Linux Syndicate Launches

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 18, 2009 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Like many people, I start most mornings by visiting sites devoted to free and open source software (FOSS). Even though I often weed my list, I still look at several dozen on any given day, so I appreciate aggregator sites that collect URLs and save me time. That's why I appreciate the launching of Linux Syndicate, a new site run by David Graham, a former colleague of mine at Linux.com. The site has only been active a few days, and Graham is still tweaking it, but already it promises to be one of the most complete FOSS aggregators.

Graham has been a GNU/Linux user since 1995, and a Debian user since 1998. He is a co-founder of the Open and Free Technology Community, an organization best-known for providing IRC channels to FOSS groups, and has served as its chair three times and its ombudsman twice. He has also been elected three times as a board member of Software in the Public Interest, the non-profit society face of projects such as Debian and OpenOffice.org. He is better known online as "cdlu," which sounds like a name for Cthulhu's younger brother, but is really short for "Confused Debian Linux User".

From June 2000 to November 2008, apart from a six month layoff in 2002-03, Graham was on contract with SourceForge to run News Vac, a collection of links and brief descriptions that ran on the right side of such sites as IT Managers Journal, Newsforge, and Linux.com. When he started, Graham recalls, "RSS feeds were not common, if they existed at all." He started by writing regular expressions to help locate stories, which would be scored by keywords and manually judged for inclusion.

Three years ago, Graham linked his personal blog to an aggregator for the Canadian Liberal parties. "I quickly found the aggregator easily gameable," he says. For instance, "You could keep your story on top as long as you wanted by updating the timestamp. I offered to fix [it] and ended up rewriting the aggregator from scratch, including the RSS feed parsing. Since then, I've been using the code for other aggregators."

When SourceForge stopped running LInux.com in November 2008 in preparation for the site's sale to Linux Foundation, Graham became unemployed. "At SourceForge I was on contract, and was not offered severance, nor was I eligible for employment insurance," Graham explains. "Having had several interviews, I decided to go the route of what the New York Times called 'forced entrepreneurship' and combine my code with my old job as the News Vac editor at Linux.com." In other words, Graham concluded that he had nothing to lose by starting the site and trying to develop it.

The front page of Linux Syndicate is divided into two columns. On the left, the front page displays news stories about FOSS, selected by keyword matching. On the right are postings from FOSS blogs, which are not sorted by keywords. If you prefer, you can click one of the other two tabs at the top of the page and display a single column of news or blog entries.

One of the features of the site is that it uses cookies to leave a red box with the text, 'You have read to here' so that each time you log in, you can continue reading where you left off. Should the point where you stopped reading no longer be on the front page, the page will load up to 500 additional stories to help you find your place. Considering that the site can load half a dozen stories or more each hour, this marker should greatly ease readers' efforts to keep current.

For now, he says, "The site is very basic, and designed to be highly practical with minimal superfluous features." However, he is constantly looking for sites worth adding to the feed. He is also considering adding the ability for others to contribute content and exploring the use of AJAX "to keep it up to date for readers and reducing server load."

Graham adds, "I am always open to suggestions for other features as well." He is also working on improving the code and offering it to other online communities.

"We'll see how it goes," he says.

Currently, the site is running only a half dozen Google ads, although that might change as Graham explores various possibilities for making the site pay for itself, or even turn into his major income source.

However, Graham suggests that he might continue the site, regardless of whether it becomes self-supporting. "I'm doing this because I care about information availability in Linux, which is also why I worked for SourceForge and its predecessors in open source news for more than eight years."

But, whatever happens, the result is a centralized site for keeping easily informed about FOSS, and the community is richer for it. Already, Linux Syndicate comes close to replacing the old News Vac feature, and the site will only improve as it is tweaked.

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