We Talk to Everybody

A quick look at some of the people who helped make Linux possible.
Alan Cox

Among the Who's Who of the Linux Kernel, Alan Cox is probably one of the bigger Whos in the bunch. From his work on the Linux networking code to his current role as maintainer of the stable kernel releases, there are few who have meant as much to Linux as Alan.

I like the flexibility and the control of free software. Most of my experiences with proprietary software have been either getting screwed as a user or being part of a larger company that had to threaten its suppliers with lawsuits to get service.

Somewhat provocative, but a familiar cheer and lament from many who have spent a goodly amount of time with Linux and open-source software.

Alan was actually working on ideas for his own operating system when his interest in Linux first began.

I had pondered getting a decent PC since the Amiga was getting a bit long in the tooth. 386BSD came out, and it looked like finally there was an OS worth running on x86 hardware. Linux came out about the same time, but didn't need an FPU, so I started running Linux.

As one of the operating system's true progenitors, Alan is well aware of the importance of the GNU project to the development and maturation of Linux.

In fact, in many ways Linux exists because GNU chose to pursue the HURD rather than using UZI as their UNIX OS core ... GNU/Linux is perhaps overstating it, but ignoring the FSF (Free Software Foundation) contribution is even worse ... It's really x11/BSD/GNU/.../Linux.

Alan now works for Red Hat, the poster boy and problem child for many in and around the Linux community. He still has time, however, to hack free software at home, as well as visit friends and colleagues while traveling to conferences and trade shows. While there are many more people who have contributed to Linux than could ever fit under one roof, Alan seems to have made his peace working for “a vendor.”

I get regular mail from people trying to find Linux-aware folks to hire. I think those who wrote code for fun have plenty of opportunity to reap rewards. Even when I wasn't working for Red Hat, it didn't bother me. I wrote it for fun, and the fact that people found it useful was a greater reward than money.

Alan Cox's e-mail address is alan@lxorguk.ukuu.org.uk.

Laurence Culhane

Among those who made major contributions to the Linux kernel yet moved on to a relatively hack-free lifestyle, Laurence Culhane is one of those who stands out. A radio presenter for the BBC when he first encountered Linux, today Laurence is a senior BBC journalist. But in between then and now, he enjoyed several heady years in the thick of Linux kernel hacking. He recalls,

It was fun. At first I didn't realize how revolutionary the idea was—it seemed so natural. It wasn't perfect, and with only limited free time, I found it quite hard to keep up with the demands for improvements to what had initially been just a quick hack to keep me connected.

Like many others, including Linus Torvalds himself, Laurence's Linux hack sprang from “purely selfish reasons.” As he tells the story,

I wanted Usenet and e-mail, and for that I needed SLIP/PPP. Neither had been written at the time, so I went and looked at the RFC's and wrote something that gave me adequate SLIP access.

Laurence wrote the original alpha SLIP code for the Linux kernel “and sent Linus the odd patch when I couldn't get other code to port and it looked like a kernel issue.” Given Laurence's need-based arrival in the world of Linux and open-source software, it is little surprise that much of the philosophy behind the Linux movement was initially lost on him: “I hadn't thought about free software, free speech or anything at that point. I just wanted Linux to work.”

What attracted him to Linux? “The fact that it was free was the first reason I looked at it,” Laurence admits. “I'd just left the university, had no money and certainly couldn't afford thousands of pounds [for] a commercial UNIX license.” It was at the university where Laurence got his first taste of a major UNIX system. Having built his first s-100 z-80A system at the age of 15, he “fell in love with BSD UNIX” while at the university, “found a 32016 S-100 CPU and MINIX and never left.”

Although Laurence no longer considers himself a Linux developer, he is still a regular Linux user and tries to keep up with the latest developments in Linux in general and the kernel in specific. While he thinks the current popularity surrounding Linux is “great,” he thinks a little reserve is probably a good idea. He says,

I think it's important that people don't get overzealous about Linux ... I'm a passionate fan; I had never even used an MS product until 1998 when work dictated that I did. [But] I'm suggesting that my dad have a dual-boot Linux-Windows machine, with a Mac emulator under Linux because having access to all three operating systems is the right solution for his job.

Laurence Culhane's e-mail address is laurence.culhane@bbc.co.uk.