Open Source

Interview with Alan Cox

One of the head programmers behind Linux, Alan Cox talks exclusively to Builder Australia about the uptake of Linux, Microsoft's plans to share its source code and his Linux predictions.

One of the head programmers behind Linux, Alan Cox talks exclusively to Builder Australia about the uptake of Linux, Microsoft's plans to share its source code and his Linux predictions.

You have been working for Red Hat since January 2000, What is your title and what are you doing?
I was contracted a bit before that for a while. I am a fellow; most of what I'm doing is working on the kernel, some of it other applications that need fixing. I also deal with awkward bugs, things that matter to important customers with support contracts that reassures them we can fix bugs whenever they turn up

What do you think of large organisations looking at Linux for their solutions?
I see a lot of big financial institutions looking and deploying very large amounts of Linux on servers. Desktop people are looking looking at it more and more I think because open office is highly available, accessibility, user interface among other considerations to a point where the stuff is useful, but not necessarily perfect just yet. The one problem they've got is the lack of available software, which in big business normally isn't a problem because you have large numbers of people who need very small sets of software, but smaller businesses can be a challenge because you're trying to use the same PC apps for email, for accounts, word processing, so you many find the PC's might not be there yet.

Recently Microsoft have announced they are releasing their source code to governments...(interrupts)
To a few governments, it leaves the question: "If they have to release the source code to governments what does it say to the companies they won't release it to?" It's also interesting to note that in some countries, where perhaps the relationship between governments, business and the people are not so good that by giving it only to government it is giving government the power to use all security holes in Windows so they may have done harm to business and individuals. But (releasing the source code) it is a step in the right direction.

Do you think this step is a threat to Linux?
No. There is a real difference between "you can have a quick look at some of our source code but you can't do anything with it, and you have to be a government and we have to like you". In addition to which, just having the source code isn't really that useful because unless you have the code for compiler and you can rebuild all the code and verify it, how do you know the source code they have given you is anything to do with the actual operating system your running? And that is a very real question. One the other hand we've had military and government security people who've actually taken a basic Linux system including the compiler, they've audited that compiler and have built and audited every single single sub set pieces of Linux they use so they can definitively say that it doesn't have any back doors in it. At least in their version of it and they are happy with it and any back doors they have put in themselves for their own use.

What do you think of Sun's announcement to release Mad Hatter midway through this year?
It's just another distribution. I think it's quite clear where all the work is coming from. I don't see where the value added is unlike those like Dell, but maybe they have things they'll do.

Where do you see Linux in 2 years?
I think in two years we'll see more Linux on the desktop. It will be very interesting to see what happens, its very hard to judge.

How about 5 years?
Hopefully world domination! (laughs). We shall see, it could be in five years time, someone comes along with something much neater, and we'll all be wondering "those old operating systems were awfully clunky."

What desktop environment do you prefer to use?
I'm mixed, open office, a lot of GNOME stuff and one or two KDE apps. If you have Red Hat they all look the same, so it ceases to be what desktop do you run and it becomes a question of which program is the best, which program environment do I prefer to write software, so it gets rid of that divide.

One subject you bought up in your talk is documentation in Open Source. What grade do you give it at the moment?
It varies by project. Some projects are absolutely brilliant, a lot of it is pretty poor. Certainly in terms of things for example Solaris, where where the Sun people have had this long going very tight discipline about documenting everything in a very definite and clear format. So we have some way to go in that field.

In yesterday's Q and A session, there was concerns raised about the benchmark getting higher and higher to start working on the kernel. Is this a real concern?
There is a thing about the core of the kernel because it's a very very complex, very very refined piece of software. In terms of writing device drivers it has actually gotten easier as there is a lot more infrastructure in the kernel so there is a lot less code you have to write and a lot more code to copy. Being open source the way you write a driver is to find something similar, copy it and go from there. It's perhaps a little different in the Windows world.

When is the next Red Hat release?
We don't pre announce releases and I can't speak for Red Hat.

There are many standards bodies around. What do you think of standardisation?
A lot of them go way back before Linux. Most of the standards bodies things are useful. The problem sometimes comes when standards bodies standardise things that are dumb and generally free software ignores those standards. Most of the standards bodies are not necessarily interested in free software but they see free software as part of the universe they are trying to build standards into. Having one set of standards for free software and one set of standards for Windows doesn't really work, the only person you hurt at the end of the day is the customer as they can't switch easily.

How have you found 2003?
Really good. There is some good technical stuff here. The other main conference I go to is the Ottawa one, which is the other technical one. Things like Linuxworld which is marketing and press releases just isn't my thing.

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