Your editor had the good fortune to be able to attend the first LinuxCon
Brazil event, held in São Paulo. There were a number of interesting
talks to be seen, presented by speakers from Brazil and far beyond. This
article will cover three in particular which were interesting as a result
of the very different views they gave on how Linux users work with their
Jane Silber is the (relatively) new CEO at Canonical; she went to Brazil to
deliver a keynote on the "consumerization of IT" and, in particular, its
implications on open source. What she was really there to talk about, of
course, was the interesting stuff that is being done with the Ubuntu
distribution. Linux serves the needs of expert users very well, but,
according to Jane, the future of Linux is very much in the
hands of "consumers," so we need to shift our focus toward that user base.
There are a number of things being done in the Ubuntu context to make that
At the top of the list is "fit and finish," which she described as "the
sprinkling of fresh parsley" that makes the whole meal seem complete.
There have been incredible advances in this area, she says, but our
software still has a lot of rough edges to it. Consumer-type users can
usually figure things out, but it does not build confidence in the
software. To make things better, Canonical is sponsoring a lot of
usability research and working with upstream projects to improve their
usability. Results are posted on design.canonical.com. Projects like
100 papercuts have also
helped to improve the usability of free software.
Another area of interest is the distribution pipeline; the key here is
"speed and freshness." At one point, that idea was typified by the
six-month release cycle which, according to Jane, was innovative when
Ubuntu started using it. But now a six-month cycle is far too slow; the
example we need to be emulating now is, instead, the Apple App Store.
Apple's distribution mechanism would be rather less popular if it only got
new software every six months. The Ubuntu Software Store has been set up
in an attempt to create a similar mechanism for Ubuntu users. It will
provide much quicker application updates and - of course - the ability for
users to purchase software.
The end result of all this work is intended to be a "fit, finished, fresh
pipeline" of software, creating "a wave of code that consumers can surf on
top of." This may not be quite the way that most LWN readers think about
their use of Linux, but it may yet prove to be an approach which brings
Linux to a whole new community of users.
Vinod Kutty represents a very different type of consumer: the Chicago
Mercantile Exchange, whose Linux-based trading platform moves unimaginable
amounts of money around every day. His talk covered the Exchange's move to
Linux, which began in 2003. There was a fair amount of discussion of
performance benefits and cost savings, but the interesting part of the talk
had to do with how Linux changed the way that the Exchange deals with its
software and its suppliers. According to Vinod, we have all become used to
buying things that we don't understand, but open source changes that.
He described an episode where a proprietary Unix system was showing
unwanted latencies under certain workloads. With the Unix system, the only
recourse was to file a support request with the vendor, then wait until it
got escalated to a level where somebody might just be able to fix it.
With an enterprise Linux distribution, the support request is still made,
but the waiting time is no longer idle. Instead, they can be doing their
own investigation of the problem, looking for reports of similar issues on
the net or going directly into the source. Chances are good that the
problem can be nailed down before the vendor gets back with an answer.
A related issue is that of quality assurance and finding bugs. According
to Vinod, we are all routinely performing QA work for our vendors. The
difference with Linux is that any time spent chasing down problems benefits
the community as a whole; it also benefits CME when the fix comes back in
Linux, Vinod said, has become the "Wikipedia of operating systems"; it is a
store of knowledge on how systems should be built. Taking full advantage
of that knowledge requires building up a certain amount of in-house
expertise. But having that expertise greatly reduces the risk of
catastrophic problems; depending on outside vendors, instead, increases
that risk. The value of open source is that it allows us to move beyond
being consumers and know enough about our systems to take responsibility
for keeping them working.
Once upon a time, it seemed like it was simply not possible to run a
Linux-related conference without Jon 'Maddog' Hall in attendance.
Unfortunately, we don't see as much of Maddog as we used to; one reason for
that is that he has been busy working on schemes in Brazil. One of those
is Project Cauã. Maddog
cannot be faulted for lack of ambition: he hopes to use Linux in a plan to
create millions of system administration jobs, reduce energy use, and
increase self-sufficiency in Brazilian cities.
Maddog has long been critical of the One Laptop Per Child project which, he
says, is targeting children who are too young, too poor, and too far from
good network access. He sees a group which can benefit more from direct
help: children living in large cities in countries like Brazil. These kids
live in a dense environment where network access is possible. They also
live in an environment where many people and businesses have computers, but
they generally lack the expertise to keep those computers working
smoothly. The result is a lot of frustration and lost time.
The idea behind Project Cauã is to put those kids to work building a
better computing infrastructure and supporting its ongoing operation. In
essence, Maddog would like to create an array of small, independent
Internet service provider businesses, each serving one high-rise building.
The first step is training the people - older children - who will build and
run those businesses. They are to be trained in Linux system
administration skills, of course, but also in business management skills:
finding customers, borrowing money, etc. The training will mostly be
delivered electronically, over the net or, if necessary, via DVD.
These new businesspeople will then go out to deliver computing services to
their areas. There is a whole network architecture being designed to
support these services, starting with thin client systems to put into homes
or businesses. The idea behind these systems is that they have no moving
parts, so they are quiet and reliable. They can be left on all the time,
making them far more useful. Maddog is working with a São Paulo
university to design these thin clients, with the plan of releasing the
designs so that any of a number of local businesses can manufacture them.
Despite equipping these systems with some nonstandard features - a digital
TV tuner and a femtocell cellular modem, for example - Maddog thinks they
can be built for less than $100 each.
The project envisions that each building would have an incoming network
link from a wholesale ISP and at least one local server system. Three
sizes of servers are planned, with the smallest one being made of two thin
clients tied together. These servers will run a local wireless network and
will be tied into a city-wide mesh network as well. Applications will
generally run in virtual machines - on either the client or the server -
and will all use encrypted communications and storage.
Project Cauã trainees will be able to buy the equipment using loans
underwritten by the project itself; they then should be able to sell
network access and support services to the tenants of the buildings they
cover. If all goes according to plan, this business should generate enough
money to pay off the loans and provide a nice income. Unlike the OLPC
program which, according to Maddog, has a ten-year payoff time at best,
Project Cauã will be able to turn a Brazilian city kid into a
successful businessperson within two years.
A project like this requires some funding to get off the ground. It seems
that Brazil has a law requiring technical companies to direct 4% of their
revenue toward fast development projects. Project Cauã qualifies,
and, evidently, a number of (unnamed) companies have agreed to send at
least some of their donations in that direction. With funds obtained in
this way, Maddog is able to say that the project is being launched with no
government money at all.
This project is still in an early state; the computer designs and training
materials do not yet exist. Some people have expressed doubts as to
whether the whole thing is really feasible. But one cannot deny that it is
an interesting vision of the use of free software to make life better for
Brazilian city dwellers while creating many thousands of small
businesspeople who understand the technology and are able to manage it
locally. This is not "cloud computing," where resources are pulled back to
distant data centers. It is local computing, with the people who
understand and run it in the same building.
Linux is being pushed in a lot of different directions for a wide variety
of users. Beyond doubt, there will be people out there who want to deal
with Linux-based systems in a pure "consumer" mode. For them, Linux
differs little from any other operating system. Others, though, want to
dig more deeply into the system and understand it better so that they can
fix their own problems or run it in the way that suits them best - or
empower others to do the same. Linux, it seems, is well placed to serve
all of these different classes of users.
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