Teaching Linux

by Peter H. Salus

Education means several disparate things. Education re Linux could mean using Linux in the classroom to teach subject matter unrelated to computing or operating systems. It might mean using Linux to teach Linux. It might mean teaching about Linux.

For over a decade, Silicon Graphics has built the highest-quality graphics machines, running Irix (a BSD derivative) on MIPS chips. A few years ago, they began a line of Intel architecture boxes. Now you can get one of those boxes running Linux. (I know there are ports of Linux to the MIPS architecture, too; but SGI isn't supporting them at this time.)

A very large number of potential users see SGI as an Irix company. The result is SGI's Linux University, a traveling roadshow that made many stops this past autumn. Beginning in Washington, DC and ending up weeks later in Los Alamos, NM, Linux University brought information on Linux, about SGI's policy concerning Linux and on SGI's commitment to open source to several thousand users.

While I found much of the content of the talks truly interesting and valuable, the most important revelation may well have been the fact that SGI has contributed its proprietary XFS journaling file system to the community under the GPL. Giving away one of the crown jewels is a true sign of commitment. As Kurt Akeley, CTO at SGI, put it: “In a bacon and eggs breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.” SGI is committed.

What the university tour did was two things: provide a context for SGI's commitment, and supply education about Linux itself—the values, tools and future. At five of the sites (Huntsville, AL; Dayton, OH; Denver; Albuquerque; and Los Alamos), I supplied context by talking about the origins of UNIX, Linux and Open Source.

The tutorial sessions were very impressive. While they varied from site to site, they comprised XFS and CXFS, Networking and Clustering on Linux, Interoperability in a Heterogeneous Environment (Samba), Security in Linux, Web Serving in a Linux Environment and OpenGL in Linux.

Also impressive was the number of attendees. Most sites had over 200 folks present, with over 900 in Washington, DC. Many of the attendees were knowledgeable about computing, and simply not Linux users. The queries and comments I heard during breaks were at an extremely high level. They might be Linux newbies, but not Irix or BSD newbies.

Perhaps yet more significant, in Huntsville (NASA), Dayton (Wright-Paterson AFB) and Los Alamos (LANL), a large proportion of the attendees were from the U.S. federal government. Linux infiltrating the shops of the feds is a terrific toehold.

Don't forget that Linux was first put on the Net in October 1991. As recently as January 1996, USENIX was offering a single Linux tutorial. The next year, there was a USELINUX track, concerning Linux Application Development and Deployment. Since then, there have been Freenix tracks in both 1998 and 1999. This is important, for it shows exactly why something like SGI's Linux University can have great influence. The first Linux Expo was held in North Carolina in 1996; the first Atlanta Linux Showcase in 1997; and the first Linux Business Expo at Comdex in 1999.

Readers of this magazine may know Linux. But there are many, many programmers and system administrators who know that Linux exists, but have little or no notion of what it can do.

We could sneer at companies like SGI and say they just want to latch onto the business that supporting Linux will bring them. I'm convinced that's not the full story. I've now seen Linux applications running on several different pieces of SGI hardware: a 1400L server, a 540NT workstation, an Irix02 workstation. They all demonstrated to me that high-quality, robust software was running on first-class hardware.

If the Linux University is coming to your area, register for it. I think SGI is doing a lot for the Linux community, and it's teaching thousands of people about the Linux system. Knowledge is power.

Peter H. Salus , the author of A Quarter Century of UNIX and Casting the Net, is an LJ contributing editor. He can be reached at peter@usenix.org.
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