September 19 is a significant day for those of us who work and play in the world of free and open source software (FLOSS). Software Freedom Day, a global celebration of FLOSS falls on this date, with this year being even more significant, because this month also marks the 30th anniversary of GNU!
It is, at a certain level, pretty amazing: the choice to share software and see it built freely for its own sake has influenced innovation within IT for three decades. Technologies like cloud computing, big data, containers… these all were successful not in spite of FLOSS, but because of it. Free software has has a personal effect on its practitioners as well.
To celebrate Software Freedom Day, we put out the request here at Red Hat: what was your first experience with free software? The answers were full of tech, but also touched on a lot of positive emotions. Free software, lest we forget, means something, as the answers to our question certainly suggest.
Name: Mark Bohannon
Affiliation: VP, Global Public Policy
First free software experienced: BIND
During the 1990’s, I served as Chief Counsel for Technology at the U.S. Dept of Commerce, where I worked closely with NIST. I was part of the team that helped transition the DNS from NSF to ICANN. I worked closely with the Root Server Advisory Committee, at a time when management of BIND was also in transition. I still use it as an example of how OSS touches almost every individual globally who is connected to the Internet.
(I almost referenced Mosaic, during the early 1990’s… but recognized there isn’t agreement on how "free" and "open source" it was at that time…)
Name: Rich Bowen
Affiliation: OpenStack Community Liaison
First free software experienced: NSCA HTTPd
When I was in grad school, I discovered the WWW, and wanted to put up a website of my own. I was surprised to discover that the NCSA web server was free, and not only that, but that when I asked questions about how to use it, they were answered by the actual people that had written the software. Shortly afterwards, when NCSA became Apache, I was further surprised and pleased to discover that when I sent in corrections to the documentation, the response was to give me commit rights and told to fix it myself. 20 years later, I’m still working on it.
From this I learned many things: patience, troubleshooting from first principles, and how to send Cygnus people usable GDB output. The first code we got was horrible in some ways, but wonderful in the fact that we could actually debug/fix it versus what we had on SunOS or HP-UX.
Name: Tom Callaway
Affiliation: University Outreach Lead
First free software experienced: Linux
In 1996, I was a junior at a residential high school in North Carolina (NCSSM). My PC running windows was being temperamental and I was especially frustrated with it. Another student overheard me and offered to let me borrow his copy of Red Hat Linux 5. I discovered that because I had access to the source code, I could truly understand and change the environment to fit my needs, not just apply a thin layer of digital paint and tape to it. Dived in, never looked back.
Name: Nick Coghlan
Affiliation: Workflow Designer, Red Hat Developer Experience
First free software experienced: The first tool I remember using directly that I’m pretty sure qualifies as free software is the MercMUD software.
In the early 1990’s, my high school Information Processing & Technology teacher introduced the after school computer club he ran to the Internet. I talked my older brother into signing up for his free student dial-in account at the University of Queensland, my parents into buying me a modem, and spent many an hour with my friends on the Sanctuary MUD hosted at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York (oddly enough, I’d never looked up the physical location of pauli.sos.clarkson.edu until writing this). It’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate what an incredible opportunity that was, as the rapid distribution of free software between academic institutions allowed me to get online well before Internet usage became widespread in Australia.
Name: Paul Frields
Affiliation: Engineering Manager
First free software experienced: Red Hat Linux 4.0
I installed a free software distribution, Red Hat Linux 4.0, for the first time in late 1996.
A friend who was an experienced UNIX and Solaris admin dropped a general-audience Linux book that included RHL 4.0 on my desk one day and said, "I think this is going to be huge." Was that ever an understatement! I took it as a challenge to learn something UNIXy, jumped in with both feet, and it changed the entire course of my career. Free software led me to co-author early procedures and tools for digital media forensic examinations, and ultimately to working at Red Hat itself.
Name: Stephen Gallagher
Affiliation: Server Experience Architect
First free software experienced: Red Hat Linux (6?)
The year was 1999. The hottest computer game of the moment was Action Quake 2, which my friends and I were playing religiously. As we were on a campus with an amazingly-fast (for the time) 10Mbps connection to the Internet, we decided to host our own AQ2 server. I had a chunk of scavenged hardware that my buddy Nick tossed a (boxed!) copy of RHL onto and we administered it together for over a year, rebooting it only for holiday breaks. That reliability (directly contrasted with the disaster that was Window ME right around the same time) set me on my path.
Name: Shaun McCance
Affiliation: Community Documentation Liaison
First free software experienced: Red Hat Linux 5.2
I was a young math undergrad student just starting to teach myself programming. One of my professors gave me a copy of Red Hat Linux 5.2. I was astounded that he could legally share his copy with me. After he explained free software to me, I was hooked and determined to start contributing.
Name: Matthew Miller
Affiliation: Fedora Project Leader
First free software experienced: DJGPP
When I was in high school, I spent countless hours downloading shareware (at 2400 bps!) from local BBSes. I wanted to make my own with something better than BASIC, but I couldn’t afford a commercial compiler. A friend of my parents gave me a copy of DJGPP on floppy disks–it’s a port of GCC and some basic *nix utilities to DOS/i386. It blew my mind: not only was it free, it came with this crazily-clever copyleft license–the GNU GPL, of course–which put the hope-to-strike-it-rich idea of shareware to shame with the idea of making the world a better place by really sharing with everyone.
Name: Richard Morrell
Affiliation: Principal Cloud Evangelist/Cloud Security
First free software experienced: Linux
I first got involved with Linux in December 1995 having been given disks to install by a friend, a few months later I started the first UK Linux support company providing support to Caldera in Europe and Red Hat boxes running Red Hat 4 and Red Hat 5 through 1999. That included the UK Channel Tunnel, which relied on Red Hat boxes in order to interface between construction and billing platforms in what was the first-ever large-scale deployment of Red Hat on the planet. That company was acquired by Linuxcares Dave Sifry, Art Tyde, and David LaDuke.
I later joined VA Linux Systems in Fremont with the rest of the Samba crew. I’d later write and form SmoothWall and post exit contribute to and work for Zimbra as well as contributions enroute to Contribs.org and many other projects. Twenty years on, I do feel I’ve earnt my stripes as I watch the next generation of Linux users and Red Hatters earning their chops.
Name: Dave Neary
Affiliation: SDN/NFV Community Strategy
First free software experienced: Red Hat Linux 5
The year was late 1996 or early 1997, and as part of my university work, I was trying to compile and modify some source code that had been written for Unix–that brought me to use the university’s SunOS servers as my workstations. I was running a Hummingbird XServer, so that I could use Emacs and multiple xterms from my Windows desktop. One day, a colleague of mine looking over my shoulder said "xterms, Emacs windows, Netscape… why don’t you just switch to Linux, you’re using all the applications already".
So I did–I tried to install Red Hat Linux 4.2 from floppy disks he had, but never got it working (I don’t recall why), so I went to the local book store and bought Linux for Dummies, with the shiny new Red Hat Linux 5 CD inside the cover. It came with a "graphical" ncurses-based installer, and it took me a few tries, but after a couple of days, I was the proud user of a Linux desktop running fvwm95.
I remember installing the GIMP for the first time, later that year–it was somewhere in the 0.99 releases at the time, if I recall correctly. Back then, if software wasn’t packaged up, you had only one option–download the source code, and install the tool chain and dependencies necessary to build it from source code. I think it took me three days of occasional but sustained effort, but I finally got through "./configure; make; make install" without errors, and had the latest and greatest GIMP up and running–very slowly, because I only had 8MB of RAM at the time. But I was hooked.
Name: Harish Pillay
Affiliation: Open Source Advocacy, Red Hat Asia Pacific
First free software experienced: Kermit file transfer program
1984: Received a copy of Kermit (source and DOS binary) from a tape that we received from DECUS in Singapore. The Kermit program was a file transfer program and offered a terminal session mode much like the ftp command. I used using it in a MS-DOS-based computer to transfer files to and from an AT&T 3B2 Unix machine we had in the office. The binary on the AT&T 3B2 machine was compiled from the source code that I received. I do recall trying to compile it to run in a system running Venix but the compile failed. Don’t recall what happened after that.
Name: Brian Proffitt
Affiliation: Principal Community Analyst
First free software experienced: Caldera OpenLinux 2.2
It was 1999, and I’d been asked to write Sun StarOffice 5.1 for Linux. Only one problem: I was surround by a world of Windows and Mac machines. A friend of mine lent me one of his then-new SGI Visual Workstations and a copy of OpenLinux he had lying around his office. I remember the installation process clearly: text-based, but at the stage where files were copied to the HDD, an in-memory instance Tetris clone popped up for me to play. Coming from the sheer pain of my experiences at Sams Publishing installing betas and RCs of Windows 95 and 98, this was amazing to me.
It wasn’t entirely painless, of course. Getting into the modlines and hearing the monitor loudly snap as I changed screen resolutions wasn’t fun. And the eventual destiny of Caldera was an irony not lost on me when I was covering Caldera/SCO shenanigans as a journalist in the early 2000s. But the power and flexibility of this operating system and the sheer diversity of distributions and desktop environments was enough to keep me invested in this technology. It would set the trajectory of my career as a writer and put me on a path to meet some of the most amazing people on the planet.
Name: Amit Shah
Affiliation: Software Engineer working on KVM
First free software experienced: Red Hat Linux (5.something)
Back in college, several senior projects were using this new free UNIX-like thing called Linux. I had worked on UNIX a bit earlier, and had found it quite interesting, so I wanted to try this freely-available version of it. That opened doors to not only some very good free (as in beer) software, but also, upon reading about it, informed me about the free-as-in-speech aspect of it, and I was totally blown over. As a budding software engineer, I couldn’t understand why people could produce software and give it all away without caring for money. Internet access was sparse, so I couldn’t really read much about the free speech part of it.
But at the same time, I was extremely thrilled that I could actually see how a real OS was written–and map my knowledge from the i386 manuals to the actual Linux kernel source code. That experience has shaped my career. I became known as the Linux guy in my college. Students, and even professors, turned to me for anything Linux related. Getting X to work was a pain back then on some graphics cards, and actually getting it to work on the various desktops my colleagues had back then was the biggest learning opportunity I ever got. I got to know all about how jumper pins affected IO, how the kernel communicated with various hardware and userspace, all about hard disks, partitioning, MBR, etc.–which my college courses couldn’t have taught me.
Later, when packaging some software for Debian, I recall I printed the GPL and read through it. The entire philosophy behind Free Software was suddenly very clear to me, and appealed to me instantly. To this day, I consider myself lucky I get to work on Free Software and get paid for doing it.
Name: Stephen Smoogen
First free software experienced: emacs
I began in Free Software back shortly after GNU was founded. The school I was working with could not afford paying for the various compilers needed on the Sun and HP-UX machines. We had used many forms of Open Source code (Sendmail, hack, etc) but were finding problems getting newer versions compiled as we got newer hardware. On some systems we had a basic compiler but not any debugging tools, on others you could only allow N people use the compiler with the license server. It was causing problems in both classwork and various productivity.
The ability to use have gcc, bison, and other tools enabled us to allow more students access to the tools they needed in order to learn coding. My first experience was in the classic Carl Sagan method: "To invent the Apple Pie, you must first the Universe." In order for me to have nethack, I needed to build through a huge mountain of software.
First you learned enough vi to be able to compile emacs with the pre-built compiler. Then you used emacs to edit the various Makefiles and other configuration scripts. Then you compiled the toolset the first time, then you compiled the toolset again using the compiled toolset, and then you did it a third time because you do things in threes. And then from each step you would get onto mailing lists and newsgroups to try and figure out why N didn’t work or feed back a bug that happened because the VAX or HP box you had wasn’t exactly like other ones.
Name: Karsten Wade
Affiliation: Community Gardener, Fedora and CentOS Projects
First free software experienced: Installing Debian from floppies [which gave time for long discussions about software freedom]
Our lead UNIX sysadmin, Ben Kite, had been talking about the importance of software freedom, and he really struck a chord in me. As we spent a few hours getting Debian installed on a 1U Penguin Computing server for a new project, we waxed philosophically and practically. As an IT manager running mostly Windows for the business, I saw a new pathway that would combine my fascination with computers and passion for free thought and action. I may not have found this pathway myself without Ben’s help.