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Developers using open-source software behind bosses' backs
(IDG) -- This is a story about programmers and systems administrators who, by and large, don't want to speak on the record because they're afraid of being fired. They're smugglers who sneak unapproved operating systems into corporate offices without telling upper management. These activities aren't in the same league as gunrunning or drug trafficking, but that doesn't mean you can't get fired for doing them.
In many cases, the unapproved operating systems are the so-called open-source systems, which come with all of the source code, so that a programmer can rewrite them as much as he wants. These versions, with names like Debian GNU/Linux, FreeBSD or Red Hat Linux, are produced by loosely knit groups of programmers who contribute their code into a vast commonwealth of software that can be freely shared. The members contribute what they can and have the freedom to improve the code.
At first glance, many information technology managers from traditional backgrounds recoil in horror at the thought of open-source operating systems. The freewheeling exchange of source code seems like a recipe for total chaos, and every IT manager knows that preventing chaos is the most important part of the job. No one ever got fired for buying from Microsoft Corp., IBM or Sun Microsystems Inc.
Some programmers, however, love the open-source systems. They come with all the source code, which often means less cursing at a black box. Talented programmers with a good knowledge of open-source systems can often finish jobs much faster.
Consider an engineer I'll call "Bob." He's an open-source smuggler. His boss wanted first and foremost to keep the networks running and the file servers serving. His boss believed that the best way to accomplish this was to pay one company to provide order. You get what you pay for, he assumed, and one way to get a lot is to pay a lot.
Bob's problem was simple. One of the company's newly acquired branch offices ran Windows NT and some custom software that was hard-wired to work with the old network. The new bosses insisted that Bob integrate the existing network with the new, incompatible network that had its offices in another state. Bob considered doing the job the official way. He calculated the hours, weighed the amount of red tape required to reinstall, figured out the travel time and then considered whether it was even possible to rewrite the software. The potential bill skyrocketed.
Then he had an idea. He grabbed an obsolete 50-MHz 486-based PC and installed FreeBSD on it. This Linux cousin is well-known and loved in the networking community because it's a descendant of the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) versions of Unix that formed the original backbone of the Internet. In fact, most Internet software was originally conceived of on machines running BSD, so it's often the most compatible operating system for Internet applications. A few days later, the old, previously discarded computer was up and running, translating the data from one system to the other and gluing the two networks together.
"It took about four days because I'm so slow at FreeBSD," Bob says, "but I could now redo the entire thing if I had to in just one afternoon."
Politically correct PCs
Bob's story is a happy one. The low cost pleased his boss, and no one looked too closely at the guts of his "NT-compatible" router. The boss apparently preferred to concentrate on the price tag.
Unfortunately, many programmers are in situations like Bob's. IT departments face endless problems just keeping their data synchronized and their computers working smoothly. Everyone knows that strong rules like "Always buy Microsoft" often make life a bit simpler. But everyone also knows that it sometimes just makes good sense to break the rules.
The world of operating systems may seem like a placid environment where all the blood was shed years ago when Microsoft achieved its final dominance. That's what many managers want their IT staffs to believe: Microsoft on all machines means harmony everywhere.
But sometimes the right tool isn't made by Microsoft, IBM or whoever the dominant player happens to be. Increasingly, engineers are turning to open-source operating systems because having the source code lets them customize their work and solve the hard problems.
Another anonymous programmer reports that he got involved in a duel with a rival branch in his company that protested when it found out he was using the security-conscious OpenBSD operating system to process credit-card transactions.
"(The leader of that branch) wasn't happy and was determined to defeat us, so he decided to start a separate e-commerce organization that we would have no input into which would (have been) based entirely around Windows NT 4.0," he says. "That was in September. (Their system) still doesn't work. But the BSD kit on the other side of the company has been handling credit-card transactions securely since October."
The right tool for the job
There are plenty of other success stories out there on the Net. Many of the contributors to open-source systems say the tools are more flexible and easier to adapt to complicated tasks. This feature is especially valuable when the engineers are called upon to produce new applications or offer new services over the Internet. When the machines start working successfully, the smart manager doesn't inquire too often or too closely about the operating system vendor.
The success stories can be found in some strange places. The TiVo television recorder is a kind of digital VCR that stores MPEG-encoded versions of television programs on its hard disk. The system comes with a number of new features, such as an "instant replay" that quickly jumps back seven seconds.
Underneath the user interface is the Linux operating system. TiVo Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., customized the operating system to speed up the real-time tasks it needed and started shipping Linux deeply embedded in the box. The TiVo user is none the wiser, because all the Linux calls are hidden from view.
The programmers involved usually cite two reasons for their success. First, the source code makes it easier for them to tweak, revise or extend the operating system. While companies like Microsoft or Sun make it possible to extend their operating systems, they often keep some of the information secret to maintain their leverage.
And because the Internet was originally built on machines running BSD, the basic protocols were specified, prototyped and finalized in that environment. Therefore, it's just easier to create new Internet applications using the original article.
That compatibility is one reason why Apple Computer Inc. is rewriting its Mac OS operating system to incorporate much of the code from the open-source community's FreeBSD and NetBSD. The core, which the company calls Darwin, is also being shared with the world in the hope of making it easier for Macintosh customers to work with the systems. Still, Apple hasn't opened up all the forthcoming Mac OS X code. The slick user interface and many of the time-saving features that attract new users are being kept proprietary.
IT professionals working with Mac OS X report mixed experiences. Those who use only the open-source parts of Darwin say they enjoy the new opportunities. But those who need access to the part that's still proprietary grouse about the restrictions.
One anonymous programmer says his boss heard his pleas for an open-source operating system and suggested Mac OS X. Because it's both open-source and a product from a big company, it has the aura of respectability and openness, he says. But in his case, the openness didn't help, and he ended up switching to FreeBSD.
Many open-source operating systems make it simple to strip away all but their most necessary parts. This flexibility makes it possible to run on less-expensive hardware and also get the maximum performance out of high-end hardware. The extra layers of gloss that make systems like Windows NT easier to understand can also make them less efficient, because they prevent a systems administrator from stripping away unnecessary functions.
"I reckon a PIII-450 properly configured with about 512MB of RAM will give me around a 400% to 500% performance increase over the incredibly expensive Sun hardware at around a tenth of the cost," says an engineer who supports open-source systems.
Coping with configuration
While many programmers are quite positive about open-source solutions, some are more circumspect. Rob Newberry, a programmer at Group Logic Inc. in Arlington, Va., has been an avid fan of Linux. Some of his networking code has, in fact, been made part of the standard Linux kernel.
Still, he says that his company is thinking seriously about converting its mail server back from Linux to Windows NT. Group Logic has documented several cases where the sendmail program running on the Linux server lost an e-mail message. While it's had few other problems with Linux, he says the software is still difficult for much of the staff to manage; Windows NT is just easier for most of them to use and reconfigure. According to Newberry, saving the cost of a Windows NT license just isn't worth it.
"Even though there are some of us here who respect Linux and work on Linux, we are rapidly trying to phase it out. It just kind of becomes a maintenance headache," he says. "We have lots of engineers here. There (are) only a few of us who know the Linux tricks." The folks who know Linux have better things to do than maintain the mail system, he notes.
This effect is leading some companies to roll the operating system into their product and sell the two as a pair. Network Flight Recorder Inc. in Rockville, Md., creates software that turns a PC into a spy that watches a network for suspicious activity. Abnormal data-flow patterns that might sneak by firewalls will set off alarm bells when this device spots them.
Naturally, the creators of the product want this system to be as secure as possible, so they turned to OpenBSD, a cousin of FreeBSD designed to eliminate security holes. They stripped out extra parts of the system and built a special version of the kernel that handles only their workload. They bundled all of this on a single, bootable CD-ROM that takes over the PC.
Marcus Ranum, Network Flight Recorder's CEO, explains that the CD-ROM also simplifies the technical support. The user can't change anything on the machine, so nothing can inadvertently be screwed up.
"The CD-ROM has a bootstrap loader and a kernel and our own set of applications inside. There are no user services inside," he says. "There's nothing on this sucker except the one application. It takes about 12 minutes to install our product, and that's the time to boot up and autodetect."
Ranum says hiding the operating system from everyone, including the professionals who know how to maintain one, is a smart solution. Every system takes time to learn, and his company wants to make its Network Flight Recorder product simple to use.
Ranum says, "The Unix heads hate NT, and the NT heads hate Unix, so our answer is that it's like a toaster: There are no user-serviceable parts inside."
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