Give credit where it's due


Article from Issue 158/2014

"maddog" laments yet another instance where GNU/Linux fails to get a mention.

Once upon a time, there was a comedian named Rodney Dangerfield. One of his punch lines was "I don't get no respect!" Compared with GNU/Linux, Rodney Dangerfield was a king!

I am writing this because, once again, a large article in my local newspaper, starting on the front page, talked about a Cray supercomputer that had been purchased by a state university. The article also talked about another cluster of computing systems and compared the speed, energy efficiency, and many other issues between the two systems.

The article even discussed how, for these systems, you did not type in your data one element at a time, that your data usually arrived in huge amounts, was processed for a long period of time, and then was presented to you as a huge number of data points that you could then visualize with another system. The article made absolutely no mention of the operating system.

I talked with the reporter of this newspaper article many times. I also know at least three of the people who were involved with the purchase of this computer and who gave the interview to the reporter. They are all familiar with Free Software. So, you would think it might occur to them to put the three words into the article that would make an old man's heart sing: "It runs GNU/Linux." That would have been enough.

Of course, they could also go on to tell people that it is basically the same GNU/Linux that you can run in your notebook or your desktop system, with the same kernel that drives Android in your phone and tablet. They could have pointed out that students could, with the addition of a few FOSS libraries named PVM, MPI, and OpenMP, write source code (and, in some cases, even binaries) that would run on their own laptops and desktop machines for testing and then run very fast on this Cray supercomputer.

My friend, the reporter, might even have tied in the Raspberry Pi with the story and told how the same software is allowing high school students to make supercomputers out of $35 Raspberry Pi systems. But, the reporter didn't and, once again, credit for GNU/Linux was denied on a front-page story.

When I worked at Digital and a large sale was announced, the operating system was never mentioned. Marketing people said, "The customer bought a Digital VAX system!" or "The customer bought a DEC Alpha cluster." Reams of information might be available about layered products, particularly if it were Oracle or a CAD package, but there was no mention of the operating system.

For a while, things were better. When GNU/Linux was "new and shiny," and it was distributed by vendors who wanted to push "Open Source," often GNU/Linux was mentioned. Some problems started to occur when the operating system was later called "Red Hat Software" or "SUSE," and the "GNU/Linux" was left off, but GNU/Linux did have its moment in the sun.

The supercomputing issue is one that gets me especially irritated, because I personally know Dr. Thomas Sterling and Donald Becker, the two people from NASA who helped popularize the concept of "commodity supercomputing," which they called Beowulf systems. Now, it's called "high-performance computing."

Beowulf systems (high-performance computing done with commodity components) basically lowered the cost of solving some highly interesting and important problems to one fortieth (or less) that of traditional supercomputers. Additionally, these systems were easily expandable if the task was underestimated, and easily broken into smaller units when the main task had been completed and other tasks needed the computing power.

Now, GNU/Linux is mainstream, so the press does not mention its use in these news stories, and people talking about new installations or new capabilities forget to mention that the software is FOSS, and that FOSS is used because it is efficient, open, and gratis. It might have cost millions of dollars to buy enough software licenses for every node of the supercomputer, but they don't mention that.

I was not absolutely sure that the university's new Cray ran GNU/Linux, so I drove to the open house celebrating the launch of the supercomputer. When I arrived, I was told that indeed the Cray was running GNU/Linux, so I gave them one of my Linux license plates to show they were properly "licensed." When I left, they were trying to find a place to mount the license plate on the Cray.

Please remember to say "It runs GNU/Linux"!

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