LJ Interviews LDP's Greg Hankins
With the next Atlanta Linux Showcase (October 23-24) looming on the horizon, I decided it was time to get in touch with Greg Hankins, coordinator of the show and maintainer of the Linux Documentation Project. We “talked” by e-mail about him and the show on June 1.
Margie: Let's start off with some personal information. Tell us about where you live, go to school, etc.
Greg: I live in Atlanta, GA, where I have been since 1988. Before that, I spent most of my life in Germany where I went to a German school through the 10th grade. When we returned to the U.S., I began the 11th grade in high school and decided that the only thing I wanted to do was to go to Georgia Tech (a technical university located in Atlanta) to study computer science. Ten years later, I'm still at Georgia Tech—I received my bachelor's degree in 1996 and I'm now half-way through the master's program.
I've been into computers since I was about 12 years old, when I started playing on our Apple ][+. I got started with UNIX around 1990, when I instantly recognized it as the Right Thing. In fact, I even bought an old AT&T UNIX PC so I could have a home UNIX box. I started using Linux in the spring of 1993, and I still have the set of floppy disks I used for installation (SLS 1.01 distribution, I think).
In real life, I'm a Network Engineer at MindSpring Enterprises, an ISP with nation-wide coverage. My group is responsible for the daily care and feeding of our WANs and LANs, upgrading and expanding our network and evaluating new networking technology. I am fortunate to also have a wonderful girlfriend, who somehow manages to keep me from spending all my time in front of a keyboard.
Margie: What do you for fun—do you have time for fun?
Greg: With school, work, Linux projects and trying to have a life, I do keep quite busy. Linux is supposed to be fun, so I guess all my Linux projects count as fun.
One of my hobbies is enjoying beer. I am an avid beer enthusiast, and I maintain a constantly growing collection of self-quaffed beer bottles and paraphernalia—at present, over 450 unique bottles. I attempted home brewing a few times and have even tossed around the idea of becoming a certified beer judge.
I also enjoy British humor such as Monty Python, Young Ones and the like, science fiction such as Dr. Who and Star Trek, computer history and old computers (that would explain the PDP-11 in my bedroom) and bad puns. I'm also fascinated by anything related to computers and high-tech toys—in that aspect I'm pretty much a standard geek.
Margie: The Atlanta Linux Enthusiasts seems to be a very successful user group. Tell us a bit about how it got started.
Greg: Well, it all started in 1994 with the “gtlinux” mailing list, a list we set up for students at Georgia Tech to discuss Linux. Some of the people from the list decided to form an Atlanta Linux users group to include students, professionals and enthusiasts in the metro Atlanta area. A posting to comp.os.linux.announce attracted ten people who wanted to help, and on December 15, 1994 the group was founded. We named it the Atlanta Linux Enthusiasts (ALE). Over 100 people showed up at our first meeting in January, 1995.
We intentionally have no formal charter, membership or organization. This keeps things simple and seems to work well. All people have to do is show up at the meetings—that's it. We decided on a meeting structure similar to the Atlanta UNIX Users Group (AUUG) meetings, which have been going strong since mid-1980.
Margie: What sort of programs does the group put on to keep people interested and coming to meetings?
Greg: We simply put on exhilarating monthly meetings and Linux conferences! Each month we have a speaker for our meeting. We try to vary our topics somewhat, in order to appeal to all levels of users. If we can, we alternate monthly between “new user” and “advanced user” topics. There is also a free-form session at the end of the meeting where anyone can ask a question of the group. This gives people a place to go for help, as well as information. Most of our talks are given by ALE members; we have very few talks about commercial products given by vendors. We typically have around 50 people at our meetings—many people are regulars, but I do see new faces each time.
From time to time we've also had free pizza and Coke at a meeting or put on fundraisers (for example, I sold Dr. Linux and Red Hat CDs a few times). Door prize drawings are frequent, as many vendors send us CDs and books to give away. We will probably be doing an install fest in the next few months.
We also maintain a mailing list for our group. People use the list to ask questions about their Linux problems and to discuss Linux and related topics. There are over 200 people on the list, many from outside Atlanta and even some from outside the U.S.
Margie: Does ALE appeal to one group of people, such as students, more than another?
Greg: I'd say that we have a very good mix of professionals and enthusiasts in the group as well as quite a few students. We happen to meet on the Georgia Tech campus, but that hasn't affected the attendance mix in a big way. We certainly encourage everyone to attend and don't discriminate in any way.
There is a local Georgia Tech group, but they focus more on specific problems the students might have, such as using the dorm networks. A group at Emory University is forming for the same purpose.
Margie: Last year ALE put on a very successful Linux exposition, the Atlanta Linux Showcase, and is planning to do it again this year. Can you tell us some of the reasons last year's show was such a success?
Greg: Yes, we did put on a very successful Linux show last year. It was an all-volunteer-run conference and trade show organized entirely by our users group. The thing that made it possible was an extremely dedicated core group of people who gave hundreds of hours of their time to support something that we passionately believe in—Linux. It was also to our advantage that we had an extremely diverse group of people who volunteered. For example, different people had prior experience with trade shows, accounting, printing, graphic design and other useful things.
We gave everything from time to loans from personal funds in order to make this event work. Linux International also helped us; in fact, it was Jon “maddog” Hall who first approached us with the idea of putting on a “small” show—little did we know what it would grow into. We basically had no capital and no legal organization that could sign contracts. Linux International provided critical support in those areas—we provided the hard work.
I think we had a combination of good conference programs and vendor exhibits, as well as a great location for the show. Atlanta is a great city for conventions. We have the facilities, a big airport, good transportation and many things to do and sights to see, which provided people with entertainment in the evenings. I think people had fun. It was great to see so many people in one place all talking about Linux.
Since then, we have taken the profits of last year's show and invested them in the next show. We formed a small corporation to give us legal standing and protection and have also been dealing with taxes and getting approval as a credit card merchant. Many rules and regulations exist which complicate things, and an enormous amount of determination and effort is required to make things fall into place. We're learning how to run a not-for-profit business, all in our spare time!
Margie: Any disasters to report?
Greg: I'm pleased to report we really didn't have any disasters, other than a noticeable lack of sleep on our part. The show was organized in about four months, which is a very short amount of time to organize any size conference or trade show. Many large conferences are planned years in advance, and the time frame in which we organized the show presented a few problems of its own. For example, booking exhibit space is almost impossible with only a few months' notice. We completely missed advertising deadlines and were too late in many cases to even get on upcoming event calendars. We've been planning our next upcoming show for over a year.
Another problem was dealing with money. Since we were an unofficial organization, we could not accept credit cards and thus could only accept cash or checks from conference attendees. We also had to put our checking account in the name of one of our organizers, instead of the name of the show. This year, we have fixed both of these problems.
Margie: What are the plans for this year's show? Speakers? Highlights? How many people do you expect to come this year?
Greg: Our plans for this year include two days of technical and business talks about Linux, free and Open Source software, and vendor exhibits. Dr. Michael Cowpland, President and CEO of Corel, will be our keynote speaker. Jon “maddog” Hall, Bruce Perens and Eric S. Raymond are among our initial list of speakers. We're also planning BOFs (Birds of a Feather), a fundraiser dinner and a terminal room, which will be a great place to meet other people in the Linux community. The exhibits and activities will all be free, and the conference sessions will be reasonably priced with pre-registration and student discounts. By the time this interview is printed, we will have our on-line registration system running.
One of the highlights is our “Linux in Action” booth. This booth is staffed by ALE members, and it's a great place for people to use Linux hands-on. We demo a wide variety of hardware and software running Linux with theme areas such as “servers”, “windowing systems” and “productivity tools”, showing people what Linux can do. Attendees are free to use the machines and software packages and ask questions of ALE staff. Last year we had Linux running on over 15 Intel, Alpha, SPARC and PPC boxes, using five Linux distributions and loads of software. It was quite a popular attraction.
This year our goal is to double the show size. We are running ads in Linux Journal, Boardwatch and Sys Admin as well as launching an electronic ad campaign. We're planning for 1000 to 2000 attendees. We had 500 people attend last year with no national advertising and only a few months of electronic advertising, such as postings to c.o.l.a and contacting users' groups. Our show also follows NetWorld+Interop, one of the largest networking trade shows in existence. We hope to draw some of the attendees to our show in the same way that we followed COMDEX last year.
As for exhibitors, our goal is to fill 40 booths with vendors showing off Linux and related software, hardware, CDs, books, shirts and whatever else they wish to bring. Last year we had 25 vendors on the show floor, a record number at that time for a Linux show.
Margie: Anything in particular that you plan to do differently?
Greg: Yes, a few things. We're excited about the amount of time we have to plan this show, since we basically started planning it right after the 1997 show ended. With over a year to prepare, we're going to be able to do a lot more.
One of the biggest things we learned was that Friday/Saturday shows always do better than Saturday/Sunday shows. We had great attendance on Saturday last year, but Sunday was noticeably slower. This year our show starts on Friday and actually overlaps with NetWorld+Interop that day, which will be a mere three blocks away.
We also learned many small lessons. We met with each vendor that exhibited last year to find out if they had any comments or advice about the show. We learned things through experience, what worked well for us and what we could have done differently. There truly is no substitute for experience.
Margie: ALS sounds like it will be a fun and worthwhile conference for those who attend. Let's move on—tell us a bit about the Linux Documentation Project.
Greg: The Linux Documentation Project (LDP) was started in order to write documentation for the Linux operating system. According to the collective memory, it was started sometime in 1992 by Michael K. Johnson, Matt Welsh and Lars Wirzenius.
The overall goal of the LDP is to write documents that cover installing, configuring and using Linux. For information about the LDP, visit the LDP home page at http://sunsite.unc.edu/LDP/. You can find all the documentation in the LDP collection, as well as many useful links and information. The LDP home pages were some of the first Linux-related pages on the Net when Matt started writing them in 1994, and they have accumulated a lot of information since that time.
We have four basic types of documentation: guides, HOWTOs, man pages and FAQs. Guides are entire books on complex topics; for example, Linux Installation and Getting Started and the Linux System Administrators' Guide. HOWTOs are detailed “how to” documents on specific subjects, such as networking, SCSI or hardware compatibility. The man pages as well as many FAQs, including the Linux FAQ, are also produced. We have a few special documents that you can find on-line on the home page, such as Linux Gazette, the Linux Kernel Hackers' Guide and certain HOWTOs.
Many translation projects and non-English LDPs have been formed and more are starting. Links to these projects can be found on the LDP web pages. We also support them by getting some of their work archived on sunsite. This way the documentation is easily accessible, and also gets distributed on CD archives.
Margie: What is your part in the LDP?
Greg: I joined the LDP in the fall of 1993 when I started the Serial FAQ after many frustrating hours of trying to get getty running on my box. This FAQ later became the Serial HOWTO, which I maintained until a few months ago. I had to give this up recently due to a lack of time.
I took over the HOWTO coordination from Matt in 1995, and managed the HOWTOs until April of this year, when I found a new victim/volunteer to take over for me. I decided to give this part of the LDP up too, again due to lack of time and a lack of enthusiasm.
Now I'm pretty much responsible for the LDP web pages and the overall LDP coordination as well as acting as a point of contact. I also maintain the /docs directory on sunsite and whatever else happens to fall into the documentation area.
Margie: Are there particular guidelines for submitting documentation to the project?
Greg: The most important thing to remember is to contact us first, and to get approval if you are interested in contributing to the LDP. In order to coordinate the documentation effort, we need to be aware of all the work different people are doing. This way, efforts are not duplicated and wasted. I have had to turn away several submissions because they were duplicated or, in some cases, not appropriate for the LDP.
We have set a standard of using LaTeX for the LDP Guides (large book-like references), and using SGML for the HOWTOs (short, specific “how to” documents). Currently, a package called “SGML Tools” is used to take the SGML source and produce PostScript, DVI, HTML and plain text output. All submissions must follow these standards so that we can provide a common look for the formatted documents and effectively manage the sources.
Margie: What other Linux projects are you involved in? Do you do any development?
Greg: No, I don't do any development. For some reason, I dislike programming so I help out in other ways. The LDP and ALE/ALS are my primary Linux projects, but I have also been known to help maintain sunsite's archive, and I have reviewed a few Linux books here and there.
Margie: What do you think is the most exciting project happening with Linux today?
Greg: I think the most exciting thing is that Linux is finally being recognized as a viable alternative and contending OS. (Of course, we knew it all along.) It is essential to have an alternative to Microsoft—I'm not interested in using the square wheel they re-invent every few years. 1998 has been a great year for Linux; just look at all the attention it's been getting recently. The trade magazines (both on-line and printed) have been full of Linux reviews and stories. For example, InfoWorld awarded the “1997 Best Technical Support Award” to the Linux community. It's good to see all the hard work by the developers and commercial companies paying off.
I'm also excited to see a lot of projects that have the goal of making Linux easier, more productive and more fun to use. Projects such as GNOME, GIMP and Linuxconf, to name a few, are providing Linux with some killer applications and tools. The Linux Standard Base (LSB) being set up by Bruce Perens should also be an interesting project.
Margie: Any parting words?
Greg: Just a couple of e-mail addresses and a URL. I can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm always interested in comments about the LDP web pages or about the LDP in general. The HOWTO coordinator can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
If you are interested in the 1998 Atlanta Linux Showcase or the Atlanta Linux Enthusiasts, visit our web site at http://www.ale.org/.
Margie: Thanks, I'll take a look today.