Community: If I Had a Wiki
Jul 07, 2005, 23:30 (11 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Jim Sansing)
Re-Imagining Linux Platforms to Meet the Needs of Cloud Service Providers
By Jim Sansing
About eight months ago, Linux Today published an article I wrote
called "Where Have All the HOWTOs Gone?" I proposed that there
should be a Linux wiki site and thought that if enough LUGs would
help maintain it, an existing site might be willing to sponsor it.
I planned to contact LUGs worldwide and report back within a couple
of months on the results. Well, the best laid plans...
Before I describe what I have discovered over the past several
months, let me first acknowledge the responses to the original
article. As expected, there were a few naysayers, but thankfully no
flamers. There were even more well-wishers who agreed that a single
source for Linux documentation would be very useful to the
community. One poster suggested redefining the issue: a Linux wiki
should be a manual, not a troubleshooting guide. Of course, that
was the point. A wiki is what the community makes it. I can suggest
what I think it should be, but those who contribute can take it in
any direction they want.
Another noteworthy fact is, although I listed several existing
Linux wiki sites, I missed one. Linuxwiki.org already exists. However,
if you follow the link, you might forgive me for thinking that it
was not being maintained. But this was only the first of many
assumptions of which I had to relieve myself.
I did attempt to contact LUGs to find out how much interest
there would be in supporting a Linux wiki. I found several sites
that cross reference LUG websites:
However, there is no mailing list for contacting LUGs. So I
visited over 800 sites and collected the mailing lists manually.
Then I started sending a brief letter explaining what I was
attempting. I sent less than 100 copies of the letter before
Yahoo's spam filter automatically killed my ID for spamming. A
couple of days later, my ISP email account was cancelled and I had
to explain that I was trying to send non-spam bulk email to get it
reinstated. But at least I had sent enough to get some idea of the
That turned out to be zero, because apparently all of the LUG
mailing lists considered it to be spam as well, and trashed it (I
checked with the email administrator of my local LUG and he vaguely
remembered seeing my letter, which he discarded with the rest of
the spam). I tried for another 2 weeks, but could not find a way to
contact LUGs without signing up to all 800+ mailing lists
individually, which I admit I am too lazy to do.
Near the end of the article, I listed a few sites that I hoped
would sponsor the Linux wiki site, one of them being Google. So, I
sent an email to Google's business development address which
included the following:
I believe that there is a potential business
opportunity to be taken advantage of here:
Setting up a wiki site is a non-trivial effort. But once the
initial work is complete, contributions are extremely simple. From
my own experience I can think of several instances where the
availability of a simple collaboration site would be useful:
- When a company undertakes even a moderately complex IT project,
if multiple vendors are involved, communication can be difficult.
The problems to be solved include:
- Getting email addresses of 'everyone' who needs status updates,
even for minor contributions
- Maintaining historical status information for those who are
brought into the project later on
- Reliance on one person to distribute information, which can
become a bottleneck
- Small projects started as a bottom up effort to improve
business practices often flounder because the effort to maintain
information falls on one individual.
- Community groups, such as PTAs, often start projects to improve
their schools and neighborhoods. Because these groups rely on
volunteers, their turnover rate is high, and the knowledge that the
founders had is lost.
This could work like a business that provides conference calling
services. To be successful, it should focus on the following:
- A low entry pricing structure with optional add-ons
- Ease of use: any improvement in the ability to edit pages would
- Templates: Templates for the projects listed above are easy to
imagine, and more could be developed as interest increased.
Not surprisingly, I did not receive a response. I offer my
thoughts here so that Linux wiki sites might be able to take
advantage of them.
Finally, I could not in good conscience write this follow-up
until I had contributed something to the existing Linux wiki sites.
Having spent most of my career working in networking, I created
Troubleshooting Documentation and contributed it to the
English language sites. The German site, LinuxWiki.org, has
asked that English pages not be created, so I sent it in an email.
I could not find any information about Linux in the Argentinan site
wiki, and it seems to be more of a wiki training site.
Now that I have had time to reflect on this experience, I
realize it was unrealistic to expect LUGs to jump at the chance to
sign up for the duty of maintaining an international wiki site.
They certainly have a respectable list of accomplishments, foremost
among them being installfests and very helpful mailing lists. Many
have web sites with explanations of Linux, FOSS applications, the
GPL and other Open Source licenses, and where to find more
information. And they all offer Linux help, online and/or in person
(if you bring your computer with you).
However, they also have their limitations. My personal
experience has been that there are one to five leaders who make
things happen. Then there are the regulars who show up for most
meetings and will help with one or two tasks a year. There are
several other members who occasionally attend meetings, and
finally, the mailing list lurkers who make use of the help.
This structure is not likely to grow into a national, much less
international organization. There are good reasons for this. The
core members have worked hard to build a functioning LUG and are
satisfied with it as is. Other members see it as an opportunity to
relate to people who speak Geek with a Linux dialect, not a second
But another important reason is that there is no easy way for
LUGs to work together. There are several LUG portals, but they have
minimal information, such as partial lists of web sites which have
to be visited individually. There is no mailing list for LUGs to
subscribe to: I subscribed to 4 lists that claimed to be at least
regional in scope, and have not received a single email from any of
This experience has led me to view the Linux and FOSS community
as split between several groups. Obviously, there are the
developers. Some have full time jobs working on FOSS applications,
while others divide their time between their day job, families or
other personal commitments, and their project.
Then there are the users. This includes a) LUG members, b)
network and system administrators, c) developers who are not
working on FOSS projects but target Linux or other FOSS platforms
such as Apache, MySQL, etc., and d) home users. Obviously, some
people fit in more than one user category.
A third group is the people who maintain Linux and FOSS services
such as the Linux Documentation Project or LinuxToday. This is the
closest thing we have to an international organization. But due to
limited funding, parent organizations that see no practical reason
to perform advocacy, or simply the purpose of the site, this group
is not in a position to provide the resources for a major
I expect it is obvious where I am going by now, and there are
probably many readers who are booing and hissing at the thought of
an international organization. This brings up visions of
the BSA, RIAA, and proprietary, monopolistic, international,
megolomaniac corporations that have ruined what should be a really
great career. We don't need no stinkin' organization, right?
Anyone who believes that the continued success of Linux and FOSS
is inevitable is as loco as Darl McBride was when he took on IBM.
It has only been in the past two or three years that FOSS has been
seen as a remotely serious threat to the status quo. Now that the
dot com bubble has burst and I don't have to pretend there is such
a thing as internet time, I can say the status quo is just now
standing up and dusting itself off after the first blow took it by
surprise. It is looking us over to find our weakest point and is
going to try and throw a knockout punch.
If you are about to spout the community line about Microsoft
going into a tailspin, don't waste your breathe. Microsoft is the
least of our worries. I believe Microsoft is a one hit wonder, and
its days are numbered. However, there are thousands of companies
riding Microsoft's coattails that are as mad at the FOSS community
as it has been at Microsoft. And then there are Sun, SAP, CA,
Apple, and numerous other proprietary software vendors with their
coattail riders. Even IBM and Novell partners and resellers have to
be wondering just what FOSS is going to do to their bottom line.
The status quo is not a handful of companies. It is a whole
industry. People who have built businesses around proprietary
software and are within a few years of retirement are not
interested in how sharing source code makes it better. They want to
know that their retirement fund will be as good or better than they
have been planning for the past 25 years.
Less than 100 years ago, people were killed in the name of law
and order, at the unspoken command of monopoly bosses. This is a
different time than the dawn of labor unions. Those workers were in
the streets and it was easy to label them as dangerous. Today, it
is more a war of talkbacks and blogs, and the workers are
"anything-but-threatening" geeks. Plus, large companies are on both
sides of the issue. But the monied interests will always try to use
the government to protect their loot. When people were being shot,
the government had to step in and force a solution. This battle
could drag on for years, with a few projects at a time being
I have spent a lot of the past year working with some friends on
own FOSS project. To see what we are up against, I have started
searching for patents that might be used against us. It is scary.
Not because we might be infringing on anyone's intellectual
property, but because what passes as patentable is so broad and
vague, it can be used against just about any competitor. And
patents are owned across the spectrum, in every size business and
even universities, which means attacks can come from many
This is just one of the weapons the status quo is going to use
against FOSS projects with growing frequency. There are many other
dirty tricks that can be used, such as bogus legal attacks, or
generating a boycott of an employer that supports FOSS. And as
several others have noticed, there seem to be more and more trolls
these days. Microsoft doesn't have to hire them, the status quo has
plenty of its own zealots. How far will they go, considering the
Before accusing me of Chicken Littlish behavior, consider Jon
Johansen, one of the authors of DeCSS who was hauled into court not
for piracy, but for writing code, Dmitry Sklyarov, who was arrested
under the DMCA, again for writing code, and Pamela Jones of
Groklaw, who had her personal information released in retaliation
for documenting publicly available court records.
So there you have a big, fat reason for an international FOSS
organization, sort of like an Open Source version of the ACM, IEEE,
or Chamber of Commerce. It would provide a counterweight to status
quo organizations, and help protect FOSS projects from biased
legislation and frivolous lawsuits. It could also raise money for
special projects, causes, scholarships, etc. Of course the FSF, the
OSI, and others are sort of doing this now. But they each have a
relatively narrow focus, and often don't seem to understand they
are on the same side.
There are also the major corporations that support Linux and
FOSS, such as IBM and Novell. However, their support is tied to
their business interests, and there are even pockets of resistance
within those companies. And there is the Linux Professional Institute. However, it
is mostly aimed at promoting the business possiblities of Linux,
and its site lists Caldera as a sponsor and member, and sure
enough, the link goes to SCO. Other professional organizations can
be found at this
But there are many other reasons for an international FOSS
organization, exclusively promoting FOSS issues. For instance, do
you realize that Rob Enderle and Laura Didio represent you? At
least, to CNN, FOX, and other mainstream news outlets they do. Why?
Because you have no voice. Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond are
not shy about speaking up, but they are not media hounds. So, if an
"expert" source is needed for a story, tech pundits are prime
choices, and preferably ones who give good sound bites. How else do
you think that the media has bought into the idea of computer geeks
as fanatical communists? (This is a whole other article, but the
truth is the complete opposite and has nothing to do with politics.
Our beef is that proprietary companies are making cowpie software
and patenting ideas as simplistic as one click shopping, or using
XML to define documents.)
In fact, you only have a very muffled voice in the FOSS
community. Don't believe me? What is your opinion of the BitKeeper
snafu? Do you think Mozilla should be end-of-lifed? Is using Java
in Open Office OK or not? Should the CPPL be given Open Source
status? Well it doesn't matter, because no one asked you, did they?
The best you can do is to post on LinuxToday or some other site,
and you can't possibly believe that project leaders even read, much
less care about, those posts. So if drivers are removed from
kernel, or applications are discontinued, or hardware/firmware
features run FOSS development into a dead end, there is nothing you
can do about it except hope for that magical "someone" who is
prophesied to pick up the project.
OK, enough doom and gloom. Most of us are can-do,
solution-oriented types. So what is the answer? Customers. Without
customers, there is no company. Even Microsoft tries to make
customers believe that it is bending to their wishes. The primary
purpose of an Open Source organization should be to convince
customers that FOSS is so important to them they tell the status
quo to back off.
An example of this is one of the much touted advantages of
proprietary software: integration. Many projects are underfunded,
even by large companies, and integration is incomplete. The
proprietary sales tactics such as "all or none" and
"nickel-and-diming to death" means many applications include too
much or too little and never live up to their claimed potential.
FOSS applications on the other hand, can be improved over time,
because they are generally designed modularly, and frequently have
cooperating projects that add functionality. So, administrators can
bring up as much of a FOSS system as they can handle, without any
pressure to "buy now before the price goes up" or some similar
nonsense, and later build on it as needed.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the customers consist of
purchasers and those who advise them, such as network and system
administrators, developers, and "power users." Oh wait, I recognize
those advice people. They are us. Except that a lot of them are
MSCEs. But Microsoft has made such a big deal out of the "fact"
that administering their software is easy, that MSCEs are being
pushed beyond the limits of their abilities. At the same time, they
are getting little, if any, support from the software, because
critical information is buried in proprietary formats under
As it turns out, managing large scale networks with a diverse
set of applications is not easy. So MSCEs, who are facing the same
downsizing, outsourcing, and "doing more with less" pressures as
everyone else, are finding that the easy jobs are getting farmed
out to the lowest bidder, while the hard ones are being taken by
people who understand complex systems. This is another potential
source of leverage, and a secondary purpose of an international
organization should be to convince MSCEs that their longterm job
security is enhanced by the knowledge of systems, which is
encouraged, if not mandatory, under Linux and FOSS. If a critical
mass of them come into the FOSS community, the whole situation will
flip like a gyroscope that has been twisted too far.
So again I say, what we should be doing for ourselves is to
create the best documentation on the planet in a wiki. But let's
get organized. We need an international FOSS organization where
membership and leadership is determined by contributions, and whose
- Free/Open Source Software advocacy
- The best documentation on the planet
- Legal and political support for Free/Open Source Software
I am not in a position right now to start a web site that might
grow into such an organization. I can only plant a seed and hope
that it grows. If there are some who can and will start a Free and
Open organization, I encourage everyone in the community to
participate as much as possible. I know I will.
Jim Sansing has been working on a new FOSS project for the
past year in his "free" time. He has used Linux as his only
personal OS since 1996 and is still looking forward to world
Where Have All the HOWTOs Gone?(Nov 06, 2004)