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Computing Chat

Donnie Barnes, Red Hat's director of technical projects

A chat about Linux

October 10, 1999
Web posted at: 8:20 p.m. EDT

(CNN) -- The following is an edited transcript of a chat with Donnie Barnes, director of technical projects at Red Hat, Inc. Mr. Barnes joined our chat on Monday, October 4th, 1999, from Research Triangle Park, NC.

Chat Moderator: Welcome to the chat, Donnie Barnes!

Question from diomedes: Donnie, what do you consider to be Red Hat's most critical obstacles in the next five years?

Donnie Barnes: Well, the most critical obstacle is obviously Microsoft. They do quite a few things very well and thus are a formidable competitor. We're up for the challenge, though. :)

Question from hawkfan: Donnie, what's happening at Red Hat to improve quality control? It seems that every new release is followed by weeks of daily updates before most of the kinks are worked out.

Donnie Barnes: Well, all software has bugs. We're in the fortunate position of being able to squash them quite quickly. But we do realize that they can be annoying and we are constantly working to build better QA processes. As you probably know, much of the code out there isn't under our direct control. That makes our lives difficult but we have some new ideas coming out in the next few months that should help things quite a bit.

Question from erroneous: The real advantage Linux has over Microsoft is in its full access to the innards of the application software and the kernel. Will Red Hat continue to guarantee full access to the kernel and app. configurations and setup?

Donnie Barnes: Yes, most definitely. Red Hat is an open source company first. This is stated clearly in our S-1 (SEC filing) and will continue. This is our main advantage over proprietary software companies and we intend to use it.

Question from a1: Donnie: A big turnoff for home users is that Linux is not very user friendly (in that you have to type in almost every command). Although Windows is very unreliable, it is user friendly. How are you going to compete?

Donnie Barnes: Linux is currently a very good server OS. Your question is really about the desktop user, though. We see opportunities for Linux to move into the desktop as better user interfaces are created. This is happening now with KDE and Gnome. I think you'll see them both get better and fill ease of use needs.

Question from itanium: How does sun's statement that Solaris will be open sourced affect Linux’s future? Doesn't Solaris offer most everything that Linux needs?

Donnie Barnes: The Solaris announcement is nothing more than the same thing they've always done on a slightly broader scale. The license isn't open source and is quite proprietary -- still. In the end, Sun still has complete control over the code, including what users contribute, and users aren't allowed to redistribute changes. We see that as very limiting and nothing really resembling the power that open source gives you. We also can not use code from Solaris. It is not licensed in a manner that allows that and, in fact, could be quite dangerous for open source developers to peruse.

Question from bunco: Does Red Hat plan on (or have they already) funding any non-profit open-source projects like Apache?

Donnie Barnes: Yes, we've funded quite a few. The best known is the Gnome desktop project. We've had seven full-time folks working on that project for the last few years.

Question from blabonte: Any plans to increase the technical-support offerings of Red Hat?

Donnie Barnes: Sure, there are plans to increase the services offerings we currently have. In fact, much of our business moving forward will be services based. There will be new training programs, new support offerings, as well as some new things they haven't told even me about yet. :-)

Question from who: Who does Red Hat see as its main audience now: home users, power users, workstations, or servers? How do you intend to compete with more user-friendly distributions such as Linux Mandrake?

Donnie Barnes: Our main customer focus is certainly the server space. That's what Linux does really well now. It needs applications for it to take much of a share in the desktop space but, once we see those, we can work harder in that area, too. As for Mandrake, well, they're just another open-source distribution. If they do something cool that we don't, we can use that in our next release. That's the beauty of open source. :)

Question from schuelaw: I teach math at a small liberal arts college and maintain a small network of Linux machines here. I get no official support from tech services here, I'm pretty much on my own. Microsoft has made great inroads in educational arenas by practically giving away software, hardware, and support. Do you think this is an important strategy for open-source companies to adopt? Do you know of any such projects, now or in the future?

Donnie Barnes: Yes, this is definitely important. It's an odd situation, though, as our software is already free. What we can do is promote it better in educational settings so those folks know they can use it that way. The educational sector is very important to us for a variety of reasons…we get lots of code from there, new users learn about products there, and we get employees there, just to list a few.

Question from Guido: No matter how stable an operating system is, security is a higher necessity. What active steps is Red Hat making to create an easier way to configure and secure Linux distribution?

Donnie Barnes: We try to be as secure as we can out of the box. We then make sure and make updates available in a timely manner. A new feature of 6.1 is an automatic update service that you can subscribe to that makes sure you stay up to date. Future RH versions may include even more support for configuring firewalls and other important security areas.

Question from jimmy: Donnie, do you think there should be multiple versions of the Linux, kernel, enterprise, clustered, stand-alone, server, desktop, and palmtop?

Donnie Barnes: There already are, in a sense. We ship a nice generic one that works for most of those categories and users can build their own custom kernels for applications like palmtops. But, if you need something special, you always have the ability to build your own, too. Again, another beautiful part of the open-source world. You aren't tied to your vendor.

Question from Kevlar: Does Red Hat plan to continue devoting 10 percent of its revenue into Linux development now that they've gone public? Will that number go up? Down?

Donnie Barnes: I'm not fully up on what percentages we spend where but those numbers are now public as part of our being a public company and any changes must be announced. I'm sure that whatever number we have currently listed is in line with our future plans, as we did put lots of thought into it.

Question from MrHat: Is Red Hat working with any hardware manufacturers to ensure an increase in software support (e.g. drivers) for Linux? Do you believe that Linux can survive without code contributions (GPL or otherwise) from hardware manufacturers?

Donnie Barnes: Yes, we have lots of hardware vendors who stay in touch with us regularly. I'm not going to list them all by name, but there are more and more of them every day who care about Linux. We try to educate them as best we can on how to be a player within the community so that they don't need us as a mediator, which has worked quite well. I do think Linux can survive without help from the hardware manufacturers but I doubt it could flourish the way most would like to see. But the good news is that they are contributing and doing a good job of it. Witness the latest move from 3Com to release open-source drivers of their own. Lots of other companies do it, too.

Question from SuperdudeLinux: For more applications to come to make Linux a true desktop operating system, do you think that there needs to be incentive to port major application packages to Linux from big companies, or do you think that the open-source developers can satisfy the need for software?

Donnie Barnes: Open-source developers can't satisfy the needs as quickly as some commercial companies could by porting existing software. Ideally, I'd like to have everything as open source but I'd accept the commercial ports if companies want to do them.

Question from xeno42: What will make Red Hat stand out from the rapidly expanding crowd of "commercial" Linux distributions during the coming year? How do you see Red Hat facing increased competition for market share from the likes of Caldera and Corel, to name just a couple?

Donnie Barnes: Some apps can't even really be done as open source due to some weird problems...take Quicken, for example. I doubt that even all the services that Quicken provides could be done as open source easily (remote bill paying and the like) but who knows? Open- source developers never cease to amaze me. :) We differentiate ourselves by being a true open- source player and a company that can deliver total customer solutions, not just a CD. We have a complete services group that can do training, certification, support, consulting, etc. We also don't see those distributions as our competition. We want to maintain our market share in the Linux space while at the same time *grow* that Linux space much larger than it currently is.

Question from Anador: Donnie, what is Red Hat's position on the Linux Standards Base? And how much progress is being made on this front? I think it is important for there to be a solid, standard base upon which all distros are built. Do you agree?

Donnie Barnes: We are fully in support of the LSB. Open standards are definitely important to the success of Linux. As we've seen far too many times, closed standards can kill technology. As for the progress…with anything useful there is going to be a wait. I think progress is being made, though, and I'm hopeful that we'll see something within the next six months. Again, let me reiterate, we fully support the LSB. Some folks seem to like to spread word that we don't, but we do, and we have since the beginning. I hate rumors. :-)

Question from Caveman: Are you seeing more companies such as Quicken starting to port their applications to Linux or are most of the applications being ported still enterprise/server applications?

Donnie Barnes: More are starting to port but the list is small and they aren't coming tremendously fast at this point. The pace is accelerating but the server app space definitely still dominates as far as third-party apps. I think we're still about a year away from seeing mainstream desktop apps hit the streets (games notwithstanding...they're here now).

Question from MrHat: How do you feel about distributions which "derive" themselves from the Red Hat codebase? Does this position Red Hat primarily as a service/support company?

Donnie Barnes: We don't mind them one bit, as I said about Mandrake (another Red Hat derivative). Anything they innovate over what we ship is just something we can take back and use ourselves in a future release if it is something the market wants. That's the beauty of open source. We don't have to worry about being one-upped and having no recourse. All work done also gets leveraged, whether it's done by us or by someone else. It's really quite a powerful model and one that people are only now starting to understand. It does position us as a services company to a certain extent but it doesn't hamper our ability to innovate ourselves and "outgun" those derivatives with each release.

Question from Catty: As director of technical projects, is there any one cutting-edge project or area of development that REALLY excites you?

Donnie Barnes: There are plenty of them. High Availability clustering is one. It's very neat to set up a set of web servers all acting as one web server and then pull the plug on one of them and watch the "real" server stay completely alive with no loss of service. I also think the embedded space has some great opportunities for Linux. I look forward to seeing Linux as the OS in my VCR (or whatever that next recording technology turns out to be. :)

Question from brandonl: High Availability Clustering...sounds good. Any idea how soon projects like this might show up?

Donnie Barnes: It's already in 6.1! It's simple web and FTP failover for static content but it does exist and even has a graphical tool to help you set it up. It's quite neat.

Question from robbo: Donnie, what is your opinion on Sun's acquisition of Star Division (the makers of Star Office)? Is this good, bad, or irrelevant to the community?

Donnie Barnes: At the moment, it is fairly irrelevant. I wait to see what "community source licensing" will do for it (if anything). It will be nice to have it freely redistributable in binary form, at least. But I'm waiting to see.

Question from taaz: Donnie, will Red Hat help with or ever include Linux DVD video playback support, considering that there are tricky legal issues with the open-source nature of the project?

Donnie Barnes: That remains to be seen. Currently the only way to do DVD playback is via closed-source players only. That means we could never make a player a part of the base distribution but could possibly include one on our vendor CD (a disk set of third-party demo and free apps). If an open source player is released and we can sort out the legal issues, we'd be more than happy to ship one. I'd run out and buy a new laptop with a DVD player immediately. :)

Question from Simon: How important do you think thoroughly testing a product is, versus having it ship on the expected-release date?

Donnie Barnes: Thorough testing is always important. We try to have testing done internally as well as via open betas that the world can play with to make sure everything gets proper testing. We have a bug-tracking system public for the world to see, too. That helps with this process.

Question from wholok: How does Red Hat plan to keep its customers up to date with the most recent version?

Donnie Barnes: We've got a new subscription service. You can get it for free and have access to our normal FTP site (which has had it's bandwidth upped!) or you can pay a little extra for priority FTP access as well. This is a really cool service for folks who need instant update access.

Question from Spanky: Will Red Hat offer something like VMWare for Linux users who want to run their existing Windows base?

Donnie Barnes: If an open-source program that could do that were to be available, we would certainly ship it. VMWare is proprietary, though, so we probably won't be shipping it as part of the main distribution. But you can buy it and install it yourself and it works quite well for that task.

Question from bjijones: Will Red Hat include PowerPC support at sometime or other?

Donnie Barnes: The possibility is always there, but the likelihood dwindles with each passing day. Apple has made no firm commitment to having open specs on their hardware so that makes supporting an open-source distribution on it quite impossible. Until they make a better effort at allowing open-source folks to support their hardware, the chances are quite low.

Question from jimmy: Do you think Linux could ever be a mainframe operating system with all that assumes in term of availability?

Donnie Barnes: It could certainly at some point help replace mainframes. I don't think you mean run *on* mainframe hardware but it could eventually be up to the task of replacing mainframes, likely on some sort of equivalent Intel-based hardware. The hardware side isn't even completely there in terms of failover and redundancy but, once it is, I think Linux will be able to use those features well before any commercial OS has that ability. That's my hope, anyway, and I think the open-source community could pull it off. We already have some projects underway to solve some holes that journaling file systems, for example.

Question from erroneous: What do you think of the potential for Linux to initiate a revolution in home PC use: the personal server?

Donnie Barnes: I think we're already starting to see that and I think we'll only see more. It's currently the best OS for the small server in terms of complete functionality. We include Web, FTP, email, SMB, firewalling, masquerading, SQL, and a whole host of other servers that can all exist on the same physical machine. The only thing we lack is completely friendly configuration tools for all of the above -- and those are coming!

Question from BinaryTree: How well do you think Linux will be accepted among PC Gamers in the near future? What's the chance of Linux becoming a suitable gaming platform?

Donnie Barnes: Games are already popular on Linux...witness Doom, Heretic, Quake, Civ Call to Power, etc. Many of those can be found on store shelves at CompUSA and other retailers! I think it's already been accepted as a platform...we just need more game companies to port!

Question from MrHat: SGI, Inc. has recently begun bundling Red Hat Linux with its workstations. In addition, they have begun to port proprietary, closed-source software like IRIS Performer to Linux. In what ways do you perceive this to be a positive/negative for the Linux community and/or Red Hat?

Donnie Barnes: The more applications we can get, the better off we are -- closed or open source. We'd prefer open source as we think that is what best suits the needs of our customers but closed source is better than none at all. It's definitely a positive for RH customers, and thus for RH.

Question from illuzi0n: Do you see "Linux compatible" and "shipped with Linux", as goals hardware manufacturers will be striving toward more and more?

Donnie Barnes: Sure. As the Linux user base grows, so do potential customers for hardware companies looking to differentiate themselves. They'll have to support Linux to do that and they are already starting to.

Question from freejack: Do you see vendors like Compaq and SGI adopting the Linux kernel for their IA-64 efforts? These firms have great hardware platforms but have never really been able to gain any momentum with their OS offerings. Does Linux have a place with these vendors’ strategic efforts?

Donnie Barnes: Well, I don't know anything for certain but I would definitely say that the way trends are going I wouldn't be surprised to see Linux fill some of those roles. It's got a great advantage of already being 64 bit clean, so porting will be fast (it's already booting and building things in simulators).

Question from ishamael: Not sure if this question has already been asked or not but…why was 6.1 released while 6.0 is still being actively marketed and is in stores everywhere? Was it solely for the benefit to Anaconda or are there other somewhat major improvements/upgrades hiding in there?

Donnie Barnes: Well, we can't control exactly what sits on store shelves and when. We have to market our current release, even up to the end. We did make the release announcement a couple weeks early, though, and made it available for FTP so folks would know the release in stores was imminent. As for the benefits and improvements, there are more than just the install. All packages have been updated; we have High Availability support, PXE remote boot support, the new automated update process, and likely some things that slip my mind. See our website over the coming days for more details of the new stuff that's in there.

Question from Voss: When is Red Hat going to finally support real plug and play in their Linux?

Donnie Barnes: As soon as the Linux kernel does. :-) That is scheduled to work better in the 2.4 kernel and development is happening now.

Question from Crispin: Speaking of the X windows characteristics, does Red Hat plan to set a standard for GUI like Windows does? I mean, some window frames in X are not sized properly -- there is not drag and drop, etc.

Donnie Barnes: That is happening as part of both the Gnome and KDE desktop projects, really. Yes, there are problems that need to be addressed and both projects are working hard to address them. Drag and drop, in particular, is a big issue and should work seamlessly between apps in coming months.

Question from Spanky: Do you think the open- source community could pull off it's own open CPU design? How would Red Hat receive this, given Intel's investment?

Donnie Barnes: Well, it isn't likely that an open CPU would get mass-produced in large enough quantity to make huge sales. If it did, we'd certainly look at it as a possible market but I doubt we'd care much before. :) As for the Intel investment, we still have our SPARC and Alpha versions, so we can be multi-platform if we want.

Question from BadKarma: What are the chances of getting a ssl (with licensed RSA) bundle, i.e., support for secure pop/imap/ftp, stunnel, OpenSSL, and other apps that require a RSA license?

Donnie Barnes: We already have that for the web stuff in our Secure Web Server product. We haven't seen enough customer demand to warrant it for other services and, as you probably know, we have to buy an RSA license so we'd have to have a reason to do that. Send mail to if you'd be willing to pay money for those things. Or, wait for the RSA patent to run out in another nine months or so. :-)

Question from Nostradms: Do you think, with the introduction of WINLINUX, that Microsoft will start a Linux distribution of its own?

Donnie Barnes: I'd love to see that! But I honestly doubt it would happen. Who knows, they like to throw curve balls out of Redmond.

Question from Simon: Does Red Hat actively attempt to ask closed-hardware companies (such as Creative Labs with their SoundBlaster Live card) to open up their hardware specs? If so, have any attempts succeeded?

Donnie Barnes: Yes, we do actively pursue companies for that sort of thing. Plenty of attempts have succeeded but those are usually due to customer pressure, not pressure from us. Folks, I can't say this enough: If you want support from a company that won't support open source, ASK THEM TO SUPPORT IT. All companies are driven by customer needs.

Question from dieman: What are the relations between VA Research and Red Hat? Can we expect to see some sort of rh/va-developed admin. tools in the future?

Donnie Barnes: VA is a hardware company that sells our software (and others) installed on their machines. They are doing open-source development, too, so I wouldn't be surprised to see us work together with them, as we would with any open-source developer. They are doing some interesting stuff so, hopefully, we can!

Question from ishamael: Is Red Hat contributing any manpower to the Linux Virtual Server Project? I noticed that you mentioned High Availability in your list of added features and I was wondering what exactly you meant.

Donnie Barnes: I'm not completely up to speed on the various projects out there but we do use LVS and have contributed to it, as well as other parts of HA.

Question from ajh: So when you're not off whitewater rafting or driving your tractor, what do you do for fun?

Donnie Barnes: I like to shoot guns, drive four wheel drives, and live life outdoors. :-)

Chat Moderator: Any final comments?

Donnie Barnes: I just want to say thanks to everyone for coming out to the session. This whole open-source thing has been quite a ride and I'm looking forward to plenty more of it. Hope you are, too!

Chat Moderator: Thank you for chatting with us about Linux, Mr. Barnes.

Donnie Barnes: Thanks for having me!

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