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The Linux kernel and the second version of the GNU General Public License (GPLv2) turned 30 this year. As part of that major milestone we asked Red Hatters who have been using or contributing to Linux since the early days about their experiences. What was it like contributing to Linux, what was it like using it? Could you imagine that Linux would have the impact it's had on the world up until now?
Today we’re talking to Richard Jones who has been using Linux since the early 1990s, joining Red Hat in 2007. Richard is now a Senior Principal Software Engineer in Red Hat’s R&D Platform team.
Q: What was your first encounter with Linux? When did you start contributing to the project?
A: I think everyone remembers their first kernel version. Mine was 0.99pl12, shortly followed by 0.99pl14. I think the distro was probably Slackware, although there was a lot of innovation in the space at that time.
I do recollect that it came on a huge number of floppy disks, something like 30 3.5" disks if you wanted a full-featured distribution. It took a day just to download and copy to floppies, but at the time (1992/1993) I was working for a government research place that had access to this amazing new thing called the internet. (The web wouldn’t really turn up for a few more years.)
I worked on kernel changes at the first start-up I worked for, which was doing stuff in the Network Quality of Service space. It was mainly around fixing the ATM (network) device drivers and trying to get support for flow control upstream. I was never very successful at this and didn’t start contributing to Linux in a serious way until I started at Red Hat.
Q: You mentioned that you contributed to Minix as well -- which came first for you, and why did you settle on Linux?
A: I bought Minix. With money! It was $150 and in those days that involved going to the Post Office to get an international money order and sending that by mail to a distributor in the United States. When - many weeks later - I received the boxed Minix 1.5 in the mail I accidentally left the receipt on the dinner table, prompting my dad to comment that it was a huge waste of money. How wrong he turned out to be!
Minix was fine - for a while I had a slow Amstrad 8086 PC with 640 kilobytes of RAM that was connected to a serial terminal and you can have two people logged in at the same time. That’s pretty remarkable even today.
But ultimately Minix was a dead end. It was "source available" but proprietary, and although there were plenty of patches shared, trying to combine all the patches on top of the proprietary software yourself at home was not fun even as a programmer. Linux had a smoother out-of-the-box experience and being open source meant others could combine the best features together.
I think a better question might be why Linux and not the other free Unixes around, especially 386BSD (which became FreeBSD)? Simply put Linux had shared libraries, BSD did not, and when you only have a 40 MB hard disk having only one copy of each library really mattered.
Q: Do you remember what your first contribution was? What was the experience like?
A: It would probably have been some trivial fix for a long dead device driver. In those days you subscribed to the mailing list and sent a patch. (Not much has changed.) While the community was smaller, many of the same people are still around - I remember for example Andrea Archangeli’s "-aa" patch series where he added a bunch of improvements on top of Linus’s kernel, and just before the pandemic I was chatting with Andrea in the immigration queue before a conference. For me that’s incredible.
Q: Back in the day it was possible to "let the magic smoke out" of various hardware components when installing Linux. Do you have any stories about blowing up monitors or otherwise bricking hardware while you were learning how to do all of this stuff?
A: I remember when you couldn’t get any graphics working until you’d set up "ModeLines." The documentation for this was intimidating, talking about how the electrical signal went between the computer and the monitor and all the timings that had to be right for it to work. Allegedly you could blow up your monitor with a wrong ModeLine, but I’m happy to say that never happened to me.
Q: After you started contributing, why did you stick with it? What were you hoping Linux would become?
A: I’ve always been the one who was into computers. Britain had a healthy home computer scene in the 1980s, and I started out with a Sinclair ZX81. There were no games (and I’ve never really bothered with playing computer games), so if you wanted to make it do something you had to write it yourself. It was therefore inevitable that I’d end up as a computer programmer, and since I like messing with computers, Linux was also inevitable. I don’t think it would have turned out any other way.
Q: How long did you contribute as a volunteer? How did you come to work on open source full time?
A: I’ve done lots of side projects which used Linux, but I didn’t start contributing to Linux in a serious way before I worked for Red Hat. Of course that’s my job, but it’s a job that I’d probably do in some way even if I wasn’t paid. Call it a paid hobby if you like.
Q: Over the years we’ve seen a huge variety of people contribute to Linux and open source in various ways, from high school dropouts through PhD candidates and beyond, across a range of disciplines. What was your background in that sense, and what led you to open source in the first place?
A: I did a degree in Mathematics and an M.Sc. in Computer Science. But I came to open source ("free software") when I got access to Usenet and FTP archives at my holiday job at a UK research lab.
Q: Thinking back to those early days, did you ever imagine where Linux would be now? Did you ever imagine you’d still be contributing so many years later?
A: There was a time in the 1990s when there was definitely the thought that Microsoft and Windows might become so dominant that they’d finally work out a way to stop Linux, through legal or technical means. I didn’t expect it to turn out as it did... I’ve always been terrible at predicting the future.
Q: During those years, what has surprised you the most about the evolution of Linux?
A: Definitely the fact that Linux runs on these enormous servers and supercomputers. I always thought these would remain the preserve of these highly specialised and expensive operating systems like Solaris and AIX.
Q: Have you ever encountered any industry-specific challenges for Linux during your career -- for example, financial services or telcos -- or has adoption been similar across verticals?
A: With Linux "everywhere" it’s sometimes surprising that there are places where Linux hasn’t really made any in-roads at all. Automotive, aerospace, certain very low-end embedded systems, all are relatively Linux-free. You’ll find a lot of VxWorks or QNX or similar proprietary systems there. Financial services have taken to Linux like a duck to water. They couldn’t wait to get rid of their expensive Sun/Solaris systems and replace them with Red Hat, so that’s all good for us!
Q: Now, looking forward -- how do you think Linux will continue to evolve? Where do you think it might be in the next 10 years? 30 years?
A: Whatever I say about the future is going to look silly, but I think one thing is certain: Whatever happens to Linux specifically, open source software is the default for operating systems of the future. I think there’s some danger to Linux from a couple of the larger players. But I have confidence that - just as with Minix vs Linux - the development model of pure open source is simply better and so will win out in the end.