Difference between pages "Making the Distribution, Part 2" and "Making the Distribution, Part 1"

(Difference between pages)
 
 
Line 1: Line 1:
 
{{Article
 
{{Article
|Summary=In his previous article, Daniel Robbins told the story of how he became a Stampede Linux developer and why he eventually left Stampede to start the Enoch Linux distribution. In this go-round he lets you in on the strange events that happened after the Enoch development team discovered a little-known, blazingly fast compiler.
+
|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.
 
|Article Category=General
 
|Article Category=General
 
|Author=Drobbins
 
|Author=Drobbins
|Previous in Series=Making the Distribution, Part 1
+
|Next in Series=Making the Distribution, Part 2
|Next in Series=Making the Distribution, Part 3
+
 
}}
 
}}
==  From Enoch to Gentoo, via minor setbacks and corporate run-ins ==  
+
==  Birth of the Gentoo Linux distribution ==
  
=== First steps to Enoch ===
+
=== Linux and me ===
  
In my previous article, I gave you the low-down on my days with the Stampede development team and why I left (to get away from lower-level politically-minded, project-controlling "freaks"). Because of the interference from these meddlesome by-standers, I figured it would be easier to put together my own Linux distribution than to continue improving Stampede under such dirty conditions! Fortunately I took with me a considerable amount of experience based on my (may I say substantial?) work for Stampede, including maintaining several of their packages, designing the initialization scripts, and leading the slpv6 (next-generation package management project).
+
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.
  
The distribution I began working on, code-named Enoch, was going to be blazingly fast because it would completely automate the package creation and upgrading process. I have to admit that this was in large part because I was a one-member team and couldn't afford to spend my time on repetitive work that my development box could be automated to do for me. And since I was designing a complete distribution from scratch (rather than "spinning off" from someone like RedHat), I had my work cut out for me and needed all the free time I could scrounge up.
+
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.
  
After getting my basic Enoch system up and running, I headed back to irc.openprojects.net and started my own channel called #enoch. From there I gradually assembled a team of about ten developers. In those early days we all hung out on IRC and worked on the distribution in our spare time. As we communally and cooperatively hacked away at it, finding and fixing new bugs, Enoch became more functional and professional every day.
+
=== Linux is about potential  ===
  
=== The first roadblock ===
+
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.
  
One inevitable day, Enoch hit its first roadblock. After adding Xfree86, glib, and gtk+, I decided to get xmms (an X11/gtk+-based MP3/CD player app) working. I figured it was time to celebrate with some music! But after installing xmms, I tried to start it... and X locked up! At first I thought xmms locked up because I used insane compiler optimizations ("-O6 -mpentiumpro", in case you were wondering). My first thought, to compile xmms with standard optimizations, didn't solve the problem. So I started looking elsewhere. After spending a full week of development time trying to track down the problem, I got an e-mail from an Enoch user, Omegadan, who was also experiencing xmms lockups.
+
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.
  
We corresponded for a while, and after many hours of testing we determined that the problem was a POSIX threads-related issue. For some reason, a pthread_mutex_trylock() call did not return the way it should. As the creator of a distribution, these were the types of bugs I really didn't want to encounter. I counted on the developers to release perfect sources so I could focus on enhancing the Linux experience rather than getting buggy sources to work. Of course I soon learned that this was an unrealistic expectation, and that problems like will always pop up from time to time.
+
=== Linux is about people ===
  
As it turned out, the problem wasn't with xmms, gtk+, or glib. And it wasn't an issue with Xfree86 3.3.5 not being thread-safe and locking up. Surprisingly, we found the bug in the Linux POSIX threads implementation itself, part of the GNU C library (glibc) version 2.1.2. I was shocked at the time to find that such a critical part of Linux had such a major bug. (And we used a release version of glibc in Enoch, not a prerelease or CVS version!).
+
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.
  
So how did we track down the problem? Actually, we never were able to come up with a bug fix, but at one point I stumbled across a couple of e-mails on the glibc developer mailing list from another person who had the same problem. The glibc developer who replied posted a patch that solved the thread problem for us. But I was curious why RedHat 6 (which also used glibc 2.1.2) didn't suffer from this problem since the patch was just posted and RedHat 6 had been available for some time. To find out, I downloaded RedHat's glibc SRPM (source RPM) and took a look at their patches.
+
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.
  
RedHat had their own homegrown glibc patch that solved the pthread_mutex_trylock() issue. Apparently they experienced the same problem and created their own custom fix. Too bad they didn't send this patch "upstream" to the glibc developers so it could be shared with the rest of the world. But who knows, maybe RedHat sent the patch upstream and for some reason the glibc developers didn't accept it. Or maybe the thread bug was triggered by a specific combination of compiler and binutils versions, and RedHat never ran into it (although they did have a thread patch in their SRPM). I suppose we'll never know exactly what happened. But I did learn that RedHat SRPMs contain a lot of private bug fixes and tweaks that never seem to make it upstream to the original developers. I'm going to rant about this for a little while.
+
=== Getting involved ===
  
=== Rant ===
+
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.
  
When you put together a Linux distribution it's really important that any bug fixes you create are sent upstream to the original developers. As I see it, this is one of the many ways that distribution creators contribute to Linux. We're the guys who actually get all these different programs working as a unified whole. We should send our fixes upstream as we unify so that other users and distributions can benefit from our discoveries. If you decide to keep bug fixes to yourself, you're not helping anyone; you're just ensuring that a lot of people will waste time fixing the same problem over and over again. This kind of policy goes against the whole open source ethic and stunts the growth of Linux development. Maybe I should say that it "bugs" us all.
+
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.
  
It's unfortunate that some distributions (ahem) aren't as good (RedHat) as others (Debian) about sharing their work with the community.
+
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.
  
=== Compiler drama ===
+
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.
  
During the time we were trying to fix the glibc threads problem, I e-mailed Ulrich Drepper (one of the guys at Cygnus who is heavily involved with glibc development). I mentioned the POSIX thread problem we were having, and that Enoch was using pgcc for optimum performance. And he responded with something like this (I'm paraphrasing here): "Our own compiler included with the CodeFusion product has an excellent x86 backend that produces executables far faster than those generated with pgcc." Obviously, I was very interested in testing out this mystery "turbo" compiler the Cygnus guys had created.
+
=== People can get ugly ===
  
I thereupon requested a demo copy of Cygnus Codefusion 1.0 so that I could test it out, and Omegadan and I were amazed to find that this compiler was everything that Ulrich claimed and then some. The x86 backend increased the performance of some of the CPU-intensive executables (like bzip2) by close to 90%! All applications seemed to benefit from at least a 10% real-world performance increase, and all we did was swap out compilers. Enoch even booted 30 - 40% faster. The performance gains were far, far greater than what we gained by switching from gcc to pgcc. Obviously, after experiencing it for ourselves, we wanted to use this compiler for Enoch. Fortunately, the sources were included on the CodeFusion CD and were released under the GPL, so we were fully permitted to use this compiler... or so we thought.
+
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!
  
=== Let the freakiness begin ===
+
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).
  
I sent an e-mail to the marketing manager at Cygnus to let them know our intentions, expecting a "yeah, go for it, thanks for using our compiler" response. Instead the reply was that although we were (technically) allowed to use the Cygnus compiler, we were strongly urged not to use or include the compiler sources with Enoch. I responded by asking why they had released the source under the GPL, if that was the case. It's my guess that if they had a choice, they wouldn't have used the GPL, but because they derived their compiler from egcs (released under the GPL), they had no choice.
+
=== Understanding the freak ===
  
This is a good example of a situation where the GPL prevented a company from creating a proprietary product based on open sources. My educated guess is that Cygnus was afraid that if we used their compiler we would undermine their boxed product sales, which would be especially strange because none of their marketing materials (nor the InfoWorld review) mentioned the new compiler included with CodeFusion. CodeFusion was marketed solely as a "development IDE" product, not as a compiler.
+
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 an attempt to put some of their paranoia to rest, I offered to endorse CodeFusion and place the endorsement on our Web site with a link to help spur CodeFusion sales. Personally I didn't think that a "turbo" Enoch would negatively affect their sales, since CodeFusion was marketed as an IDE. But I tried nevertheless to make them happy. The IDE component of CodeFusion was a commercial product, and we had no desire or intention (or right) to distribute it with Enoch.
+
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.
  
I e-mailed my (generous?) offer to Cygnus and received another strange response. They wanted authority over all of our "marketing materials" (apparently, this also included the content of our Web site!) Another shocker. The Cygnus marketing team seemed to have no grasp of how the Linux community or the GPL worked, so I decided to cut off communication with Cygnus for the indefinite future. In the mean time, we created a private "turbo" and public "non-turbo" version of Enoch, leaving the final decision for later.
+
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.
  
But after several months they integrated the CodeFusion x86 backend into gcc 2.95.2. Now everyone could benefit from the nice new backend, not just the people who knew about the "secret GPL compiler" included on the CodeFusion CD. But we decided to go ahead and use gcc rather than the CodeFusion compiler. In addition to being more stable, gcc 2.95.2 also allowed us avoid Cygnus, which by this time had been purchased by RedHat for a ridiculous sum of money. (Note: the new x86 backend in gcc 2.95.2 is what gave newer Linux distributions the significant speed boost that we all got to experience. It also gave FreeBSD 4.0 a nice speed boost over 3.3.6. Notice the difference?)
+
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.
  
=== On the soapbox ===
+
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!
  
Thanks to this and other experiences, I've learned a lot about for-profit open source companies. There's absolutely nothing bad about being a for-profit open source company. Nor is there anything morally wrong with producing proprietary closed-source software, if that's what you'd like to do. But it doesn't make any sense for open source companies to subvert or refuse to cooperate with the rest of the open source world, either by not supporting the GPL or by any other means. This is a practical point that clearly makes business sense.
+
=== Managing the freak ===
  
Open source companies should realize that the free exchange of ideas and code is what they profit from. By opposing things like the standard GPL practices, they undermine the environment they rely upon to prosper and grow. If open source is the soil from which your business has sprouted, it makes sense to keep the soil healthy.
+
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.
  
I understand that there's a temptation to keep at least some information secret for short-term financial gain. Advanced code or special techniques provide a coveted competitive advantage, which could potentially result in increased sales and profit. But if the goal is to be the sole provider of a product, the product should be commercial rather than open source. Open source does not allow for exclusive access to the inner workings of anything. That's what it means.
+
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.
  
=== Back to Enoch ===
+
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.
  
Now, I'll step down from my soapbox and continue my story.
+
=== Starting afresh ===
  
As Enoch became more and more refined, we decided that a name change was in order, and "Gentoo Linux" was born. By this time we had released a couple of versions of Enoch (now Gentoo), and were racing to get to Gentoo Linux version 1.0. Around this time I also decided to upgrade my old Celeron 300 box (overclocked and rock-solid at 450Mhz) to a brand-new Abit BP6 (a dual Celeron board that had just hit the market). I sold my old box and put my dual Celeron 366 system together. After overclocking the processors to something on the order of 500Mhz, I was cruising. But I noticed that my new machine wasn't very stable.
+
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.
  
Obviously my first reaction was to go back down to 2x366Mhz. But now I experienced an even stranger problem. As long as my machine kept the CPUs chugging away, the machine didn't lock up. But if I left the machine idle overnight, there was a good probability that the system would lock up completely. Yes, an idle bug -- argh! After some research, I found several other Linux users with the same problem on this particular motherboard. A chip on the BP6 (was it the PCI controller?) seemed to be flaky or out of spec, which caused Linux to lock up at idle.
+
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 was more than a wee bit upset, and because I couldn't afford to order more PC parts, Gentoo development effectively halted. I became more and more pessimistic about Linux and decided to switch over to FreeBSD. Yes, FreeBSD. And that's where I'll end this installment -- see you in Part 3. :)
+
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 ===
 +
 
 +
* Continue reading my story with [[Making the Distribution, Part 2]] and [[Making the Distribution, Part 3|Part 3]].
 +
* Learn more about the Gentoo Linux ebuild system in Daniel's article, [[Bash by Example, Part 3]].
 
{{ArticleFooter}}
 
{{ArticleFooter}}

Revision as of 07:24, December 31, 2014

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.


Next in series: Making the Distribution, Part 2

Support Funtoo and help us grow! Donate $15 per month and get a free SSD-based Funtoo Virtual Container. 5 spots left.

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

Next >>>

Read the next article in this series: Making the Distribution, Part 2

Support Funtoo and help us grow! Donate $15 per month and get a free SSD-based Funtoo Virtual Container. 5 spots left.

About the Author

Daniel Robbins is best known as the creator of Gentoo Linux and author of many IBM developerWorks articles about Linux. Daniel currently serves as Benevolent Dictator for Life (BDFL) of Funtoo Linux. Funtoo Linux is a Gentoo-based distribution and continuation of Daniel's original Gentoo vision.

Got Funtoo?

Have you installed Funtoo Linux yet? Discover the power of a from-source meta-distribution optimized for your hardware! See our installation instructions and browse our CPU-optimized builds.

Funtoo News

Drobbins

RSS/Atom Support

You can now follow this news feed at http://www.funtoo.org/news/atom.xml .
10 February 2015 by Drobbins
Drobbins

Creating a Friendly Funtoo Culture

This news item details some recent steps that have been taken to help ensure that Funtoo is a friendly and welcoming place for our users.
2 February 2015 by Drobbins
Mgorny

CPU FLAGS X86

CPU_FLAGS_X86 are being introduced to group together USE flags managing CPU instruction sets.
31 January 2015 by Mgorny
View More News...

More Articles

Browse all our Linux-related articles, below:

A

B

F

G

K

L

M

O

P

S

T

W

X

Z