We Talk to Everybody

A quick look at some of the people who helped make Linux possible.
Thomas Dunbar

Another mathematician who spent some time with the Linux OS during its formative years is Thomas Dunbar. “Getting TeX/METAFONT running on Linux” was his most significant contribution to the operating system. Thomas had been using MINIX and doing technical typesetting work with TeX when he first started thinking of Linux as a way to move from his life as a math professor into “something computer-related.” Says Thomas,

I needed a low-cost, programmer-friendly OS that could use minimal PC hardware. There were no barriers, neither technical nor social, to helping with Linux development.

Like many kernel hackers, while working over the Internet was both a fun and necessary part of working on Linux, Thomas never saw the Internet part of his work as particularly revolutionary—although it did play a positive role in promoting “family values.” As Thomas tells it,

Linux coming along right when the Net was opening up was very fortunate. I did not feel this myself too much, as I already had professional contacts. However, I know this was very significant for my son, Daniel, who was just entering [his] teens when “we” started using Linux. The resulting accessibility of expert developers provided an alternative to the normal college, job training ...

Thomas still uses Linux on his desktop (as does his secretary), although he hasn't done any development work since his early TeX/METAFONT days. He sees commercialism as something that has, for the most part, helped increase the popularity and use of Linux—yet he doesn't believe Linux will become the “dominant desktop.”

Currently, Thomas is senior DBA for the Warehousing group at Virginia Tech and also CEO of a little WebCyS shop, diads.com. Says Thomas,

My work is almost exclusively Oracle-related with databases running on Sun/Solaris (though that is migrating a bit to Linux) with Linux being a convenient client platform for system administration and database administration of the systems.

What is the most important thing to him about Linux today? “Keep it fun and sociable, wherever that leads,” Thomas says. “The more popular, the better, in my opinion.”

Thomas Dunbar's e-mail address is tdunbar@vt.edu.

Bjorn Ekwall

Bjorn Ekwall, whose contributions to the Linux kernel include D-Link drivers, likes to make sure that some of the people who helped him discover and solve problems aren't forgotten. Hackers like Joshua Kopper and Jacques Gelinas, to name a few, are among the first Bjorn mentions.

There were a lot of other very skilled hackers involved ... and I tried to make sure that all got credits for their contributions. I definitely learned a lot from these guys.

Bjorn first got involved in Linux through his devotion to UNIX in the late 1970s. Having worked on UNIX machines as a co-sysadmin, Bjorn had little time for the Apples and PCs that started shipping (“just toys,” he called them), but because proprietary Unices did not offer the freedom or the source code Bjorn wanted, he had to rely on merely collecting and building the parts of his very own UNIX machine, “with full source.”

It wasn't until 1992 that, while looking through comp.sources.unix postings on Usenet, Bjorn first saw mention of Linux. After a bit of independent research, he settled on an early Slackware distribution. “I think it was with the 0.99.3 kernel,” Bjorn says. But his reaction was epiphanic. “It had all the sources! It even had X11! It fitted neatly into my new 386SX/25 laptop with 5MB of memory!” says Bjorn. “It was close enough to UNIX for me to give in completely!”

And “give in” he did. After developing a D-Link driver for the Linux kernel to allow him to network with his laptop, and a few more projects dealing with kernel downloadable modules, Bjorn sent snapshots of his patches to Linus. “He answered by putting the whole package up for FTP together with the official kernel sources,” Bjorn says. “I admit that I was a bit flattered. A lot, actually. Suddenly I had been promoted to an official kernel developer/maintainer!”

The responses from fellow Linux hackers was something that made a serious impression on Bjorn. He says,

the openness in the acceptance of new ideas and the ease of getting quick and high-quality feedback is definitely the most important thing about Linux, as far as I'm concerned. The basic rule, “show me the code”, is key, since it keeps in check those who have only opinions and no solutions.

All the same, much of the Linux politicking tends to leave him cold. Asked about commercialization, Bjorn says he has “no problems whatsoever” with people making money from Linux, “as long as Linux stays open, which it will,” he adds. Asked about Microsoft, Bjorn says frankly that he doesn't care:

I'm only interested in getting access to an environment that fills my needs, which is what my Linux-based system does. If I need something completely new in my environment, then I will build it. If that is useful for other people, then that's a nice side effect.

But when asked about life outside of computers ... now that's a different story.

There is definitely a world outside of computers, and I try to enjoy it as much as possible ... I do “have a life,” which includes my two daughters, now aged 9 and 12. We have a lot of fun—when I'm not working, that is.

Bjorn Ekwall's e-mail address is bjorn@blox.se.