Linux at DECUS

by Michael K. Johnson

Last year, DECUS (Digital Equipment Computer User Society) surprised some people by bringing Linus Torvalds to New Orleans to give two short talks about Linux. Why Linux at a Digital-oriented trade show? What did Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and DECUS care about Linux? Why would DECUS members be interested in hearing Linus Torvalds talk about Linux?

This year, an entire track was devoted to Linux, and Linus's presence was announced in a front-page article in the show daily, Update.Daily. The Linux-related sessions were well-attended, not only by Linux die-hards, but also by fans of Digital Unix (née OSF/1), OpenVMS, and even Windows NT. Why?

Part of the answer is that DEC has not only given Linus a computer with DEC's new Alpha CPU in order to port Linux to it, but is actively sponsoring it, supporting it, and participating in it at the corporate level. One of DEC's booths included an Alpha-based system running Linux/Alpha as a demonstration of the success they have had with the ongoing port, and it was well received. Although the X Windowing System and networking are not yet running, Linux/Alpha is now “self-hosting” (meaning you can compile the Alpha kernel on the Alpha under Linux), and DEC projects an end-user release sometime this fall.

When asked why DEC was participating so heavily in porting a free operating system—one which could be perceived as a competitor to other DEC operating systems, especially Digital Unix—to the Alpha, Jon “Maddog” Hall, Senior Leader in the Digital Unix Marketing Group, said, “It was inevitable. Either I got the Alpha for Linus, or he was going to do the port to the PowerPC... DEC can either try and stop it and look foolish and stupid, or they can help it along and look like heroes.”

Jim Paradis, Principal Software Engineer of the Alpha AXP Migration Tools and the leader of the DEC team working on the Linux port, agreed. “If we didn't do it, somebody was going to do it. When you have a hot chip like Alpha in low-cost platforms, and a low-cost operating system like Linux, sooner or later, someone is going to want to put the two together. We can either be ahead of the curve or behind the curve.”

He also said that DEC needed a smaller operating system than Digital Unix, OpenVMS, or Windows NT, and they considered porting the system then known as Chicago (currently “Windows 95”) to the Alpha. However, Linux was considered a better choice, not only because it is technically superior, but also because Linux has become so popular that many users will purchase an Alpha instead of some other high-performance CPU such as a Pentium or PowerPC.


Linus himself gave several talks, including a DC-area Linux User's Group session Tuesday night, a highly-publicized “featured presentation” Wednesday afternoon, and a 5-hour Linux tutorial on Thursday. His talk on Wednesday was part of a series of 10 talks throughout the day on various Linux-related topics, and was an introduction to Linux. His well-attended tutorial was, essentially, a technical session which gave an overview of the Linux kernel. All of Linus' talks included question and answer sessions.

A Panel

The last session Wednesday was a panel discussion with several panelists, including Linus. In reality, the entire audience became the panel, and talked about relevant issues, including how local Linux users' groups (LUGS) can be helpful both for Linux users and for spreading Linux. Linus pointed out that what Linux really needs now is more mainstream commercial applications. Following are other Linux talks that took place on Wednesday: Digital and the Linux Operating System; Introducing Linux on Alpha; Parallel Processing with Linux and Transputers at YSU; Linux: Past, Present and Future; Linux in the Real World—A Powerful Idea; Distributed Computing with Linux on the Beowulf Parallel Workstation; Publishing and the Linux Market; Painless GUI Programming in Linux OS; Writing Linux Device Drivers; Linux: What is it Good for.

Linux's Wide Appeal

At the Linux Journal booth, we saw significant and surprising interest in Linux. At trade shows, we often see seasoned Unix users who are interested in Linux, but at DECUS, we saw a very large number of VMS users, including DEC employees, who expressed strong interest in using Linux. Also, the Linux BOF (Birds-Of-a-Feather) session was attended by diverse users.

Next Year

The Linux track was so successful that an even larger track is being planned for December 2-7, 1995 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. DECUS `95/San Francisco will include the possible mbone broadcast of sessions for those with high-bandwidth internet connections who can't make it to the show. The show promises to have more sessions, more symposia, and (we hope) more vendors.

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