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Making the distribution, Part 1

1.  Birth of the Gentoo Linux distribution

Linux and me

For every Linux geek there's a time when Linux becomes more than just a name and reveals itself as something more wonderful, powerful, and intriguing than anything a developer has ever encountered. My revelation came while I was working at the University of New Mexico as a sysadmin. Our NT server was running pretty well and I had some extra time on my hands. So I got Debian set up on a Pentium 166 server box and started learning ... and learning and learning and learning. And then I was hooked.

First I learned the basic ins and outs of Linux: how to get around, perform backups, get Samba running, etc. Then I set up qmail and Apache and learned python and shell programming. I built a departmental Intranet. I got Linux installed at home and began trying different distributions. Finally I settled with Stampede Linux. You know how the progression goes: first you struggle with grasping Linux basics; then, when you have a decent grip, you customize your Linux, learning as you go. Because Linux has nothing to hide, you can explore the technology and tools that make it tick while you grow in Linux fluency.

Linux is about potential

Linux offered something I had never seen before. If I had to put that magical something into words, I'd call it potential: the potential to change, to improve, to fix things, and yes, even to break things. As I upgraded to new kernel versions I saw Linux improve before my eyes and transform itself almost daily. And I was along for the ride! I was a part of the transformation. It was fun.

If you're anything like me, before you were exposed to Linux and open source you looked to those big companies in Redmond and Cupertino to provide a next-generation operating system that finally worked exactly the way you wanted it to. But alas, that dream never became reality. And while we were waiting, Linux came along. And although it had a lot of rough edges, it provided something for us hacker guys and gals that we could improve upon while we waited for the next big thing. Then one day we awoke to find that Linux had become the next big thing. And smiling all the while, we continued to hack away.

Linux is about people

The next thing I learned was that Linux is about people. Isn't that refreshing? Linux isn't just a bunch of source code. It's a community. We rely on this community to get our questions answered, and we become part of the community when we start helping others by contributing our time and expertise.

IRC (Internet relay chat) is a great place to meet people and waste a tremendous amount of time. The #stampede channel on irc.openprojects.net became my official hangout. That's where I'd ask my Linux questions. It's also where I first began to help other people out. #stampede desperately needed experienced Linux users to help out newbies who had just gotten the distribution installed. As is common on IRC, many of the experienced Stampede people had lost their zeal for answering (yet another) newbie question. But I was so excited that I actually knew the answer to newbies' questions, that I couldn't resist helping out! And that's how my involvement with Stampede began. I was just another guy who liked to answer questions. Of course, it wasn't entirely altruistic, because I also helped myself to expert Linux knowledge that the more experienced people on the channel (not to mention the Stampede developers themselves!) had to offer.

Getting involved

When people ask me how to get involved in an open source project, I tell them to find a place where they can be helpful, even if it's just by helping with basic Linux questions. A sincere desire to help others is a great ticket into the Linux community because this sentiment is at the heart of all open source development (including Linux). At least, it should be.

Along the way you'll inevitably run into people who know more than you. And you'll learn from them just as newbies continue to learn from you. It's also likely that as you gain more experience you'll come across opportunities to help in new ways. Maybe some of the project developers you come across will suggest something, or they'll ask for help themselves. They may even invite you to become part of the development team. If you're focused on helping others, they'd be foolish to pass you by. If you're helping a lot of people out, you will definitely be noticed in the community. That's sort of how it happened with Stampede and me.

Gradually I became more and more involved in Stampede development. Before long, I was an official Stampede developer. With the blessing of skibum (Matt Wood, Stampede's head honcho), I began working on a new version of Stampede's primitive .slp packaging format. At the time the .slp package format consisted of a .tar.bz2 archive with a fixed-length footer stuck on the end that contained information about the package author, a description of the contents, the package creator, etc. This approach had two major problems: the fields were a fixed length and the footer really wasn't that big, and there was no extensibility built into the format (there was no way to add any additional fields to the .slp format in the future). Obviously this thing needed a major overhaul.

Working with the senior Stampede developers, I wrote up a proposal of how to deal with the problem. Then I started coding the prototype tools in Python. The new format (codenamed slpv6) was somewhat similar to the IFF file format from the Amiga world. This next-generation .slp format allowed for 2 32 fields, 2 32 categories of fields, and a maximum field data length of 2 32 bytes. Not only was the format very extensible, it was also more compact than plain-text and easy to parse. Both text and binary data could be stored in the format, which allowed for a lot of possibilities for the future. The idea was to stick this next-generation dynamic header on the end of the archive file, thereby producing a next-generation .slp format that would serve Stampede users for years to come and at the same time maintain compatibility with standard UNIX archive formats.

People can get ugly

slpv6 development was going well and all the senior developers were happy with my progress. But unfortunately, two lower-level Stampede developers wanted to control the slpv6 project. They didn't like the direction I was taking, and they spent most of their time insulting the new slpv6 system. Though I spent hours in heated development discussions defending the proposal against their attacks, we weren't able to resolve anything. Eventually it became clear that they were just naturally argumentative and wouldn't be happy until they had their way. Fortunately for me, my project had the approval of the senior Stampede developers. But these discussions began to wear on me and made Stampede development very unpleasant. Ugh!

I couldn't avoid these guys since I had to hang out on #stampede to chat with higher-level developers. And every time I was on the channel they became combative, trying to undermine my work. They'd use devious techniques like calling for development meetings (really just an opportunity to insult my work in front of the senior developers). They'd also try to call for votes, attempting to seize control of Stampede. Of course they'd only call for a vote when they thought they had convinced enough people to agree with them. Throughout all of this I continued my slpv6 development. Needless to say, the senior development loved my work and wanted me to continue (without their support I wouldn't have been able to stick it out).

Understanding the freak

These two guys belong to a category of developer I like to call "the freak". But although they made my development work very unpleasant, I also learned a lot from having to deal with them. At this point I'd like to offer you an expos?f the freak developers, a sort of comprehensive overview: the qualities that make a freak, the freak's modus operandi, and how you, the development project leader, can confront and possibly reform the freak without exerting a lot of effort.

In order to avoid emotional damage, you'll need one prerequisite: a backbone. If you're unable to confront the freak in a respectful but firm manner, there's no hope. The freak's goal is to control as much of your project as possible so that he or she will feel powerful. The freak will use several techniques to make this happen. First they'll start unfairly criticizing or bitterly complaining about a project and/or the developers working on a project. Then they will refrain from offering any constructive solutions. They will also not be willing to help with the project in any other way unless they are promoted to the role of project manager. Their goal is to convince you to give them as much authority as possible so that they can solve problems that only they, with their finely trained freak eyes, can see.

If the criticism and complaining aren't effective, they'll request a developer meeting. This will be their opportunity to try and divide your development team into two factions. When they think that they've gotten enough people on their side, they'll request a vote (knowing they will win). If they don't win the vote or they are overruled, they'll push for another developer meeting next week in which they'll again try to divide your development team. They'll repeat this process endlessly.

If the developer meeting approach doesn't work, freaks will become reformers. By adopting this role they will try to streamline (read: undermine) the oppressive and unfair executive decision-making process by attempting to replace it with something more democratic (read: easily manipulated.) This will often involve convincing you that you should do whatever the majority of your developers want. Freaks love this because then you can't override those developer meeting votes anymore (muhahaha!). If you allow this to happen, you've basically given the freak the keys to your Lexus. You're powerless.

In another approach, freaks will irritate and drive away your productive developers. Then they'll work your entire team into a frenzy as they forcefully try to reform the project's power structure. If their efforts are finally defeated, they'll try to rally as many defectors together as possible and fork from your project. Ouch!

Managing the freak

You can identify these guys pretty easily. They're the ones who aren't writing any code (nor do they have any intention to). Instead they spend their time talking about more important things. You know, those managerial issues. If you're a project leader, it's pretty easy to deal with them. Just tell them that you won't consider any proposal unless they produce working code. Or insist that they constructively help the current project, which includes obeying the current project manager, before giving them the opportunity to offer any (constructive) criticism. If they write some nice code or start being more helpful, great. If not, tell them to go away. They'll either leave the project (if you ignore them long enough), or they'll get their act together and start writing some code and generally become more pleasant.

Unfortunately the senior Stampede developers didn't take on freak management. In other words, they allowed these two guys to pester me (and others) to no end. While the senior developers were always in favor of my development work, they didn't do much to get these guys under control. So one day I decided that it would be easier to create my own distribution rather than have to put up with the two freaks. I resigned from Stampede development and started making plans to produce my own distro.

While I felt a bit weird about leaving a project because of two lower-level developers, the fact that they weren't dealt with really indicated that the project had severe managerial problems. If the higher-level developers weren't able or willing to make sure the Stampede development effort was pleasant and rewarding, then I didn't want to be there.

Starting afresh

Once I left I breathed a big sigh of relief. Wow! Finally, things were calm and quiet. Now it was time to define what my distribution would be about and what it would contribute to the Linux distribution scene. One of the things that attracted me to Stampede was its raw performance (thanks to its use of the experimental Pentium-optimized pgcc compiler). So I decided to focus first on performance. In addition to minimizing CPU utilization, I also wanted to minimize bloat. Too many distributions (especially those popular shrink-wrapped ones) enable so many daemons by default that you barely have any RAM left after opening an xterm. I wanted my distribution to be lean and mean, and focused on maximizing the performance of the hardware that it ran on. I decided to take a holistic approach and tackle the performance problem from all angles.

But I had a serious lack of resources, since I was the only developer for my distribution! How could I possibly create something that was comparable to Caldera or RedHat off the ground on my own? The answer was automation. I had to write scripts to automate everything, so that I would have a minimal amount of time-consuming, repetitive labor. After all, that's what computers do best, right?

I quickly saw that writing simple scripts for the kind of automation I needed wasn't going to be enough. I needed to design a complete system for generating a Linux distribution from scratch. I tentatively called it the ebuild system and got to work. The ebuild system would be able to automatically create all the distribution binaries, automating everything from unpacking and patching the sources to compilation, installation and packaging. After getting a basic ebuild prototype working, I started creating ebuild scripts for the key components of a Linux distribution (like gcc, glibc, binutils, util-linux, and friends). My Stampede development box was gradually turning into my own system, as I redesigned the initialization scripts (basing them on the Stampede initialization scripts that I had previously designed) and testing and installing every new package that I created.

A few months later I had a complete, self-hosted Linux distribution. I named it Enoch and sat back and smiled contentedly. But what became of Enoch, and how did Gentoo Linux evolve? Join me in my next article as I tell the story of how Enoch became Gentoo Linux, and the many new challenges I faced along the way.

Resources

About the author

Daniel Robbins lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was the President/CEO of Gentoo Technologies Inc., the Chief Architect of the Gentoo Project and is a contributing author of several books published by MacMillan: Caldera OpenLinux Unleashed, SuSE Linux Unleashed, and Samba Unleashed. Daniel has been involved with computers in some fashion since the second grade when he was first exposed to the Logo programming language and a potentially lethal dose of Pac Man. This probably explains why he has since served as a Lead Graphic Artist at SONY Electronic Publishing/Psygnosis. Daniel enjoys spending time with his wife Mary and his new baby daughter, Hadassah. You can contact Daniel at drobbins@gentoo.org.



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Page updated October 9, 2005

Summary: Each of us has a story to tell about our experiences with Linux. This is Daniel Robbins' Linux story. In this first of three articles, he talks about how he became a Stampede Linux developer, and why he eventually left Stampede to start his own distribution called Enoch.

Daniel Robbins
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