Meeting with Costa Rica's Minister of Science and Technology

A discussion of connectivity, Linux and the future of open source in Costa Rica.
What about Free Software?

Knowing that Guy is into Linux, we discussed the future of free software in Costa Rica.

Phil How does Linux play into this? Your connectivity project makes it possible for someone who lives in Quepos [a coastal city far from the capital] to decide they want to become a computer consultant. Is there something else that you have planned to get Linux into the community?

Guy At the University [of Costa Rica], there was a very integrated system of different technologies. At the end-user level, every user or department was free to put whatever OS or application they wanted on their systems, but most picked Windows or Mac—mostly Windows at the user level. A few crazy fellows in the Math and Engineering departments picked Linux.

In the center we have about 100 servers. They were all running Linux, except the databases, which were, at that time, running under Solaris on SPARC.

I think that Linux, in the last two or three years, has really made some progress for the end user. What we see again, if you use layers, is at the bottom you have common infrastructure and at the top you have the user. The more you go toward common infrastructure, the more it is open source, and the more you go toward the end user it is proprietary software.

In the coming years, we will see this line going up or going down. That is going to depend a lot on what the Linux and Open Source community does in developing applications for the end user.

Phil I agree.

Guy So this is a moving frontier. Of course, now almost everything is open source. You have the people who developed the TCP/IP protocols and Tim Berners-Lee with the HTML protocol. They made a fantastic contribution to humankind, then put it out as open source.

And, by the way, who is the biggest user of open source in the world? It is Microsoft, for example, with TCP/IP. They can put Microsoft Network on the Web, but it is TCP/IP.

Phil And, if it isn't, it doesn't talk.

Guy Exactly. In 1995, Microsoft protocol was NetBUI and NetBIOS, and it wasn't routable. Those are LAN protocols. At some point they made the very important decision to embrace TCP/IP. One has to agree that it is easy to satanize open source, but they are using it [themselves]. So we have this moving frontier. To go a little bit above, you have the web servers. You have Apache vs. IIS. Not only does Apache have 60% of the market, but it is free and reliable. And you have the report from The Gartner Group, for example, about the security issues, which are not a joke.

All of this to answer your question. To give you an example, here at the Ministry all of our servers run Linux. We are now extending that to many areas of the government. For myself and our engineers, we run Linux for everyday life. And because of the viruses, I can't go back.

However, I must say that I use a modified kernel because I really need to run [MS]Office. To be fair, Word and Excel are the standards. In open source we have not reached that level, yet.

Phil Even Linus uses Microsoft applications such as PowerPoint. They may not know how to write an operating system, but they write good applications.

Guy Exactly. I use this modified kernel that works beautifully, and I have my PowerPoint presentation and use Word and Excel because I don't have time to translate these files to another format. But it [Windows] is a program running under my OS, and I don't care if it has a virus or not.

I have the best of both worlds. The worlds will complement each other and that is healthy.

A country like ours has become very good in software development. It is one of our most important industries. So we must, of course, push this industry.

Let's move to the second question, what are we going to do about that? Here at the Ministry—engineers, myself, Linux fans—we will not go back. I do my scientific papers in LaTeX; everything is there.

At this point we can't make a decree to put the whole government on open source—yet. We have tasks with secretaries where they will lose their productivity. They cannot work as fast.

This will change in the future. However, this is a process. Right now, mail servers, web servers and databases are on Linux. One of our engineers can monitor every server from here. It's powerful, it's secure and it's the best environment you can find in the world right now. Today you cannot say that all the Ministries will run on Linux. We are not there yet. The day will come when the office productivity suite will be integrated into the desktop and will be considered common infrastructure, but not yet.

Phil So, I guess that answers the next question, which is that we, the Linux community, have to keep building better tools for the user, and the transition will happen.

Guy Absolutely. There is a second aspect to this. It's about education and schools. Here the pedagogical and instructional value of open source is incomparable.

You need to teach all primary and secondary school students the basic skills with Word and Excel, of course, but in the higher grades the values of open source are incomparable because the first to the last line of code is there. You know the program. It's amazing.

So imagine following the program line by line. You can change it, adapt it and make a simple version to monitor an experiment. Our industry will benefit from that because we will have very good programmers. The educational value, at a higher level, is very significant.

This is, of course, very close to the scientific model, where the results are open and free for discussion; only the best results remain. Only the best code survives.

I would like it if open source comes more into the high schools. That is something I would like to push more, but it depends on the Ministry of Education. I would like to see the bright kids changing the code and compiling and making a lot of mistakes, like I did.

Phil When offered the opportunity to work with the code, I have seen people get much more interested in getting involved. Where do you go from here?

Guy The problem is not what to do, it is the time to do it. As I said, my dream was to do frontier science from wherever you are. Of course, I am now extremely excited to follow the development of networking. This complements my career in Physics well. I think it was easy for me to go into this project because it is easy for me to have order of magnitude estimates.

Just to give you an example about why it is important to have an education in basic sciences, there was discussion of whether the backbone was to be wireless or with fiber. Someone who is trained in physics knows that in fiber the frequency is 1015. So that means information you can convey on a fiber, for all practical purposes, is infinite. With microwave, the frequency is between 106 and 108. So this discussion was irrelevant because you cannot pack more than an order of magnitude or two of bits at the frequency.

Phil I'm very impressed with your philosophy and, generally, with what I have seen as Costa Rica's philosophy. In the US there is so much argument about what the government should supply. Health care is a perfect example. Healthy people can be more productive. If the government can supply this infrastructure, the kind of connectivity you are talking about, for example, you're going to get more done. You are going to create people that are out there to accomplish things.

Guy I think health care is a very good example. Here it is universal. You are not going to die in the street.

Phil I had one other question about percentages of free software usage and such, but it seems you are saying the real answer is that the Linux and Open Source communities need to continue to develop user applications, and the transition will happen naturally.

Guy Absolutely. The progress in these last couple of years has been impressive, but of course, we need to continue to work much more.


Phil Hughes