trust law enforcement people would actually do their job and break up Microsoft into an applications company and an OS company, everyone would be much happier.

At the moment, we use Linux to do mundane things—graphics display, word processing, data visualization—but we plan to employ it for actual control of hardware instruments. In fact, if some young reader is interested in such topics and likes living near DC, please get in touch with me; I am looking for an able young programmer.

Lydia: Do you or any of your members contribute to the development of the Linux kernel? Utilities or patches?

Przemek: Donald Becker wrote a majority of the network drivers for Linux. Eric Youngdale worked on iBCS, Intel and Alpha-shared libraries and high-level SCSI code. David Niemi co-maintains Mtools, and has worked on the floppy driver and “other bits here and there”.

Others among us have contributed to various parts of the kernel and applications, in both big ways and small (I contributed in minor ways to various projects such as Emacs Calc, xmgr and tcl/expect).

Lydia: What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of the currently available distributions?

Przemek: I personally like Red Hat, because housekeeping on their system is easy due to the Red Hat Package Manager (RPM). Upgrading the Red Hat system is easier than other systems that I have used. Other people swear by Yggdrasil, Debian, Craftworks and Slackware—the differences aren't that great.

Marjorie: What do you see as the main purpose of your users group? Users groups in general?

Przemek: Linux user groups let people create their own local support systems. This is important especially when an answer can't be found by searching the available documentation. True, everyone can post questions to worldwide Linux newsgroups, but getting an actual answer is a different matter. A local support market is more friendly, too.

Marjorie: To what do you attribute the success of your group?

Przemek: I think half of being successful is to stay in business long enough to create a distinct group of people willing to participate over the long term.

Marjorie: What do you think the future holds for Linux and Linux user groups?

Przemek: Linux is here to stay and flourish. It is a complicated system, and every once in a while it requires some expertise. The nice thing is that if you have a problem, you know it is solvable, and will usually yield to the “scientific” method of experimenting and progressive elimination. This is to be contrasted with the “let's install the latest version of a screen driver” approach.

Linux user groups concentrate local Linux knowledge and are therefore a valuable resource. I imagine businesses using Linux might appreciate such a resource and draw on it for consulting and/or hiring, although we aren't at this stage yet.

Lydia: How far do you think Linux can go as a competitor for Microsoft operating systems or commercial versions of Unix?

Przemek: I don't think Linux will get a “market share” comparable to that of Microsoft Windows. I propose that even if there were a free, high-performance engine which fit the Ford Escort, most people would still drive the factory-provided one for it. Similarly, most people would probably opt to trade off the competitive features of Linux, because they don't want to, or cannot, cope with its complexity.

I do think Linux will continue to have a major impact on the computer industry by shaming it into action. It must be embarrassing for vendors to fail to provide some functionality (a network protocol or a hardware driver or protected virtual memory)--it can no longer be brushed off as “too hard to do”.

As to commercial Unix, I think Linux will entrench and become a major player. As of today, in our lab we have more systems running Linux than all other commercial Unices combined.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk about our club and about Linux.

Greetings,

Przemek Klosowski (przemek@nist.gov)

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