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See also: last week's Back page page.

Linux Links of the Week

If ever needed to look for something that was posted to a mailing list somewhere, you'll likely appreciate the mailing list archive at The AIMS Group. It is a searchable, long-term archive of an unbelievable number of Linux-oriented mailing lists. Next time you need to search something out of, say, samba-vms or snort-devel, you'll know where to look.

Industrial Linux is aimed at administrators of Linux servers. It will be a portal with news and how-to information; there is also an Industrial Linux distribution in the works.

Section Editor: Jon Corbet

November 30, 2000



This week in history

Two years ago (December 3, 1998 LWN): Digital Creations opened up the source code for Principa, its object-based web development platform, and integrated it with Bobo, its open-source web toolkit. The two projects were combined and renamed Zope, the rest is history.

There was some haggling over just who owned the trademark for the term "Open Source". The Open Source Initiative (OSI) and Software in the Public Interest (SPI) both claimed ownership of the term. Since then the term turned out not to be trademarkable, and SPI appears to have gone dormant (its last news item is from June, 1999).

The current development kernel was version 2.1.130, the basted turkey release.

Novell was investing in Caldera and had rumored plans to open up some of the Novell NDS source tree. IBM, by way of Transarc, made AFS available for Linux.

Some things never change:

"linux isnt secure and it isnt stable," my informant writes, with is usual bracing disdain for grammar and punctuation. "its a moving target that never really gets out of beta. sure people run production sites on linux. i know alot of these people. they dont get much sleep and have grown opaque from the lack of sunlight."
-- Fred Moody, ABC News

One year ago (December 2, 1999 LWN): Corporate acquisitions of Linux companies were busily happening, partly due to the high value of Linux stocks. SCO and Sun were both looking to buy a Linux distributor, possibly Caldera. Turnaround is fair play, Caldera is currently finishing the details of the purchase of SCO. Sun ended up buying a Linux hardware vendor, Cobalt. Red Hat was rumored to be considering the purchase of "anything that moves" and had recently acquired Cygnus.

Still, to some observers, the question of copyright and licensing -- the question, ultimately, of who controls the GNU software developers -- is the single most important question in the world of free software. Red Hat now bestrides that world, more than ever before, like a colossus. Even if most individual free-software developers appear unconcerned with the implications of the Red Hat-Cygnus merger, corporate competitors to Red Hat might have reason to be nervous.
-- Andrew Leonard, Salon.

Linux made a big splash at Comdex with the Linux Business Expo. One year later, the Linux Business Expo was even bigger and was still going strong. Network appliances were big at Comdex but the Embedded Linux boom was in its infancy.

The XFree86 project joined X.org, a fitting move since XFree86 has been the real center of X11 development for some time...

VA Linux Systems headed quickly toward its IPO, and announced a directed share program for Linux hackers. Participants in the program did very well...assuming, of course, they are not still holding on to the stock... VA also announced the hiring of Samba hacker Jeremy Allison as part of its new Professional Services Division.

Lynx Realtime Systems (now LynuxWorks) launched its "BlueCat Linux" embedded distribution.

And, don't forget the LWN Raccoon incident: just as we were about to celebrate a year of server uptime, a warmth-seeking Raccoon found its way into a nearby power distribution point and brought down our server (and much of a city block with it). One year later, the LWN server has, well, one year of uptime. Just in time to be powered down in favor of the new server...



Letters to the editor

Letters to the editor should be sent to letters@lwn.net. Preference will be given to letters which are short, to the point, and well written. If you want your email address "anti-spammed" in some way please be sure to let us know. We do not have a policy against anonymous letters, but we will be reluctant to include them.
Date: Wed, 22 Nov 2000 00:17:30 -0800 (PST)
From: "Robert A. Knop Jr." <rknop@pobox.com>
To: letters@lwn.net
Subject: Fingerprint scans & the "end" of passwords

As I write letters to LWN, frothing at the mouth as I express alarm at
various trends in modern society, I can't leave out biometrics.  This is
the use of your fingerprint (as mentioned in the "Security" section of LWN
on November 23), retinal pattern, voice print, or even DNA as a way of
authenticating yourself.  They are widely touted as being superior to
passwords for several reasons.  First, nobody else can guess them.  
Second, they really do authenticate *you*.  Thrid, you can't forget them.

However, they suffer from one really huge flaw in comparison to
passwords.  If your password is stolen, you can change it.  You can't
change your fingerprint.

Sure, stealing a fingerprint may be technically quite a bit harder than
stealing a password-- but eventually it will be done.  Maybe not to you,
but the determined will find a way to do it to some.  It is naive to
assume otherwise.  And, when it is, you're hosed.  You can always get a
new password, or a new card and PIN number, but if everything
authenticates you on your fingerprint, you can never be secure again once
your fingerprint has been stolen.

Indeed, in certain circumstances, stealing a fingerprint may not be that
hard.  Most passwords are stolen today by network sniffers, grabbing
unencrypted network traffic as it traverses the internet.  To "steal" a
fingerprint, you wouldn't have to spoof the fingerprint reader.  You would
only have to spoof the information that the fingerprint reader reports.  
This reduces it to exactly the same problem as stealing a password.  Of
course, a well-designed system could use a challenge-response protocol
analogous to public key cryptography, which would make this sort of
spoofing very difficult (just as ssh protects you from having your
password sniffed).  However, do you really trust the people creating the
infrastructure of the ineternet to do this right?  All they have to do is
goof once, and huge amounts of unchangeable fingerprint data can be
stolen.  Look at the track record of companies like, say, Microsoft, when
it comes to good security.  In the dark day of laws like the DMCA and the
UCITA, it will be easier for companies to sue people who complain about
their security than it is for them to create a truly good security system.

I think biometrics are a good idea for authentication-- *if* they are
coupled with passwords or their equivalent.  But biometrics by themselves
are a startlingly bad idea.  I like having different passwords for all of
my sundery different accounts.  I like being able to change them when I
think one has been broken.  I gladly accept the inconvenience of having to
remember and type these passwords each time, in exchange for having an
authentication system that can still work even after an individual
authentication key is stolen.

I find it alarming that so much of the popular media and the population
seem to believe that biometrics will be a panacea for network security and
authentication, and that passwords will go the way of the dinosaur.  The
only real drawback ever mentioned is cost, and that is going away.  
Doesn't anybody understand the utility of being able to change a password?

-Rob Knop

Date: Thu, 23 Nov 2000 16:55:51 +0100
To: Linux Weekly News <lwn@lwn.net>
Subject: The European Software Patent Horror Gallery


You wrote on the European Software Patent Horror Gallery and those
stupid patents which have been granted in Europe.

Although I still think that all software patents, not only these stupid
ones, should be abandoned I would like to let you know that these
patents are not defendable in European Courts as these patents are
invalid in most European countries. Yes, indeed, it's strange perhaps
for you to think on it. But the patent treaty denies in article 32 the
European Patent Organisation (EPO) to grand patents on computer
software. The EPO -as many greedy patent lawyers- is still trying to get
the right to grant patents on software. It might make them rich.

Best regards,

Fred Mobach - fred@mobach.nl - postmaster@mobach.nl
Systemhouse Mobach bv - The Netherlands - since 1976
From: Julio Cesar Gazquez <jgazquez@dld.net>
Date: Sat, 25 Nov 2000 00:40:31 -0300
To: letters@lwn.net
Subject: Office consortium

I think this is a very special, important moment, if the people involved 
takes advantage of it.

StarOffice becomes open source. KOffice is being rapidly improved, and I 
guess that happen to other office apps, like Abiword, Gnumeric, etc. However, 
all these projects suffer a severe, even well-known problem. Even the best 
attempt to exchange data with MS-Office applications is very troublesome. 

There is no chance to share files of reasonable complexity back and forth 
between a MS-Office and StarOffice, even when StarOffice has the best filters 
out there.

Of course, a brief analysis shows the reasons behind this:
1. Most people use MS-Office, so you should support its file format if you 
want some success.
2. The Office file formats are closed, so filters are created through 
reverse-engineering process.
3. Microsoft does its best effort to difficult filter creation, doing weird 
changes in each Office release.

However, despite MS wishes and similar market share of Internet Explorer, we 
are still surfing the web with no much trouble. The key is, of course, HTML 
is open, and it was there long before Microsoft get into browser business. 
Unfortunately, the world never knew an open, well defined, free word 
processor nor spreadsheet file format.

But now, we have at least three free word processors and three free 
spreadsheets. Star Office is free, and the other projects are probably mature 
enough to keep a stable architecture for a while, with well known technical 

They should join to define common open formats for word processor and 
spreadsheet files. These formats should be able to include all the features 
their parent apps need, and allow a seamless interoperability between apps.

A properly defined standard format can attract the interest of governments 
and corporations, as they are suffering the problem as any of us, and this 
Office consortium should encourage this, as this situation could force MS to 
adopt those formats as well.

Anyway, common formats should give to the free office apps a combined market 
place that allows them to empower their individual chances to grow.


Julio César Gázquez
Date: Wed, 22 Nov 2000 18:12:18 -0800 (PST)
From: "Alan W. Irwin" <irwin@beluga.phys.uvic.ca>
To: letters@lwn.net
Subject: Re: I'm alarmed about LinDVD

I agree with much of what Robert A Knop said in his LWN back page piece.

In particular:

"If the stupid laws like the DMCA are going to stand despite how contrary
they are to the concepts of freedom on which the USA was putatively
founded, Linux users really have only two choices.  Admit defeat and
surrender to the proprietary commercial forces that many in the
community have been resisting for so long, or boycott DVDs altogether."

My wife and I feel so strongly about this that we boycott all Hollywood
products.  We encourage others to do the same since Hollywood companies are
directly attacking the freedom that is so important to the Linux community.

In the same paragraph Robert Knop goes on to say:

"The latter will be difficult, because the format is the only game out
there in its performance class, and because DVDs are becoming hugely
popular.  But the MPAA stranglehold on the *format*, which seems to
prevent even the possibility of free drivers, is unacceptable."

Personally, I don't feel quite so pessimistic about this. Hollywood may well
have ruined the DVD format forever.  But will they be able to control all
data storage formats for the indefinite future?  For example, there has been
some recent news about FMD devices which potentially can store 140GB in a
CD-sized disk with a recordable version planned for the end of 2001
(http://www.wirednews.com/news/technology/0,1282,40053,00.html).  There may
also be other large data storage formats/devices in development which are
driven by the urgent need for viable backup solutions for today's large
cheap hard disks.  In summary, I don't believe Hollywood's narrow, selfish
interests can ultimately stop technological development in an area where
there is such a wide market-driven interest in finding a good solution for
long-term storage of data.  Help Hollywood to do The Right Thing by boycotting
*all* their current products.

Alan W. Irwin

email: irwin@beluga.phys.uvic.ca
phone: 250-727-2902	FAX: 250-721-7715
Dr. Alan W. Irwin
Department of Physics and Astronomy,
University of Victoria, P.O. Box 3055,
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, V8W 3P6 

Linux-powered astrophysics

Date: Tue, 28 Nov 2000 11:27:42 -0500
From: "Jay R. Ashworth" <jra@baylink.com>
To: letters@lwn.net
Subject: How the Grinch stole Linux?

In this week's edition, you quote Michael Tiemann, CTO of RedHat as saying:

  "At the same time it's also important to note that we do have many of
  the guys who are doing a lot of the key kernel infrastructure that
  allows companies like Mandrake to write these things. If the Linux
  kernel did not support the API's that are needed by ReiserFS or it
  didn't support the capabilities needed by these other tools then the
  whole open source eco-system would collapse. So we think it's great
  that other people are doing open source development also."

That's a fairly disingenuous comment, I think.  Either that, or Mike forgets
that there was a Time Before RedHat.  How does he think that it came to be
that there *was* a kernel to plug those API's into? 

"...we do have many..."  Yeah?  So what.  So do VA, and Penguin, and for that
matter SuSE, Turbo, and Mandrake.  Let's face it, in the current environment,
it's unlikely these guys would be begging.  Perhaps RH got to the "employ
kernel hackers to hack" well first, but that doesn't mean they own the well.

"If the ... kernel didn't support the APIs..."  Does *Linus* havea new job,
and I missed it?  I didn't think anyone else was unilaterally installing
API's in the kernel.

And as far as "So we think it's great..."  Well, Mike?  I'm glad to hear
that.  Us dahkies gonna go sing spirituals in the corner now.

You might consider this letter in somewhat the same light as the interview
that Tampa Bay Buc defenseman Warren Sapp gave to the St Pete Times last
Saturday.  You know: the one where he told the reporter how much he thought
the Bucs offense was sucking lately?

I think it's perhaps time for a slight reevaluation of mission -- as it regards
interacting with the open-source/free-software/and, indeed, Linux-specific
community -- on the part of the executive staff at RedHat.

We made them.

And we can *break* them, just as easily.

The stockholders would, if they knew about it, probably find this lack of
faith disturbing.

Yo, Bob?  Mike?  Eric?  You guys listening?

-- jra 
Jay R. Ashworth                                                jra@baylink.com
Member of the Technical Staff     Baylink
The Suncoast Freenet         The Things I Think
Tampa Bay, Florida     http://baylink.pitas.com                +1 727 804 5015


Date: Wed, 29 Nov 2000 04:11:40 +0000
From: Dafydd Harries <dafydd.harries@which.net>
To: letters@lwn.net
Subject: Re: Art vs. Craft

Please excuse the length of this letter! In LWN on the 16th of November, in
your development section, it was said:

> But while these projects were formatted badly, they all seemed to work fine
> (mostly).  What coding standards bring isn't more stable code, just the
> ability to more easily maintain projects.  Coding standards work well for
> larger organizations, especially spread across multiple development sites,
> because you never know who will end up maintaining the code at some given
> point in the future.

In my opininon, good formatting and code standards (or lack of them) can make
(or break) a project, simply for the reason that it makes it easier (or harder)
to contribute. I myself have had itches with software that I use regularly,
and have correspondingly tried to go through the source code of the program to
work out how I could make changes. When I encountered masses of cryptic,
unreadable code, however, I gave up.

> Open source projects often start with someone with an itch and a spare
> minute.  Design isn't the goal - results are.  Interestingly enough, that's
> often true of successful proprietary projects as well.  The need for
> processes and standards comes with project maturity.  Software is like
> humanity - we like change less and less with age.  But any change we do
> accept needs definitive rules and order.  Code needs to be clean to provide
> extension and maintenance.  But seldom is it that way from day one.

A "spare minute" is more or less what I had - I didn't have the hours (or the
patience) to work out how the program worked. Although writing messy code
quickly will tend to have good short-term results, it will discourage
participation in the project. On the other hand, if the source code of the
program is clearly written - it doesn't even have to be to a coding standard -
then people with itches will find it easier and quicker to scratch their itches
and improve the software for everybody. Unfortunately, I can imagine that
willing and able hackers are being prevented from contributing only too often
when projects raise the bar of contributing too high.

Apart from this, a clear, simple layout makes the overall structure of a
program easier for everybody to understand, even the original author(s). This
can be detrimental in deciding whether bugs are spotted - the "many eyes,
shallow bugs" concept does not work so well if people cannot understand clearly
how a program works.

If Free software is to triumph over proprietary, projects must actively spend
time to make it easier for people to hack them. Copious technical documentation
(this is sadly an oxymoron, in my experience) and clear code are the way to a
better future for everybody. A project which few people can contribute to is
sure to undergo much less improvement than one that allows more people to help.
Spaghetti projects are harder to debug than clear ones. This is important for
new projects as well as mature ones - a project may never become mature unless
it is easy for people to move it forward. As for the original title - "Art vs.
Craft" - I believe the best programming is a mixture of both.

Dafydd Harries



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