Globalization and women, copyright infringement in open source, and other news from LinuxWorld

by Andy Oram



LinuxWorld in January 2004 looked mostly like more of what was at last
year's LinuxWorlds. No radical departures; just more serious talk of
moving to the desktop, more and faster clusters, more products aimed
at ERM and other back office services, more advances in the tools
available to support Java. But more is better. Here I'll report some
conversations that gave me new perspectives and some companies I met
with.







How globalization could promote the role of women in computing





At LinuxWorld I met Margo Seltzer, who
invented the Berkeley Database (BDB) at UC Berkeley and now shares her
time between
Sleepycat Software
(the company commercializing BDB, where she is CTO) and Harvard
University, where she is Associate Dean for Computer Science and
Engineering.




Seltzer told me how BSD implementor
Keith Bostic
took assessment of BSDI many years ago and found that its communications and operations were lacking. An early example of a free software development
organization, BSDI depended on communication and sharing among a
far-flung set of programmers, but the communication and sharing
weren't happening. Bostic realized these virtues were traditionally
associated with women, and started hiring with that in mind; ending up
with a programming staff that was half women. Communication and
coordination improved dramatically, and so did results.




Seltzer worked with Bostic at BSDI and now works with him at Sleepycat
Software. Wherever she has been a manager, she promotes personnel
policies that make it easy for people to keep jobs while raising
children. These are fairly familiar adaptations that apply to a wide
range of professions: flex time, telecommuting, part-time
opportunities, and making children feel comfortable in the
workplace. She says this flexibility has allowed her to employ a lot
of highly qualified and highly dedicated women, including one who is
"one of the best engineers she's ever known."




What can the computer field do to attract more women? Seltzer says that
the process has to start early in life, long before the job interview.
Schools, universities, and even game manufacturers (perhaps especially
game manufacturers!) should adjust their offerings to appeal to
girls. Seltzer says the computer science field is already moving in
that direction, a trend I can confirm from my reading of the
Communications of the ACM over the decades. Computer science programs
are broader now than they used to be, covering not only the
technology, but the interaction between technology and practical
domains where the technology is applied.




There is a well-established tendency (not true for every individual,
of course) for men to show interest in engineering and technology for
its own sake, while women are more often among those who see
engineering and technology as means to an end, and who want to see a
useful benefit at the end of the line.




Furthermore, men often like clearly delimited tasks with fixed goals
and requirements, while women are often better at doing systems
analysis and fitting solutions to real-world problems. Microsoft is
one company where Seltzer says she sees the different genders ending up
categorized that way.




Now, what jobs are easiest to outsource overseas? Precisely the
delimited tasks with fixed goals and requirements. The job of systems
analysis and fitting solutions to real-world problems remains in the
controlling country. Therefore, Seltzer believes that the movement
overseas raises the profile and status of women in the computing
industry.




Another female colleague I know who runs her own consulting company
told me this week that open source has many qualities we traditionally
think of as feminine. It involves communication, cooperation, and a
willingness to put together contributions from many people without
worrying who gets credit. Furthermore, nothing is ever finished and
neat; the process is ongoing.




After talking to Margo Seltzer, I went to a party and chatted with Perl
porter Kurt Starsinic, who works for the famous financial information
and services firm
Bloomberg.
He describes them as "one of the best places to work in the world."
They try to find top-notch personnel and then largely trust them to
work independently--but they are expected to find a peer to audit
their coding and related practices. Good communicators are demanded
there, and the very architectural layout of walls and staircases
ensures frequent interaction. In consequence, comraderie and
interaction are at a high level. I also saw a suggestion of their
emphasis on the quality and nurturing of employees at their
website.




Hearing all this from Starsinic, I asked him on impulse, "How many
women programmers does Bloomberg have?" He answered, "A lot!"




Even if companies adapt, women can expect sniping from the
sidelines. An article in the Wednesday New York times reports
grumbling from a conservative group at Princeton (which has a female
president) because four of the university's senior positions are
occupied by men and four by women. The grumblers, staunch preservers
of the social order, can't believe that the female appointees could
actually have won their places through their qualifications. Someone
should hand these critics the statistics that show how women are
already in the majority in college enrollment and among entrants to a
number of professions. I also heard at LinuxWorld that a United
Nations agency is raising the social and economic status of women in
Africa by training them to be computer system administrators.




Readers interested in learning about and working on such issues can
consult:







Who are the copyright infringers in open source?





On a tip from a colleague, I stopped by
Black Duck Software
to see their system for tracking violations of open source licenses.
This is no mere diversion for embittered hackers; it's a critical
procedure for large companies who have reason to worry that their
programmers have violated licenses.




Black Duck CEO Douglas Levin cited, for instance, a case reported by
investment banker Broadview. When
IBM acquired Think Dynamics,
a painstaking manual examination of its code revealed 80 to 100
examples of open source code that Think Dynamics programmers had
passed off as their own. As a result, the price of that company went
down from 67 million dollars to 46 million--not a happy moment for its
owners and shareholders, I'm sure.




Readers cannot miss, I'm sure, the irony that this very IBM, which was
so diligent in tracking down license violations, is being accused of
the same by SCO Group. Indeed, the absurdity of SCO's suit should be
obvious, because who would try to hide infringing material in open
source code? Obviously, the true danger lies in the other direction:
code generously donated to the world by free software programmers is
being hidden in binary files and used to pump up the profits of
proprietary software vendors.




Black Duck staff are not the only ones worked up over this scandal. I
talked to a leading open source software developer during the week who
said his business was virtually ruined by competitors who incorporated
his code into their products, stripping off his GPL notices and
sometimes distributing it in binary fashion. It's very hard to find
infringement in binary files; in one case he did so because the guilty
programmers were too lazy to change his unique error messages.




It's also hard to document cases of copyleft infringment, except in
rare instances such as Think Dynamics. Often the aggrieved programmer
lacks the resources to sue a large and unscrupulous company, so
there's no established, publicized outcome. On the other hand, when a
programmer persuades a vendor to admit the infringement and pay up, it
would be unfair to publicize the issue and punish the vendor for
ultimately doing the right thing. However, Levin told me that many
companies have invested large amounts of money in proprietary software
products, only to find at the last minute that they had to release
everything under an open license because somebody discovered free
software at its base.




But Black Duck is counting on there being enough honest software
vendors, and enough settlements with real penalties, to drive sales
for their very interesting product. The company tracks dozens of
well-known sites for open-source software. It takes bits of code from
source files throughout the software and creates fingerprints that it
stores in a database provided to its customers. It also provides a
snazzy front end, an Eclipse plug-in, that allows programmers and
managers to quickly scan their own source files, log instances of code
found from open-source projects, and determine what license covers the
code so they can deal with it properly.





Volunteerism alive and well





We all welcome investment by big corporations in free software. But I
found LinuxWorld's Org pavilion, representing largely volunteer groups
and non-profits (some of course with corporate backing), to be the
most crowded in the show.
OpenOffice.org
and the
Linux Terminal Server Project,
located side by side, were positively a fire hazard.




I lunched with Jim McQuillan, founder and leader of LTSP, who does
consulting for health care organizations in his spare time. He told me
that HIPAA is a big boon to consultants whose Y2K business ended.
HIPAA is the well-known and controversial privacy regulations that
you've probably run into because your local clinic and hospital have
required you to sign forms concerning your privacy rights. HIPAA is
largely a beneficial regulation passed in the Clinton era, weakened as
one would expect by the Bush administration, but extremely subtle and
complex in its implementation.




Of course, the popularity of the Org pavilion was a bit exaggerated by
the tendency of non-profits to rent smaller spaces than commercial
vendors. But the bustle in that area, along with the interesting
projects shown off there, remind us that the spirit of personal
contribution remains high in the Linux arena--particularly among New
York user groups and organization representatives, who deserve a big
collective thank-you for the time they put into the conference.




One of the non-profits I visited is the
Free Standards Group,
who have launched an effort to promote free desktop software that is
accessible to the blind, those unable to type or use a mouse, and
other disabled users.





A cluster of related vendors





I don't think any single application dominated LinuxWorld as much as
clustering. You couldn't cast an eye about anywhere without noticing
companies with key products in the clustering area, and even more
companies (in fact, nearly every company) employed clusters as part of
a solution to some more specific need.




Some vendors I talked to are:




  • Donald Becker, one of the people who could be said to have started it
    all. The company he founded,
    Scyld Computing Corporation
    continues to release new Beowulf-based products after its purchase by
    Penguin Computing, and now offers both Itanium and Opteron clusters.




  • Qlusters
    has up-and-coming clustering software.




  • Chuck Foley of InfiniCon sees
    three trends coming together to create a new era of high-performance
    computing: Linux clustering, commodity 64-bit chips, and InfiniBand,
    which offers up to 30-Gigabit networking. One of InfiniCon's
    customers, Pennsylvania State University, recently clocked in with
    the world's 89th fastest supercomputer (1.3 teraflops using 160
    2-processor, 32-bit nodes). The previous cluster ranked number 89
    required 1100 nodes to get even close to that performance, showing
    the price/performance improvements that are currently being achieved
    in Linux clustering. With 64-bit processors, another InfiniCon
    customer hopes to make it up to 5th in the next world supercomputing
    listing.




  • A staff person at
    RLX Technologies
    told me they started offering their clusters for high availability
    (that is, providing reliable, mission-critical services), but have
    increasingly found them being used also for high performance (that is,
    computations in well-known domains like seismology and
    bioinformatics). They provide turn-key solutions integrating Linux and
    management software with the processors and either Infiniband or
    FiberChannel.




  • SteelEye
    makes software for monitoring and doing automatic restarts or
    failovers for clusters; it is heavily resold by IBM and HP. They
    feature fine-grained monitoring: for instance, if a system fails to
    respond because the database went down, the monitor can simply restart
    the database instead of failing the whole system.




  • Pogo Linux
    offers a range of systems, focusing on servers and storage RAID-based
    systems.




  • A number of companies with multiprocessor-related compiler tool chains
    were hanging out in the AMD area.
    Etnus
    offers some sophisticated technology, including a multithreaded
    debugger, for the AMD Opteron and a
    number of other Unix and Linux platforms.
    The
    Portland Group
    is another company demoing a very cool-looking visual debugger that
    can show you what each thread is doing and step through each thread
    independently. They will soon release a profiler as well.
    PathScale concentrates on
    Opteron support, intensively examining every opportunity to squeeze
    performance improvements from that chip. They claim the best
    performance of any vendor on the Opteron, and say that they do
    equally well speeding up integer and floating-point
    code. Furthermore, their commands are compatible with gcc,
    allowing use with the same scripts and makefiles.







Some larger vendors





For reasons that may well be totally arbitrary, I got more contacts
with IBM than with any other large company at LinuxWorld this year,
and therefore heard more of what they had to say. IBM has ported Linux
to its 64-bit POWER systems, the latest in its RISC-based genus of
which the PowerPC chip is the most famous species. A number of ISVs
have already ported their applications to Linux on 64-bit POWER; SAP
is in the works.




VP Brian Connors stressed that the new POWER prices were comparable to
the Xeon, not the Itanium: "64-bit systems at 32-bit prices." Both
an IBM compiler and the free gcc are being enhanced to
support the processor. In the larger scheme of competition, Connors
thought it important for Linux to be a viable option on many different
types of processors: "The architecture should be open at every layer."




VP Adam Jollans asserted, "As we go into this year, Linux will enter
the space of ERP and other big enterprise applications." This can be
credited partly to the new 2.6 kernel, which scales up better than the
2.4 one.




When I asked Jollans what IBM was doing to improve the experience on
desktop Linux, he noted that a number of Lotus clients can be run
through a Web browser to allow Linux access. (Lotus server
applications have already been ported to Linux.) He reiterated the
strategy for moving Linux gradually to the desktop that had been
articulated by IBM and others at the

Desktop Linux Conference
.




IBM thinks it has found a way to capitalize on the well-publicized
resistance Microsoft customers are showing in the face of its upgrade
strategy. When security upgrades vanish from Windows NT, IBM is hoping
to get the system's two-million-strong customer base to move to Linux
instead of throwing away their hardware and buying new Windows XP
machines.




By the way, if Microsoft is trembling at the edge of a chasm, it would
take quite a while to notify all the customers that continue to show
it loyalty, and probably even harder to convince them of that fact. On
Friday, the company reported better than expected results for the
quarter, and the highest revenue ever.




MySQL AB has quite a brood of followers in their conference area, a
little conference within a conference that grows year to year; this
year even Intel had representatives in the MySQL area. (An actual
MySQL conference took place last year and will be held again
this coming April.)
I have reported on some of these companies in my
LinuxWorld weblog
from last August.




One company I noticed there for the first time was
High-Availability.Com,
which makes a cluster to facilitate MySQL replication and
resiliency. It supports a wide range of operating systems.
Arkeia was also present, showing
their tape backup system.




We have all heard that PHP decided to bundle SQLite with their free
distribution instead of MySQL. A volunteer at the
New York PHP
booth told me there was no single show-stopper that decided against
MySQL, just a grab-bag of licensing worries.
But
Zend Technologies Ltd.,
the company responsible for designing new versions of PHP and creating
its core engine, licenses MySQL and bundles it with their products,
which include an IDE and a highly regarded performance enhancer.




Doron Gerstel, CEO of Zend, told me that about 50% of PHP sites use
MySQL as the back-end; another 25% use Oracle and the rest are divided
among other databases. Zend is seeing PHP increasingly in critical
applications such as e-ticketing. Eventually, they plan to provide PHP
with a query API that eliminates the need for SQL.





Other companies I happened upon





With all the crush of clustering and server companies, hardly anything
in other areas--such as wireless devices or embedded systems--made an
appearance at LinuxWorld. One company that combined both those traits was
AML,
which makes hand-held terminals and other small devices meant for data
collection in factories and other facilities. My question: what
country will be the first to send a Linux system to Mars?




One of the trends I've noticed (particularly when reading
Sys Admin
magazine) involves tools that take automation to the network. Whereas
we've had tools since time immemorial that check for intruders or
monitor performance on a single system, the new crop of tools do the
same thing for all the servers or all the nodes you're responsible
for, and combine results.




One of the companies representing this trend is
Net Integration Technologies,
which has been marketing its products since 2000. Suppose you install
a new network interface on a router. You'd like all the clients behind
the router to know they can use this interface; Net Integration's tool
configures them automatically to do so. It also allows quick disaster
recovery, maintaining a great deal of state about the system.
Representative Dan Wensley told me they consider their product
well-suited to small and medium businesses, and hope it helps push
Linux into that market.




I stopped by
EmperorLinux,
which sells a variety of laptops and notebooks with Linux
preinstalled, along with technical support.




Well, that wraps up what I as a single person experienced at the last
LinuxWorld to be held in New York. I couldn't be everywhere and hear
everything (in fact, by the end I didn't feel like I was anywhere and
could hardly hear anything) so I know there were many interesting
announcements for which you'll have to read other reports.



Comments welcome


2 Comments

jimothy
2004-01-26 12:09:32
Turn the tables...
Imagine in an organization observed that men, typically, are better logical thinkers than women* and therefore showed preference towards hiring men...and publicized this preference as something to be proud of! Such a move would not only be sure to cause an uproar, it'd also likely be legally challenged.


And yet it garners applause when the tables are turned.


* I don't mean to suggest I support this position, and am using it strictly as a hypothetical example for sake of argument.

jwenting
2004-01-27 02:58:20
Turn the tables...
Well said. For some reason it's not discrimination based on sex if it's the men being discriminated against (just as it's not discrimination based on race if those being discriminated against are caucasian).