In praise of Linux

If computers would have been people, they would also have political affiliations and they would have also striven to be ruled best and I am not sure whether rule by the best is the best rule just like Self-rule may not be necessarily the best rule. In this age of democracy, we are ruled by some macro system, which we term by different flavors. Most commonly occurring themes are   Constitutional Democracy, Voice of the People, Rule of Law and Ethical Responsibility and as such.  If in some cataclysm, all computers tomorrow need to decide by what System they want to be operated, they will be in as messy situation as we are. No answer will be perfect and here I remember good old Bernard Shaw who proclaimed the Murphy-ic Oracle for any sufficiently complex and macro system, while illuminating the relation between German Boots and Routines, and then School Curricula and System of Examination – “Routines are like German Boots. They are made to suit everybody and they do not fit anybody perfectly.”  The incapability of routine in satisfying everyone completely has something to do with its framer’s urge to be make  it suiting everyone (universal compatibility) but that is not the whole picture. Because some Universal Routine guides Routine-makers and Routine-followers, a democratic consensus on what suits everyone is never arrived at. It can never be. So our empowered computers can never fully decide what is the best System by which they must be operated upon.

            Hence the decision needs to be taken by men, the self-declared Routine Makers of the planet, accept perhaps – volcanoes, earthquakes as such and similar catastrophes brought by themselves. Since men of this planet are guided by varied impulses and objectives, they also could not agree to what is that System which will make the best Operating System. So they sat down, spent sleepless nights and went on making systems and like all system-makers (they are like sellers of fizz drinks. Every party says that the bottle marked by their specific label only contains the zing thing) finally convinced themselves that they have done the most jolly good thing. Later, with the zeal and the tact of any new religion that tries to be inside every living head of this planet, they set out to fill up the dark recess of all computers of the world, overwriting, violating and in cases causing the death of the subject. Computers initially resisted. Those whose capability of resistance was seen from emanating from a terminally fatal geriatric disease called hardware incompatibility were terminated. Then the Apostles created computers, which have no chance of resistance and were converted en masse and everywhere. Computers took this quite sportingly and amused themselves at the great attention showered by these tiny little creatures. Finally, after the natural process of selection attained a certain order, effective monopolies started ruling the scene.

            Without the historical perspective, the birth and growth of Linux cannot be appreciated. Linux is derived from UNIX; an Operating System that was earlier used in Mainframes and Giant Machines, a handful of them and looked upon as highly prized item in laboratories and research organizations. But just a short story is not a compression of a novel or a computer is not an electrical appliance, Linux is not some tailored UNIX suit to suit the gloves operating a Linux PC. What differentiates Linux from UNIX is its architecture and what binds them together is the philosophy.

            Unix philosophy was the way that generation was looking at Computers and Computation in general. We need to understand the fact that when first UNIX was born, It was also the age of Flower Children. It was also the time when Bob Dylan was singing – The Times are a changing. Unix Operating System approached the design of the OS something like Euclid approached in his Elements. At the outset, some fundamental blocks or tools were prepared. Next some more complex blocks were prepared by combining the earlier preparations and so on. At any stage of its architecture, a logical chain could be drawn and we can lead ourselves calmly to those elementary blocks. To name everything by the common and plural concept of file can only find its parallel in physics’ conceptualizing all energy as quanta. This philosophy drew its power from the fact that in all new situations (specifically for new application programs), we need not start from sui genesis but think of synthesizing from the existing elements. Hence, programming in UNIX is a work of sculptor rather than a builder. A sculptor unveils something inherently persistent in a stone or wood and a builder forces his bricks onto space. With usage of this tools (the system calls, the shell utilities etc). Hence scientists loved it and they used it and encouraged his students to use and it finally became a known and familiar piece of arcania in schools and universities. And after some quarter century, we wonder the fact that the source code of the Operating System was free and anyone can modify and use it, study it. A computer misbehaving was a challenging thing, an act of finding your way through a labyrinth. Not now, when to lend your single user CD of an OS to your neighbour whose machine has crashed is an offence by law. 

In middle age, people used to buy indulgences and church used to sell them to raise money for its own as well as to fund political wars.  One of the reason why people used to buy them at a price (the law of supply and demand operates in areas where dismal science of economics is not formally acknowledged) is the acknowledged and tacit agreement that they have very little knowledge of what happens after and also for the more trivial fact that the manuals where what happens after is written in a language which is too high and too arcane – Latin in this case. The church used to benefit by both.

The new technology of Printing Press hit this system at its very core. Today, when people load an Operating System in their computer buying at a price, what they actually pay for is the same tacit acknowledgement of the lack of understanding of the whole business. Ignorance was a sin, is a sin and will continue to be a sin as it opens a channel for setting up a tradition that is always afraid, always insecure and hence patronizes everything that only tells him – I will respect your ignorance. I will respect you all the more for your ignorance. I will make it a fashionable virtue for you. And you will not be alone. There will be millions who have been comforted. Millions are in the queue to be comforted. Come Unto Me. The high priest calls thus from the top of a tower and then, with a soft blip, the window closes.

            Linux is like re-discovery  and can be compared to the  re-reading of Greek classics in the late middle age. A whole community sat in surprise, excitement and awe. The ultimate technology, the technology that has sustained and provided succor  to generations of civilized human has been spoken and the message is this – Mind Space cannot be copy-righted. The best way of proliferation is to make things free and releasing all the strings that bind you and your greed. But it does not mean that all mind workers will be doing ever-continuing charity.  Remember the word of the Lord – “Every workman will get his due as much as he requires to pull out my work”. Human greed, subtle and gross has always stood in the path of human happiness and time and again humanity has seen, felt and experienced this phenomena. Our generation was destined to find its most intense and gross display of the same phenomena in the art and science of what makes a computer work.  

            Any philosophy is impotent if it cannot be put into practice in some time or other.

In concluding, this default engineer will describe a significant project related to Linux and why I chose this one because, it beautifully illustrates a historical lession.

During the mainframe-jamana of UNIX, dumb terminals were connected to a centralized resource and UNIX used to alott resources to each terminal and was a muti-user system by design. The dumb terminals were literally dumb and technically an input/output unit only. This whole technology went underground as PC s became powerhouses in themselves due to cheaper computing resources. In parallel, came the classical Ethernet – the most enduring of connecting technologies of all time. Ethernet, was exactly opposite of netting through ether. It was hooking computers to a long piece of wire and devising a way how they can work and remain nicely together. It was simple, clear and elegant. The rules that all Ethernet member needs to obey to access the wire as well as to cross-communicate was something like the organization of Greek city-states. Each member can have unique name, feature and capacity but each one needs to understand the protocol called ARP (Address Resolution Protocol) which made them remain unique as not too unique to retain all resources for itself. The law was itself self-regulatory. Time and often, two computers may need to communicate and in UNIX environment, this can be easily done by a procedure, not trivial at all, but called TFTP (Trivial File Transfer Protocol). And lastly, since the Ethernet members were soverign to some sense, some may be turned off as one wishes and will wake up to find that other members will recognize him well enough. This identification at start-up was devised by a procedure called BOOTP, where boot means to wake up.

With these three blocks in hand and using the raw power of hardware, Linux opens up in splitting the computer in two or more. It is equivalent of Nuclear Fission in Operating System. The project is called LTSP (Linux Terminal Server Project) and you can dive deep into the technology at http://web.archive.org/web/20050109184003/http://www.ltsp.org/.  The old wine in a new bottle. To a centralized Linux Server are hooked N number of relatively cheaper machines via hi-speed Ethernet cards without any hard disk, just like old-time dumb terminals. The machine is powered on, it boots from its Ethernet Card (BOOTP), gets its name and address (ARP), continues talking with the Server and gets all vital files (TFTP). The machines are running, without disks (and hence no disk-failure or Virus attack in individual machine) no separate OS for each machine and each gets the computer resource as per one needs. No over-eating as in normal case when you are stuffed with things/goodies you will never even open. And the last point, this time from the Economics of computer Resources – Linux is Free. No need to get Muti-User License.

And remember, when one member of the Ethernet closes his work and goes, his computing resources are back again in the common pool, to be used and worked upon. This is what, I feel all great souls of the world might have wished while contemplating on the meager resources of ours and the need we have of them.