The Politics of Porting

The flagship application was headed for the rocks. One man seized the wheel and guided the ship to safety—but will he be keelhauled for acting without orders?

My suggestion that the Hub be ported to Linux previously had been met with a lukewarm response from the middle management with whom I had broached the subject, so I decided to adopt a different tactic this time around.

Several others had expressed an interest in finding out more about Linux, so a couple of months previously we had formed a company Linux User Group with a mail list on the company mail server and a meeting to talk tech once a week. I let the other members—Ngozi Mayo, Anthony Durity and Olusola Ojeje—know what I had been up to and they provided useful feedback and advice.

After some thought, I realised that I had no idea who, if anyone, in senior management would lend support to the idea of a Linux port. I decided to e-mail all of them and the members of the board and hope that someone among them would take an interest.

I planned to announce the alpha port in the style of a press release and see if it would get me the sack or not. I wrote a draft release with a number of bullet points and submitted it for review to the members of the LUG. I made corrections, simplified the announcement and toned down the style as suggested, and then I sent off the revised release and waited for a response.

On February 26, 1999, I pointed out in my press release that the port had cost the company nothing, that the Linux port ran the smoke test several times faster than the Windows NT version, and at least as fast as the other UNIX ports, that there was an increasing trend toward Linux ports of enterprise software and that now, 1999, was the time to get on board. I requested that the company supply hardware to enable an official company Linux port and that it be defined as a tier-three platform to give it official status. Quotes from IDC, highlighting a 212% increase in Linux sales that year and 17% share of the enterprise market, helped shock the complacent into life. For many of the e-mail recipients these facts and figures were a revelation.

The e-mail generated an immediate response and much discussion. Some people sent congratulations and others speculated about possible marketing angles. One senior Sales Consulting Manager questioned the need for a Linux port at all, pointing out that in the previous two years not one customer had requested such a thing. We would all still be riding round in horse and carriage if that attitude prevailed. Someone suggested that “Enterprise deals are closed on enterprise platforms” without then explaining why Windows NT was an “Enterprise” platform or how Linux was not. Others didn't quite understand what Linux was and the LUG did their best to explain.

The final word went to our CEO Nic Birtles who proved to be both insightful and encouraging. In his pithy e-mail response to the ongoing debate, he simply asked what had to be done to be able to announce a Linux version of the HUB. Debate over.

We got our hardware for a dedicated Linux development machine and the Linux port became an official tier-three platform. Having produced a rough-and-ready port merely to prove a point, the task of producing a robust Linux binary was given to Richard Glover.

Everything went quiet for a while, and then one day in early May 1999, Richard quietly mentioned in passing that the Linux port had a 100% pass rate the previous night and that it had taken only five hours to complete. Good news. How long did the Windows NT version take? Fifteen hours on a good night, although some nights the process had to be killed because there weren't enough hours in a day.

Another in-house press release for management and senior staff was prepared and sent to announce the beta release and the amazing test results. It garnered a wide range of comments both positive and negative. In the latter category, our Director of European Marketing flirted with both sides in her e-mail: “Great job” but then spoiled it by suggesting that we didn't want to be a trailblazer in the Linux “space”, no matter that the Linux port ran faster than any of the other ports and three times faster than the Windows NT version. Fortunately, most reactions were much more positive and the most important one, the CEO's, was both congratulatory and helpful. He suggested that the Linux port could now become a tier-two platform alongside Windows NT and the other UNIXes. Only Solaris and AIX were tier-one.

By July 1999, the Linux port was added to the official application CD.

By the time we had an official Linux release of the Constellar Hub on the CD, 25% of the UK workforce had joined the Linux User Group, and the Linux objectors were a small and subdued minority keeping their thoughts to themselves.

The Constellar Hub subsequently was bought by Data Mirror who continues to offer and support the Linux version, which currently is at version 3.8. Thanks to a bit of guerilla porting and a CEO who knew a bargain when he saw one, this Linux application finally found its way out into the open.