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 Pete Zaitcev, who has been contributing to Linux since the early 1990s, joining Red Hat in 2001. Pete now works as a Principal Software Engineer in Red Hat’s R&D OpenStack Platform team.
Q: What was your first encounter with Linux? When did you start contributing to the project?
A: When I started to look for an open source OS, I intended to hack on a BSD. But when I asked a well-known Russian UNIX guru, Vadim Antonov, which BSD was better, he set me on the path of Linux in November 1994. I contacted Eugene “Crosser” Cherkashin, who was using Linux to run a gateway between Internet e-mail and FIDOnet (ifgate), and he shared an SLS distribution on floppies, including the root/boot floppies as used back then. The Linux community was very much focused on making cool things for fun at the time, the ifgate was one of them.
Q: Do you remember what your first contribution was? What was the experience like?
A: I do not remember what my first proper contribution was. I think it must have been a patch to fix pseudo-DMA in
floppy.c in August 1995. Nobody cared who you were as long as the code was good. My first attempt was to make a raster console. It was required for SPARCstation, which did not have a text mode. The prime customer for that was David “DaveM” Miller, the leader of the port to SPARC. However, my code was over-engineered for what was needed. Although he accepted it in the Sparclinux tree initially, DaveM eventually ripped it out and replaced it with the raster console developed by Geert Uytterhoeven for Amiga. I remember being very disappointed. I wasn’t sure Dave even made the right call. Thereafter I stuck with minor fixes here and there.
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: Oh God no. I knew about it and was always very careful with monitor syncs and the like. In Russia, burning up something imported and expensive could bring significant repercussions.
Q: After you started contributing, why did you stick with it? What were you hoping Linux would become?
A: Linux clearly had the lowest relationship overhead. DaveM’s iron fist rule was about the code quality, and I was fully onboard with it, even when he revoked my CVS commit access for breaking the sparc64 build. In all other respects it was very easy-going. I remember someone asked Linus (Torvalds) about his plans for Linux (although I think it was a bit later, in 2001). His answer was “world domination and penguins." That pretty much was my philosophy too. I didn’t care where it was all going, as long as I got to make cool things and help other people.
Q: How long did you contribute as a volunteer? How did you come to work on open source full time?
A: Because of my Linux experience, Metabyte put me to work on their TiVo competitor MbTV in 2000. In 2001 I joined Red Hat and stayed here.
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 graduated from university with a major in Physics, although really all I did was computers, ostensibly in support of Physics. I did not understand the value of open source, but I sure felt the limitations of hoarding the source. At the time, I felt a disdain for UNIX as a toy system. What can I say? The best education left me pretty ignorant.
Fortunately, it all turned around thanks to the Internet and UNIX underpinning it. Because I worked on Internet protocols, it became self-evident just how important the access to the source was. After that I realized that the open source model safe-guarded the access.
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: I knew I would stick to open source in one way or the other, but until 2001 I did not know if employment in it could be secured. Regarding the future of Linux, I remember seething about the late Vladimir Butenko putting it down with screeds like “The Penguin Feels Worse and Worse."
That guy was a legend, but he just could not see it. I believed that Linux would win. But I didn’t imagine to what magnitude the win would grow. We do not dominate the desktop even in 2021, even if I have used a Linux desktop non-stop since 1995. But we won the cellphones. Who could expect that?
Q: During those years, what has surprised you the most about the evolution of Linux?
A: Because I dabbled in operating system research, I honestly expected Linux to merge with a kind of a microkernel. It did not happen. Linux crushed a lot of competition: all the microkernels, Xen (with KVM), BSDs.
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: As long as Linux had the credibility, it won every time. Although at times it was too soon. When I worked at MCST, they built the world’s fastest 32-bit SPARC. Sun gave up that space and focused on 64-bit chips already, so… The main customer was the Russian military.
The company started looking for an OS, and in 1996 I came up with a proposal to use Linux. The CEO of MCST, A.K. Kim, considered it and said, “I see the merit, but unfortunately, if I were to propose the software for the missile defense system to rely on an OS hacked up by a student from Finland, the Generals and Colonels will laugh me out the door.” MCST licensed Solaris source for that, at the cost of some $200,000. Of course they run a version of Linux on those computers today.
Q: Is there anything else that I haven't asked that you'd like to talk about?
A: My favorite part of Linux is The Mortal Kombat Style of Software Development, to borrow [a phrase] from Rusty Russel. It is what made Linux successful alongside the GPL 2. I wish it featured prominently in any historical treatise on the subject.
The Red Hat Blog's editorial team thanks Pete for taking the time to respond to our questions and provide another perspective on the early days of Linux and its evolution.
For more about the evolution of the Linux kernel and the GNU General Public License over the past 30 years, check out "Celebrating 30 years of the Linux kernel and the GPLv2" and "Frequently Asked Questions about Linux and the GPL."