Tuesday, April 19, 2011

In the beginning: Linux circa 1991

In 2011, you may not “see” Linux, but it’s everywhere. Do you use Google, Facebook or Twitter? If so, you’re using Linux. That Android phone in your pocket? Linux. DVRs? Your network attached storage (NAS) device? Your stock-exchange? Linux, Linux, Linux.

And, to think it all started with an e-mail from a smart graduate student, Linus Torvalds, to the comp.os.minix Usenet newsgroup:

Who knew what it would turn into? No one did. I certainly didn’t. I came to Linux later, although I was already using Minix and a host of other Unix systems including AIX, SCO Unix System V/386, Solaris, and BSD Unix. These Unix operating system variants continue to live on in one form or another, but Linux outshines them all.

The only real challenger in popularity to Linux from the Unix family already existed in 1991 as well, but I’ll bet most of you won’t be able to guess what it was.

Remember this now folks, I may use it another Linux quiz down the road. The answer is NeXTStep. You should know it as the direct ancestor of the Mac OS X family.

The real question isn’t how Linux got its start. That’s easy enough to find out. The real question has always been why did Linux flourish so, while all the others moved into niches?

It’s not, despite what former Sun CEO Scott McNealy has said, that Solaris ever had a realistic chance of making sure that “Linux never would have happened.” Dream on, dream on.

Linux overcame Solaris, AIX, HP-UX, and the rest of the non-Intel Unix systems because it was far less expensive to run Linux on Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) x86 hardware then it was to run them on POWER, SPARC or other specialized hardware. Yes, Sun played with putting Solaris on Intel, three times, but only as a price-teaser to try to sell customers Solaris on SPARC.

In addition, historically Unix’s Achilles heel has been its incompatibility between platforms. Unlike Linux, where any program will run on any version of Linux, a program that will run on say SCO OpenServer won’t run on Solaris and a Solaris program won’t run on AIX and so on. That always hurt Unix, and it was one of the wedges that Linux used to force the various Unix operating systems into permanent niches.

There were other x86 Unix distributions–Interactive Unix, Dell SVR4 Unix (Yes, Dell), and SCO OpenServer-but none of them were able to keep up with Linux. That’s why SCO briefly turned into a Linux company with its purchase of Caldera, before killing itself in an insane legal fire against Linux that was doomed to fail from the start .

It was also to Linux’s advantage that its license, the Gnu General Public License version 2 (GPLv2) made it possible both to share the efforts of many programmers without letting their work disappear into proprietary projects. That, as I see it, was one of the problems with the BSD Unix family–FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, etc.–and its BSD License.

Another plus in Linux’s favor was that as it turned out, Linux Torvalds wasn’t just a great programmer; he was a great project manager. Oh, Torvalds can be grumpy, very grumpy, but at the end of the day, after almost twenty-years in charge, he still manages to get thousands of developers to work together on an outstanding operating system. Not bad for an obscure graduate student out of Finland eh?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Cloud Computing Needs Leaders to Restore Optimism

I'm returning to the US this week after spending the past 14 months in Asia, observing Cloud Computing and the nations of the world from this vantage point.

I'm pessimistic, and this view comes after a long life of (potentially deluded) optimism.

A History of Optimism
When Unix showed the way out of choosing between Orwellian mainframe environments and the horrible, clunky little toy called DOS/Windows, I was optimistic.

When CD-ROM brought high-density storage to our little PCs for the first time, I was optimistic. The rise of personal email, followed shortly thereafter by the Worldwide Freaking Web made me more optimistic than ever.

Then, a brief pause while those much smarter than I figured out how to corral Web Services, decoupling and loose recoupling, virtualization, SOA, Ajax, and all of the front-end and back-end scripting and languages languages that come with them into Cloud Computing-and I was optimistic again!

Mood Swing
But today I see a United States that may have finally wounded itself fatally as the world's economic and political leader through a combination of self-indulge, a sense of entitlement, and a media- and entertainment-driven Idiocracy that is winning the tug-of-war against knowledge and intelligence.

I see a developed world that has long resented US power but may now be panicking in the absence of it.

I've also seen a China up close that is nowhere near ready to assume global leadership in any capacity-as if anyone in the US would really want it to. And I've the hundreds of millions in Southeast Asia who wonder what the heck is going on. "I thought Obama was going to fix everything," is a common lament in the region. "I thought Americans were smart."

Is This the Titanic For Real?
So I would like to think we're not arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Maybe the continuing waves of immigration will continue to keep the country strong and vibrant. The US has a population growth rate that's almost twice that of China (albeit with a much smaller population), with most of that coming from immigration.

But Cloud is not going to resuscitate the US economy and continue to breathe life into the rest of the world unless there is enough national and corporate leadership to make it happen.

Leadership is the most prized commodity among, well, leaders. Without it, organizations and countries fail.

Hellbent for Leather
The word's roots are simple and humble enough, coming from the Old English and German"leder," or "leather." You lead the horses with the leather straps, the leder. And that's it. Nothing profound or transcendent.

We expect our leaders to do much more than hang onto the straps. We expect them to transcend the day-to-day humdrum, to set a tone and create a vision, and Lead with a capital L.

As no less an expert than John Seely Brown, former Xerox Parc director, has said, "A company's top executives should educate themselves about the potential for cloud computing...to prepare for disruption & transformation."

American technology companies have done a fantastic job in assuming leadership in all aspects of Cloud Computing.

But who amongst us believes that the US currently has the political leadership-I'm talking about those in power through the federal and state governments, not just one person-to bring the US out of its worst economy in three decades? I didn't think so.

And do you believe in your company's leadership? Or are you one of those leaders, and do you believe in yourself? I hope so.