International authority in Linux...
week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Hoyt
Duff, a widely regarded international expert in the Linux operating
has a varied background including as a senior vice president for a
bank, college instructor, restaurateur, special education teacher,
playing cocktail piano on weekends, and tending to his family
business—the longest sport fishing pier on the East Coast.
also spends his time as a columnist and regular contributor for
Linux Format magazine. He has helped edit English versions of the
Mandrake 7.x and 8.x documentation, and he has helped edit the
early English content for the webzine,
Hoyt, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
nice to be on this side of the table, Stephen. I'm usually the one
asking the questions and here I'm not restricted to a single topic
by an editor, so it's nice change of pace.
have programmed in FORTRAN on the IBM 360/65, Pascal on the IBM PC,
and 6502 assembler on the Commodore VIC20. Please share both
humorous and lessons-learned stories from your noteworthy history.
programming experience is from a time when the dinosaurs still
roamed the Earth. I learned FORTRAN as an undergraduate student at
Cornell University as part of a hotel-related class. We used it to
generate reports and I quickly found out that FORTRAN was a poor
choice for printing business reports. I did find a few obscure
commands that caused the prof to ask me to re-code the applications
so he could understand them and give me a grade. I learned the value
of commenting code and I learned to enjoy debugging it. When I
transferred to Old Dominion University (in Norfolk, VA) to major in
business, I picked up a few extra dollars for lunch money helping
the computer science students debug their FORTRAN code.
I worked for purchased an IBM PC (one of the first units with a
cassette data port on the back) and installed some interesting apps
on it. The expensive goal-seeking spreadsheet (this was back when
Visi-Calc would not do such a thing) required that the instructions
for the spreadsheets be written in Pascal and then compiled. Yecch.
The entire point of the spreadsheet was to maximize the bonuses for
the President and Chairman. Again, the most valuable lesson learned
was documentation, but I also learned about being the computer geek
in the compute-illiterate world; it was as horrid an experience as
Dilbert ever had.
VIC20 was fun. I performed hardware hacks on it like adding 4MB of
memory on board to get a whopping 8MB total and integrating a
slow-can TV decoder board. I began programming for it in the
tokenized BASIC it used, but fell into writing assembler subroutines
because they were faster. I hacked game cartridges to change the
game play. I also dabbled a little with a FORTH compiler on the VIC
20 as well, but I never could find anything useful to do with it. I
never got a disk drive for the little beast, but I did have a 300
times and computer languages progressed, I never kept up. I don't
consider myself a programmer and I didn't need programming skills
for my work. From my Linux experience, I can read source code and
follow the program logic, but I have no desire to learn any kind of
programming unless I'm forced to with a gun at my head.
discovered Linux from an article in Boot magazine and wrote your
first article for MaximumLinux magazine. What intrigued you about
Linux from those early times?
had explored MS Windows as far as it would allow and then some, but
I was intrigued with the unlimited potential for tweaking everything
about the Linux OS. The fact that the source code was open and
available for experimentation was fascinating, and all the
development tools came with it. I explored several alternative
operating systems at the time and was most intrigued by BeOS and was
sorry to see it go.
you share with us your take on the history of Linux?
story itself is well-known. I believe that the philosophy of GNU and
the way it has been used by Linux will have far-reaching effects on
the future. It is re-defining the ways in which we go about doing
things. One of my favorite authors is journalist James Burke who
succeeded in making history become exciting and relevant for me. His
TV series and book “The Day the Universe Changed” would most
certainly include a chapter about this phenomenon were the stories
being written today.
and GNU are all about thinking about things differently. One of the
hallmarks of intelligence is the ability to think about things in
new and different ways. Linux certainly embraces that; perhaps
that's why it has such great appeal.
lessons, experiences, and stories can you share about your work with
most profound affect my work with Linux has had is my introduction
into the worldwide Linux community. Americans are rightly criticized
for being parochial and I have enjoyed being exposed to other
cultures, specifically their way of thinking about things. As well,
when there exists a community coalesced around a singular task that
transcends cultural boundaries, it is easier to get to know people
as individuals rather than by geographic or ethnic labels.
about Linux has helped me learn more about it. Although there are
many areas about which I don't care to become enlightened (DNS,
Apache, and programming to name a few) that leaves about ten million
other related things I may explore. It seems that there are always
new things to experience, new ideas to visit and new people to meet.
are your most important “best practices,” tips, and shortcuts
regarding installing, configuring and working with Linux?
words: Document. Document. Document. Backup.
mention document? You should always record what you do and what you
know. The body of Linux knowledge is too vast to be easily
remembered by anyone. As well, the current state of Linux
documentation is abysmal (though improving). The man[ual] pages are
woefully inadequate, for example, and filling them with some
examples would make them better. It's good to see the Linux
Documentation Project encourage and support better docs, but we must
all do a better job.
Programmers in particular need to document their code in a more
useful manner. I say that because programmers are notoriously poor
documenters and good writers are usually not very good coders. With
less cryptic comments in the source, I could better figure out what
the programmer wants the world to know. Again, I would be happier if
they just included a few examples in the manual pages.
extant poor documentation is what got me started writing about
Linux: I needed to understand what I was doing. There were disparate
bodies of knowledge out there, some outdated, some plain wrong. That
stuff still exists on the Internet and any web search will turn up a
load of info-drek with every query.
up your information is important as well. Smart people learn to do
that after their first mistake no matter what their attitudes may
have been. Experience can be a cruel teacher.
are the major components in the Linux environment, what are their
roles and how do you see the roles expanding into the future?
only true component of the Linux environment is the kernel. I like
what I see in the new 2.6 kernel and I'm glad there is a healthy and
dynamic development community out there. I am concerned to see
Digital Rights Management become embedded into the hardware because
that means the kernel must deal with it. In a proprietary world, I
believe that means trouble for Linux.
developments in the desktop have been impressive, but it's
discouraging to see such an emphasis on eye-candy at the expense of
compact, bug-free code. Desktops for Linux systems also seem to
follow the lead of MS Windows and Mac OS, especially when it comes
to flashy and dazzling behavior. I saw a preview of the next Windows
desktop the other day and I wonder how long it will take for all
those “features” to find their way into Linux? Perhaps we could lead
the way in productivity instead?
do you see as the strengths and weaknesses in Linux? What are the
major challenges to working with Linux?
strengths of high reconfigurability and the UNIX heritage are also
the big weaknesses. Linux is still too difficult to configure and
manage for the average MS Windows or Mac user even though they would
have no trouble using a Linux desktop.
is still also a work in progress. How can you get comfortable using
a moving target, especially when the “next version” fixes so many
annoying bugs and provides functionality that other operating
systems have had for a while? If you take the version number of any
Linux application and divide it by ten, you'll get a better idea of
where it really is in development.
its UNIX heritage, Linux gets a big heap of dense jargon that
totally confuses the newcomer. Archaic UNIX customs permeate the
operation of the OS as well. While these words and traditions help
define our community, they also are an incredibly huge hurdle
keeping people away making that perhaps the biggest challenge.
Which “version” of Linux do you feel offers the best opportunities
for businesses and how would you support your views?
installed, there is no significant difference between the different
flavors of Linux except their homegrown management tool and
application packaging methods. One seems as good as another in
actually getting work done, which should be the main criteria for
any business. Therefore, the “best” “version” is the one offered by
a vendor that will provide the support and applications that the
are your views about the Open Source Movement, where is it today; how
will it evolve in two, five, and ten years? What do you see as the
major counterparts to the widely used desktop environment and
applications? Where do you see them situated today and describe how
they will evolve in the future?
its very nature, the Open Source movement is open to constant
re-invention. History has taught us that things that don't adapt
will ultimately perish; I see a successful future for whatever the
movement will become.
you foresee a “killer app” coming out of the Linux environment? How
about making some predictions on what technologies will survive in
the long term?
looked at some articles I wrote a few years ago about what the
killer apps of the day might be or needed to be. I was wrong then
(they came and nothing monumental occurred) and I'll probably be
wrong now: I don't see a “killer app” at all; that's an over-hyped
media term akin to the “Holy Grail”. The only app missing is a
drop-in replacement for MS Exchange Server. That's just re-inventing
the wheel, not advancing the art. The SCO lawsuit (and I predict
their eventual loss) will do more to advance Linux than any “killer
app” as it makes more people aware of what Linux really is.
Describe your current book and share some tips from the book?
Hat Linux 10 Unleashed will cover the next release of Red Hat, now
in beta testing. The distro itself looks pretty much like Red Hat 9
with bug fixes, but they are making changes to accommodate the 2.6
kernel which, I assume will make its formal appearance in Red Hat 11
in the spring. An updated 2.6 kernel for Red Hat 10 will likely be
available prior to then. It also looks as if they will be including
YUM, a package management application similar to Debian's popular
implementation of Red Hat's “Red Hat Linux Project” will profoundly
affect the book since many useful features (like multimedia) are
being removed form the stock Red Hat distro to accommodate Red Hat's
corporate plans. I and lead author Bill Ball plan on covering these
areas in more detail so our readers can truly “unleash” Red Hat for
their own use.
the most useful tips in the book is to ALWAYS create a backup of any
configuration file before you modify it. This is a recurring
“gotcha” to many people, new and experienced alike.
books are you planning for the future?
friend and former police homicide detective with an Army
Intelligence background wants to collaborate on a fact-based
fictional anthology of detective stories. That will be fun. I'm also
compiling a cookbook to celebrate the upcoming 50th
anniversary of my family business, Lynnhaven Fishing Pier in
Virginia Beach, Virginia. The cookbook will include anecdotes,
remembrances, pictures and recipes form the last half-century of
Linux books, I have no plans for any others since the Unleashed book
takes so much time with revisions and updates. For myself, I prefer
to write magazine articles. If I could come up with a good concept
for a business-focused Linux book, I might be pursuing that,
your share your views on the major competing technologies today, the
nature of these technologies, similarities and differences, their
strengths and weaknesses, market penetration, and where you see them
in the two year and five year time frame?
While I am as geeky as the next guy and adore new gadgets and new
technology, I am more pragmatic in my use of them. Remember that
kitchen and household appliances were considered liberating
technologies when new, but women in particular haven't seen too much
liberation as a result. Likewise with new information technologies:
what about the paperless office we were promised? I need new things
to do useful work for me and to liberate me by allowing me to do
things in different but useful ways. Most new gadgets don’t do that,
but keep those toys coming anyway.
Q: What do you see on the horizon that
businesses and IT professionals “must” be aware of to be
same thing they have always needed to be aware of: know your
business, know your customer, and keep an open mind. Don't abandon
what works for a new fad, but don't fail to learn about what is new
political and legal aspects of IT are rising on the radar thanks to
Microsoft anti-trust experiences and SCO’s lawsuits. The best tool
any professional has is information, so they should keep abreast of
the industry and learn enough to sort through the marketing and
legal hucksterism and discover the truth. The free and open
discussion of IT issues makes that happen.
Q: What do you feel are
the five hottest topics of interest to both businesses and IT
professionals today and what will be the topics in two years and in
cost, stability, support, continuity, and utility of the IT
infrastructure and the information itself have been important and
will continue to be important. The challenge, of course, is how each
business defines those things for itself. I believe that Linux
offers more to help deliver on the needs of business than other
operating systems. The culture of Linux provides a free and open
discussion of IT and a better opportunity for business to learn just
what these things mean to them.
Q: What would be your
recommended top references for IT professionals?
best references they have are the IT people who work for them.
Listen to them. Keeping up with IT in general by reading trade
publications or perusing IT-focused web sites is actually a valuable
use of time if those sources are succinct and current.
Q: What are the top ten
challenges facing businesses and IT departments in the next five
years and what are your recommendations to meet/overcome these
entire field is one of challenges. The biggest is using IT to meet
the organizational goals. Pointy-haired bosses are a bane to
effective IT management, so subtle education is a must in order to
maintain your “place at the table”. Keeping up with technology
allows the IT manager to make intelligent choices and effective
plans. As IT becomes more important to an organization, IT managers
must have good management skills, good interpersonal skills, and
good corporate political skills.
make a pitch for writers as well. Besides the obvious benefit that
you will learn more as you develop the knowledge to write about a
subject, being a published writer in the technology field is a
relatively easy task to accomplish (as opposed to successfully
writing a New York Times' bestseller). Practiced and enhanced
communication skills are always a plus. Writing provides the added
benefit of helping the community and it's good for your resume.
Q: If you were doing this
interview, what five questions would you ask of someone in your
position and what would be your answers?
A: Only one question: What's the biggest problem
to the wider adoption of Linux?
A comedian said that he was a vegetarian not
because he loved animals, but because he hated vegetables. I see too
many people using Linux not because they love it, but because they
hate Microsoft. These same people also glom on to some other aspect
of the OS (editors, desktops, widget sets) and treat it like a
religious matter based not on what they like about their choice, but
what they hate about the alternatives. They also denigrate those who
make different choices. This negativeness does nothing to foment the
wider adoption of Linux, but has quite the opposite effect.
It poisons the well for us all and makes decision-makers hesitant to
consider Linux. These bigots need to grow up, but I suspect they
never will. Solve that problem and Linux will spread.
Hoyt, thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences with our
Thanks for the opportunity for some introspection and rambling. Now,
back to work.