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This installment of The Bitstream column appeared in the Month Year issue of Mix Magazine.

The Bitstream

This column discusses FOSS, Free & Open Source Software…

Free Beer

We all love free stuff and our search often leads us to expend more energy than the freebie is actually worth. However, that doesn’t stop us from prowling trade show isles, stuffing our bags full o’ swag.

and filling our local disks with downloaded files from the web. For those of us with student IDs or anyone with more time than money and an aversion to the high total cost of ownership of commercial Unix releases, not to mention the pain and suffering associated with Microsoft’s middling merchandise, there’s a particularly attractive downloadable and that’s Open Source Software or “OSS” for short.

Bloat–free and, in many cases, cost–free as well, OSS is highly configurable and most important of all, restriction–free, so no suit can tell you tomorrow what to do with your stuff. …and what stuff! Everything from multichannel DAWs to streaming audio servers and TiVO workalikes, if you can think of building it with a computer, someone’s probably already done it with Open Source.

To begin, let’s start our journey into OSS with an overview and the rhetorical question, “What is ‘Open Source’?” Think of Open Source as a variant of shareware where “payment” consists of releasing any bug fixes and improvements back into the public user/developer community at large. There are variations on this theme but that’s the basic idea. So, any motivated individual can contribute to the development of the product and can inspect all aspects of the underlying code, which is not possible with most commercial products. Not only is open source largely free, purchase cost wise, but it relies on a volunteer development community’s willingness to share all improvements to the code with the rest of the world. This development–by–peer effort, where the guts of the machine are ‘open’ and available for all to see is what makes Open Source Software attractive to most users.

GNU (pronounced “guh-NEW”), a bellweather example of the many open source cooperatives, has a nice definition of OSS. The official GNU web site quickly points out their basic article of faith: “The GNU Project was launched in 1984 to develop a complete Unix-like operating system which is free software.”

Notice the “Unix–like”…UNIX itself, an in–house project written to run the Bell System’s telephone service, spawned the open source movement when Bell Labs distributed the original code to several entities, including Sun Microsystems, University of California at Berkeley and Silicon Graphics (SGI). Sun developed their copy into Solaris, a successful enterprise version while SGI, relying primarily on government contracts, hasn’t faired quite as well with their version, IRIX. The folks at Berkeley created the highly successful Berkeley Standard Distribution of UNIX add–ons, which in turn evolved into the BSD family of Unix.

The GNU site continues,“‘Free software’ is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer.’” Dammit though, I like the concept of free beer! Anyway, a few thoughts from the development community helps to illuminate the underlying libertarian philosophy…Wilfredo Sánchez Vega, contributor to the aforementioned Darwin BSD project, member of the Apache Software Foundation and Developer Community Manager at KnowNow, spoke at the ’02 O’Reilly OS X Conference. “Open development buys you an ongoing win. The community is more important than the code: code follows community. Actively exchanging code provides:

• Better code review (which results in) increased quality
• Bug fixes from the community
• New features from the community
• Way better “standards compliance”

He offers this subtle equation:

open source code
+
open discussions
+
an open process

=
open development

 

To add to this free wheeling fracas, there are also commercial OSS companies. They sell complete systems as well as software add–ons, professional services and support for their OSS offerings. Red Hat, a brand you may recognize, is a good example of such folk. Another commercial OSS company you should also know is Apple Computer, with their Darwin project, which is the open source heart of Mac OS 10.

Open source, particularly Linux, has caught the attention of the enterprise computing community because of its transparency and low entry cost. Linux is a open source operating system, modeled on Unix, that combines the geekiness and almost infinite adjustability of real Unix with all the user interface idiosyncrasies you’d expect from Windows, driven by a world–wide community of zealots as rabid as any Macintosh user group. The venerable IBM, once a bastion of proprietary product, has become the champion of business applications for Linux. What’s less well known is the community of hobbyists and professionals who work, often without pay, to extend the less expected capabilities of open source operating systems, including audio services. Favorite distributions are those Red Hat guys, the market leader, as well as Mandrake and SuSE LINUX, two excellent euro-contenders. Mandrake rocks if you’re using Linux in a server application while SuSE, pronounced “SUZ-eh” since it’s German, has a Desktop version that’s perfect as a generic Windows desktop workalike. SuSE LINUX Desktop, a commercial product (it’ll cost you real dollars), ships with a year of basic support, a nice touch for Linux newbies. [At press time, network pioneer Novell has announced plans to buy SuSE LINUX for US$210M in cash - OM]

Linux, Linux, Linux…that happy, pudgy penguin pops up in the most unlikely places, even appearing stenciled on the sidewalks of My Fair City. Big Blue got fined for that stunt. What began as “just a hobby” for Finnish grad student Linus Torvalds, has blossomed into a growing wave of work around the globe for companies fed up with the high cost of licensing and administering commercial software distributions. Fast, stable and moderately secure: that’s the goods you buy into with Linux. Oh yeah, cost of acquisition is much less expensive than Windows and commercial, enterprise versions of Unix. By the way, Mandrake is the most mouse-friendly, GUI–driven of the Linux lot.

Equally beefy but less well publicized is NetBSD, an open version of one of the two “forks” of Bell Lab’s original Unix. In all, there are four open source BSDs available; FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, and the above mentioned Darwin. BSD is far more mature than Linux and arguably the most secure flavor of open Unix out there. In addition, BSD is stable, a miserly user of memory, and free of recent legal wranglings brought on by SCO, the owner of System V, the other fork of the original Unix. The word fork is used, in this case, to describe the process of splitting software into two or more separate development paths. BSD and System V were the original two branches of UNIX that forked or split off the original UNIX distribution. Both are used primarily to host applications such as web, database and business software servers.

Although BSD and Linux run on everything from PDAs, Amigas and NeXT cubes to Sun pizza boxes, Sega Dreamcasts and Sony PlayStations, a good way to get into open source is to dig up an retired Win box or Mac clone, low level format the disk, and install a copy of open BSD or Linux. Heck, the folks at SUSE (used to…seems they’ve pulled the file - OM) offer a free, low impact, bootable “live demo” disk image. Burn a CD, pop that disc in your Win box, boot up and drive around SUSE without even installing it on your local disk.

My mom, bless her heart, tends to see issues as black or white and, being my mother’s son, I’ve gone that route and painted a fairly rosy picture of OSS. However, all is not sweetness and light…Sánchez Vega, speaking of Darwin, concludes that, for most programmers, “Contributing is simply way too hard.” Turf wars and rivalries, hidden agendas and good old inertia affect OSS just as they do in the world of “mainstream,” commercial software development.

Enough of politics, what can you really do with this stuff? As I said earlier, just about anything! Next month, we’ll delve into a few of the many specific software packages that any serious propeller head in the audience would enjoy downloading. So, keep a lookout next month for software swag and, in the meantime, keep on tweakin’!

Bio

OMas has withstood the rigors of his state’s gubernatorial recall, though he doubts that it was worth the more than $70M it cost him and his fellow residents. This epic column, over a year in the making, was written while under the influence of James Nichols’ “Special Mix” of “Duke” Edward Kennedy Ellington’s The Far East Suite and Beck’s Sea Change.

Pedant In A Box

This month’s timely technobabble includes…

Darwin & the BFD About BSD

I mentioned that BSD is free of recent legal wranglings brought on by SCO, the owner of the System V fork (that’s “System Five” to you outworlders). I’ll get into the whole SCO jive move next month but, for now, let’s focus on the other fork of UNIX, the stable, secure Berkeley Standard Distribution. Long before Linux was the OS of the moment, BSD was workin’ its butt off. According to Netcraft, 100% of the web servers with the longest time between reboots use BSD as their operating system and 97% of those BSD servers are running Apache, the open source web server application of choice the world over.

Also mentioned earlier is Darwin, the free, open source basis of Mac OS. It came into being when Apple realized that it needed some serious Viagra for the aging Macintosh “Classic” operating system. NeXT OS, the core of Steve Job’s black, cubic vision of a next generation computer he created after leaving Apple, morphed into Mac OS X and, for it’s “kernel” or core operating system, BSD was chosen as the foundation. Apple released that kernel into the open source community as the Darwin project, allowing “…developers to customize and enhance key Apple software. Through the open source model, Apple engineers and the open source community collaborate to create better, faster and more reliable products for (their) users.”