To Russia With Love

maddog in Russia

Comrade! Let me tell you about Linux!

A few days ago the Russian government announced that they were going to transition the government to using Free Software by 2015, starting as early as mid-2011.

In reality, this transition started much earlier. It was in 1997 that I first went to Moscow and attended a Unix Expo, helping to staff the Digital Equipment Corporation booth and giving two talks, one on Digital Unix and one on Alpha Linux. There amidst two-story trade show exhibits were little stands selling distributions of Slackware, Yggdrasil and even “white box” Linux workstations. Copies of the Linux Journal adorned shelves in the exhibit hall.

I was fully expecting to see Linux in Moscow when I arrived. Before leaving the United States I had received email from Russia that said “Comrade, come to Moscow and talk to us about Linux, because Linux is free, and anything that is free is good!”, so the presence of my favorite operating system at the show was no surprise.

Unix Russia Expo

Convention floor of the Unix Russia Expo. Note Novell booth to the right and Sun to the left. I doubt either will ever be there again!

At this same Unix Expo I met with a representative of the Russian Post Office. It seems that they had heard about a project being done by the Post Office of the United States in automating zip code scanning on envelopes. The US Post Office was going to save millions of dollars by using Linux on most of the scanning machines instead of a more expensive and less stable solution, and the Russian Post Office wanted to know if they could share the code. This may have been one of the very first collaboration attempts between the US government and the Russian government.

Unix Russia Poster

A Poster promoting the Unix Russia Conference

The event was interesting for another reason. The trade show booths not only contained a second-floor “consulting area” for meetings, but also a snack area. On the first floor were the exhibits and (believe it or not) a kitchen staffed with an elderly “babushka” (grandmother) who made the food, cleaned the booth and kept all the exhibit staff “in line”. I have seen other such trade show exhibits in other countries, but never with the “babushka”.

Shortly after my first visit to Russia the University of Moscow started buying large numbers of Alpha processors known as “UDB”s, overclocking them and using them in a compilation farm. UDBs were the older “Multias” re-branded to run Linux. As such they eventually went on a “fire sale” where they could be purchased for as little as 50 US dollars each. When the distributor of the UDBs told the Russians that overclocking them might burn up the CPU, the answer came back “But comrade, they compile code very quickly!” I guess the Russians felt that at 50 US dollars each they could afford to have a few burn up in order to get the extra cycles out of each one.

In 2002 I travelled to Estonia, then travelled by train with a friend to St. Petersburg, Russia. My friend was thinking about starting a branch office in St. Petersburg and we were taking boxes of his Linux distribution with us. Unfortunately neither of us counted on the efficiency of the border patrols (complete with rifles) who found his boxes and required customs duty. Fortunately he was able to cover the duty requirements and we went on to St. Petersburg.

While there I located Alexandr Bravo, who used Linux to run a test bed for steam turbines. I found this work fascinating, and I encouraged him to write an article about it, which he had published in the February 2003 issue of the Linux Journal. Like most people who do great things with Free Software, Alexandr did not think that his work was that significant, and would not have written the article if I had not encouraged him.

Turbine test bed control panel - maddog with Alexandr Bravo

Turbine test bed control panel - maddog with Alexandr Bravo

In 2005 I returned to Moscow for a three-day Linuxworld, staying in the magnificent Hotel Metropol, which was near Red Square right across from the Bolshoi Theater.  A classic old hotel, the Hotel Metropol even had a harpist playing music in the breakfast room every morning. Unfortunately they wanted 300 US dollars to have Internet installed in the hotel for my stay, and 100 US dollars every day for its use.

Therefore I found “Netland”, an Internet Cafe, nearby, where the Internet was free as long as you kept ordering a coffee every once in a while. For those that know me, this is not a hardship.

Russia has long been a nation that can produce good programmers, and Putin is counting on the fact that Free Software can give them lower costs, better country security and help further develop programming skills in their country.

I foresee a bright future for FOSS and Linux in Russia, and an even brighter future for those that are trained and certified to administer Linux systems.  When government embraces FOSS, the "trickle-down" effect often extends to suppliers of the government, as well as private companies.  This is a good time for computer science people in Russia to dust off the LPI objectives and start thinking about obtaining LPI certification, to be able to meet the needs of the Russian nation for FOSS professionals.

Finally, as an aside, the Bolshoi is just finishing a massive renovation, and is currently (January 2011) playing the Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Ballet....maddog wishes he could be there to see it.