Home · Articles · News · News Stories · THE REBEL ALLIANCE
January 28th, 2004 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

THE REBEL ALLIANCE

An unlikely army of hacker hippies, geek visionaries, idealistic teachers and corporate giants is making Portland ground zero of a digital revolution.

     
Tags:
Tux the Penguin is a fat little thing. He's google-eyed and sports a grin that suggests a recent lobotomy.

Weird symbol for a revolution. Yet Tux is the mascot of a movement that's rocking the computer world.

One of the strongholds of that rebellion is in a ho-hum Beaverton office park, home of the Open Source Development Lab. The Lab is the self-proclaimed "center of gravity" for the global phenomenon Tux symbolizes. The mission is evangelical. The cause is Linux.

Linux is a computer operating system invented in Finland in 1991 by a college kid named Linus Torvalds. Torvalds, now a 34-year-old tech superstar whom some see as the love child of Thomas Edison and Che Guevara, works for the Beaverton Lab, backed by a roll-call of tech titans: Intel, IBM, Hitachi, Dell, Cisco. Last month, Torvalds unveiled the latest version of Linux. Nicknamed "the Beaver," it's viewed as a huge improvement to a system already beloved by geeks.

Why is Linux revolutionary? No one owns it. Anyone can download its essential code, use it and change it. (That makes Linux "open source" software--and if such terms make you nervous, see the primer on page 21.)

And who's threatened? Well, lots of people. Most particularly, Microsoft, the tightly controlled Seattle empire with more than $10 billion in quarterly revenues riding on software that competes with Linux. Linux has been branded the anti-Microsoft, the scruffy rebel army charging billionaire Bill Gates' imperial legions.

"It's an MTV-style Death Match," says David Chen, an analyst for the local investment firm Oregon Venture Partners. "Between Portland and Seattle, you potentially have the centers of the two most important operating systems in the world."

For some, the rivalry is about more than software.

"This thing," says one Portland observer, "is like Protestants and Catholics debating theology."

Others have a more flippant take.

"Linux wasn't started as any kind of rebellion against the 'evil Microsoft empire,'" Torvalds told The New York Times last year. "I'm not out to destroy Microsoft. That will just be a completely unintentional side effect."

Any way you look at it, the stakes are high.

In Portland computer circles, you can't swing a mouse without hitting a partisan of Linux (pronounced "LINN-ix"). Walk into the little closet that houses Riverdale High School's computer servers, look up, and you see a gigantic flightless waterbird looming above you. For Paul Nelson, the Southwest Portland school's affable geek-in-chief, it's all about the penguin.

Nelson uses open-source software to run all 110 Riverdale student terminals. The terminals themselves are bare-bones: just monitors, black $5 keyboards and nearly empty black boxes Nelson scrounged on eBay for $86 apiece, stripped of everything but video cards and the gizmo that connects them to four central servers. The terminals have no hard drives, no memory of their own. The servers (code-named Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica) provide all the software--free word processing, spreadsheet, email and web-browsing programs.

Nelson figures that the Linux system saved Riverdale about $50,000 in set-up costs alone. And instead of shelling out for tech support when a problem crops up, Nelson emails educators around the world, with answers arriving minutes later from Norway, North Portland or elsewhere.

Most important to Nelson, the centralized system allows him to teach, rather than wrestle malfunctioning machines.

"I used to spend three-quarters of my time fixing computers, and one-quarter teaching," he says. "Now it's the opposite."

Portland Public Schools technology chief Scott Robinson says his district has outfitted 17 middle schools and three high schools with labs similar to the one at Riverdale, using Linux to power more than 600 terminals. He claims setting up a Linux lab costs the state's largest district just over half the tab for a Microsoft Windows lab--$21,000 per school, instead of $40,000.

In 1996, Nelson and Eric Harrison, who works for Multnomah County's Education Service District, founded the K-12 Linux Project, aiming to spread this low-cost computing gospel. Any school in the world can grab the Project's custom-tweaked version of Linux off Harrison's computer for free. So far, the software has been downloaded more than 150,000 times. Schools across the United States use it, as do teachers in places like Pakkret, Thailand, and Bydgoszcz, Poland.

"It's a question of ethical choices," says Riverdale's Nelson. "In a school, it's public money. How should it be spent? Is it ethical to buy software instead of hiring an art teacher? Me, I want an art teacher--not the Microsoft help assistant dancing on every student's desktop.

"Our motto is, 'It's free. It works. Duh.'"

You can find equally strong feelings in the private sector. Linux powers the website of the ubiquitous Portland tavern chain McMenamins. McM's webmaster, John Sokol, admits that his own antipathy to Microsoft helped drive him into the penguin's flippers, but he says Linux has much else to recommend it.

"It's as secure as you can get, it's always changing and improving, and you don't have to pay for updates," Sokol says. "We can get away from giving money to Microsoft every year."

On a slightly grander scale, Amazon.com switched much of its massive internal network to Linux in 2000. By the third quarter of 2001, the company reported saving $17 million, slashing nearly a quarter of its tech expenses.

"Why spend billions," said one Amazon tech guru at the time, "when you can spend millions?"

Riverdale High, Amazon and McMenamins are kids under Tux the Penguin's Christmas tree. The Open Source Development Lab might be Santa's workshop. Outwardly, it's a drab environment, the domain of about three dozen techies who dress like they scored bulk discounts on nondescript sweaters, white socks and functional shoes. But since it was founded in 2000, the Lab has become the best-known testing ground for cutting-edge Linux code and the machines it runs on.

Any programmer in the world--provided his or her project is judged worthy--can beam code into the Lab, where scores of computers stand racked in row after row of 8-foot-tall metal cabinets. Under the watchful eye of a single upside-down rubber chicken--"The Sacred Rubber Chicken," says engineer Cliff White, "makes sure everything works"--the Lab tests the code on next-generation machines provided by Intel, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, all members of the Lab consortium.

If it seems odd that corporate monoliths want to work together, welcome to Linuxland. Some companies behind the Lab, like North Carolina's Red Hat, make money by charging for specialized versions of Linux, and for expertise. Others, like Intel, build the hardware the computer universe runs on and want their machines to run Linux to perfection. Linux is used in everything from cell phones to refrigerators, in addition to PCs and large corporate mainframes. That means a lot of people have a stake in its development--and in a degree of standardization.

"It's like, automobile manufacturers decided long ago all cars would have steering wheels," says White. "We're Switzerland--neutral territory where they can all come together and discuss ideas."

This approach is in keeping with the ethos of Linux, and the remarkable Internet-connected cabal of programmers that's fostered the system since Torvalds released its embryo 13 years ago. It's a full-fledged subculture, with its own media (the frenetic Slashdot.org, among other sites), obscure sectarian beefs, even its own online dating service. Linuxland welcomes all comers, but be warned--you're only as good as the code you write, and how well you work with others.

"It's all about what a friend of mine calls 'the mark of cred,'" says Accardi, a Portland State grad who works as a Linux developer at Intel. "You either have it, or you don't."

At the center of it all sits Torvalds, the "benevolent dictator" of the Linux world. Though he has very little legal control over the operating system's evolution, Torvalds is so respected that his stamp of approval determines whether or not a piece of code gets into Linux. Though Torvalds still works out of his Silicon Valley home (he didn't answer emailed questions for this article) he sometimes treks to Portland.

Linux has made Torvalds famous--at least for a computer programmer. Books have been written, movies made. When his placid Nordic countenance appeared on the cover of Wired, a reader wrote to thank the magazine for giving him a pin-up for his bedroom wall. At the Lab, though, Torvalds is just the first geek among equals.

The Lab's engineers can and will happily grind a layman's mind to paste with technical detail. But that doesn't mean they don't also look at the big picture. White, a friendly guy with an ambling gait and a close-cropped fringe of graying hair, doesn't count himself as one of the open-source world's political zealots. "That's kind of the great divide in the community," he says. But he does acknowledge that there's more at work here than ones and zeroes.

"It's more in the back of my mind," he says. "I'm pretty pragmatic, day to day. The idealism comes more late at night, when I look in the mirror. It's nice to work for a group that's doing positive things, and doing them for the world in general."

The hard-headed engineers at OSDL have to dig deep--beneath the argyle and tech-talk--to tap the vein of idealism running through the Linux world. That is emphatically not the case across town, at the anarchic Southeast Portland headquarters of FreeGeek. The nonprofit's ponytailed and tie-dye-clad ringleaders see the open-source system not just as a kinda cool way to run computers, but as a weapon of liberation.

"We're social revolutionaries," says Ron Braithwaite, a white-maned, fiery-eyed former Vietnam combat photographer and tech-industry veteran. "For me, this was a chance to get off the spinning wheel in the cage and do some good."

FreeGeek's front windows are decorated with a tableau of Linux penguins--Tux and his comrades?--frolicking in the snow. Inside the sprawling warehouse, piles of equipment lie helter-skelter on crumbling linoleum floors: dirty gray PC boxes, rag-bag lumps of wires and circuit boards, mausoleums of keyboards and monitors.

FreeGeek takes in unwanted old computers, salvages some and recycles the rest. The collective loads the retreads with Linux and free applications, then gives them away in exchange for volunteer labor. The idea is to chip away at the digital divide, the Information Age caste system separating those who can afford good equipment and those who can't. FreeGeek estimates it's given away about 2,500 machines since it started in 2000. The FreeGeeks say Linux works for them because it's free, because they can customize it and the programs that run on it, and because it runs systems in a lean, economical way, working well with clunky old machines most would consider obsolete.

"At OSDL, you'll see the best equipment there is," says Oso Martín, the bearded 39-year-old who founded FreeGeek. "We're at the other end, working with the dregs. But Linux is what makes it possible."

Of course, any system so exciting to self-styled revolutionaries (not to mention Fortune 500 companies) is bound to scare the hell out of someone. Just look north.

Think of battle scenes from Braveheart. Picture the Montagues and the Capulets, the Yankees and Red Sox, snakes and mongooses. The way some people look at it, that's Microsoft and Linux.

It's worth noting that most open-source insiders seem to think the whole Linux vs. Microsoft thing--which the tech press follows the way the rest of the media tracks Jacko gossip--is a bit overplayed.

"I don't see people totally turning away from Microsoft, unless they're real open-source zealots," says White.

Microsoft likewise downplays the conflict; a spokesman told WW that the company views open-source programs like Linux and proprietary goods like Windows as parts of the same "ecosystem."

And yet Microsoft obviously finds Linux...disturbing. Just last June, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer raised the alarm in a memo leaked to the press. "Linux...presents a competitive challenge for us and our entire industry," he wrote. He seemed especially perturbed by IBM's full-throttle promotion of Linux. Big Blue has barraged TV with commercials touting the system. The ads star a little blond kid as the personification of Linux and affect a beatific, Zen-like calm. Featuring cameos by the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and Muhammad Ali, the spots end with slogans such as "Linux Is Everywhere" and "The Future Is Open."

That gets Ballmer right where he lives.

"IBM's endorsement of Linux has added credibility and an illusion of support and accountability," Ballmer wrote.

But despite dramatic strides by Linux, experts will still tell you to buy Microsoft stock as fast as you can. Portland's Pacific Crest Securities recently concluded that even in a worst-case scenario (from Microsoft's point of view), right now mass migration to Linux could only reduce Microsoft's earnings per share by a penny or two. The Seattle company still makes the software most computer users need to get through their days.

So why is Microsoft so freaked out?

Perhaps it's because this time--unlike when Gates' crew whacked Netscape, for instance--the enemy isn't a company. It's a worldview. And Microsoft isn't the only one hearing the penguin's waddling footsteps. There are proprietary operating systems besides Windows, and they're worth big bucks to their owners, who are also threatened by Linux.

The most recent cause célèbre in the open-source world revolves around a Utah company called SCO, which controls another proprietary operating system. SCO is suing IBM, claiming IBM copied code SCO owns into Linux. The Utahans are also threatening to sue Linux users, unless they pony up licensing fees--basically, to do to Linux what the recording industry is doing to Kazaa. (Recent rumbles suggest Google.com, which uses thousands of Linux-driven servers, might be next on SCO's hitlist.)

While many dismiss the suit out of hand--"It's a nuisance lawsuit on every level," says FreeGeek's Martín--OSDL isn't taking it lying down. The Lab itself has been subpoenaed, as has Torvalds. This month, the Lab launched a legal defense fund, immediately acclaimed as "an ACLU for Linux users." Kicking off with $3 million in donations from Intel and IBM, it's a shot across SCO's bow.

"Someone needed to stand up and say to users, 'If you get hassled, we will stand with you,'" says OSDL spokesman Nelson Pratt.

One question, to get parochial about it, is what the Lab and its mission might mean for Portland. No one claims to know. But the hints are tantalizing.

To hear some tell it, Portland is already an open-source hotbed.

"It's strange," says Bart Massey, a Portland State computer-science professor. "You can look around, and in every significant open-source field, someone in Portland is a leader."

"The very nature of Linux is that it's uncentered," says OSDL's Pratt. "But I can say that there is probably no richer concentration of Linux development talent anywhere. And there's a good possibility--which is not to say that it's guaranteed--that you could see the same kind of spinoff businesses that you saw with hardware in the '80s and '90s. It's really too soon to tell."

Portland's open-source rep is already attracting jobs. PolyServe, a company selling software that runs on Linux, moved its 60-person headquarters from California to Beaverton in early 2003 because key programmers it worked with were already here. Other local firms who are here in part because of what analyst Chen calls "a very rich Linux intelligentsia" include UXComm, a telecommunications company that moved here from California last summer, and Immunix, a firm that sells security programs for Linux systems.

"Portland has an extremely high talent level," says PolyServe's Steve Norall. "The cost of doing business is low compared to Silicon Valley or Seattle. So you have the advantage of a great pool to hire from, and in the West Coast time zone, you're close to the other tech meccas."

Maybe the most interesting subtext to Portland's emerging Linux saga is this: Some believe there's an X-factor in the city's cultural DNA which resonates with a system whose very lifeblood is openness.

"Why Portland?" Bart Massey asks. Then he answers. "Open-source people are usually into open-everything. Open software, open government, open community," says Massey. "People in Portland have traditionally been very opposed to the idea that stuff should be secret. It puts you in a good place to succeed in a realm where everything is open."

Timothy Witham of OSDL puts it another way: "The way open source works and the way Portland thinks just seem to go together."

THE SECRET DECODER RING

Some tech talk, explained.

Do you suffer an anxiety attack just looking at this article? Maybe defining a few terms will help.

Every computer needs an operating system--this is the program that tells the hardware how to schedule and execute functions. Operating systems determine whether and how well other programs run on a machine. The raw lines of programming that make up an operating system are its source code.

When Linus Torvalds created Linux in 1991, he determined that anyone should be able to download it for free, custom-alter its source code and distribute it. That makes Linux open-source software, as opposed to paid-for proprietary software like Microsoft Windows. (Other proprietary systems include Unix and Apple's Macintosh OS X.)

Even though anyone can download and set up Linux if they want, it takes some technical acumen to get the system running. That's why companies like Red Hat can make money by selling prepackaged, specialized versions of Linux called distributions.

Operating systems are protean things--Linux itself currently consists of more than 10 million lines of code, growing all the time. The heart of Linux is the kernel, the operating system's root, on which everything else depends. Linus Torvalds is directly in charge of deciding what gets into the kernel, and it's something of a holy grail for code hounds.

"Imagine geek nirvana," says programmer Kristen Accardi. "Geek nirvana is writing code that ends up in the Linux kernel."


Linux creator Linus Torvalds chose a penguin as Linux's logo after an arctic bird nipped him at a zoo. The Tux cartoon is not copyrighted--anyone can use it for free. The version of Tux at the beginning of this article was designed by Larry Ewing, using the open-source graphic design program GIMP.

For accounts of Linux's creation and evolution, see Rebel Code: Linux and the Open Source Revolution, by Glyn Moody (Perseus, 2001) and Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond (HarperCollins, 2001).

Linux is governed by the General Public License, devised by American programmer Richard Stallman. The GPL is sometimes called a "copyleft."

The K-12 Linux Project: www.k12ltsp.org .

The Open Source Development Lab: www.osdl.org .

For more insight into the Linux subculture, see the Portland Linux/Unix Group's website, www.pdxlinux.org .

FreeGeek: www.freegeek.org .

The open-source creative process is used for more than software. There's an open-source encyclopedia (en.wikipedia.org). Portland State's student rocketry club uses open-source technical info to build rockets. There are open-source textbook and technical-manual projects.

Open-source software is an inspiration for a nascent movement to reform copyright laws, the subject of an article by Robert S. Boynton in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

IBM's Linux commercials can be viewed at www-3.ibm.com/e-business/doc/content/lp/prodigy.html .

 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
 
 
 

 

comments powered by Disqus
 

Web Design for magazines

Close
Close
Close