Mast Kalandar

bandar's colander of random jamun aur aam

Wed, 28 Dec 2005

Debian Application


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Background

I am a mathematician by training and have been employed by the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, India as a professor of mathematics since September 1996. More details about me can be found at my web page http://www.imsc.res.in/~kapil.

A brief history of my involvement with Linux (pre-Debian)

I began using GNU software while I was at the University of Chicago in the academic year 1990-91. At that time I started using the DOS ports of various GNU packages until I found out about Minix. In bought and installed Minix in Jan-Feb 1991 on a PC-XT that I had then (and so I was not interested much in 386 Minix).

On my return to India and TIFR September 1991, Mumbai I found that our department had acquired a 386 and so I installed 386 Minix on it --- to work on at night as it was used as a DOS machine by day! At that point I began getting interested in the ports of "gcc", "emacs" and "TeX". I also set up a UUCP client service to receive mail directly on the Minix partition.

We wanted to switch all the users to full-time use of Minix on this machine but were stuck because along with DOS there was a preview utility for TeX but on Minix there was only MGR. We hacked on MGR to get it working for the EGA card this machine had and so we had a workable DOS alternative. We thought it was only a matter of time before people saw that Minix (with mostly GNU tools by now) was a better than DOS but had mis-calculated "user inertia" and the charm of "solutions developed by specialists instead of hobbyists (sic)".

It was only a matter of time before we realised that 386 Minix had other problems --- no proper networking, no X and the difficulty of porting software that depended on a proper Posix-ish environment. So in August 1992 we installed Linux using the two/three diskette GCC-kit that was available from Sunsite. Porting (except networking) was no longer an issue. When networking came to Linux we still didn't have ethernet and so we hacked a bit on the "PPP" that was developed in a separate mailing list starting with Fred van Kampen's Minix code base.

In 1993 I moved to Bangalore set up some basic networking at the TIFR centre there; it was again based on GNU/Linux. In March 1994 I acquired my own 386 and installed some non-distro form on GNU/Linux on it (or perhaps it was SLS or Slackware; I don't really remember). On this PC I developed an "Xterm-on-a-floppy" that was installed for a while on the desktop machines at the Statistics and Mathematics Unit, ISI Bangalore. These were clients for a "server" that had TeX and e-mail services in addition to some X clients.

In September 1996 I moved to Chennai and the IMSc and better network speeds. I could finally download Debian 0.93r6 (or so I remember) for my 386 which I had heard of through the "grapevine". The machines at the IMSc were a combination of Sun/Solaris and SGI/Irix. After struggling with porting GNU and other Free (as in Mukta) software installed and working on them, I finally convinced the local Computer Committee to buy some Pentium machines in early 1997.

Member of the Debian User community

Thus I have been a member of the Debian User community since around 1996. Locally I have also advocated that our Computer Centre run Debian-based servers for the reasons given below. We currently run mail exchangers, DNS servers, a web server, squid cache, a remote access machine and a firewall; all are Debian machines. In fact, except for a brief period when our firewall machine was based on LFS, all the newer servers at IMSc have run Debian. Since the release of "sarge" we are also migrating most desktops to Debian as well (they used to run various versions of RedHat or Mandrake or Debian until now).

For a brief while, I installed Debian on an old SPARC machine which ran our web-mail service (this has been moved to a Pentium machine now). I also worked with the Debian Hurd port for a while. Thus, you could say I have (just a little) experience with no ix86 ports of Debian.

An itemised list of why I have advocated Debian for our machines

In no particular order:

  1. We can file bug reports --- and have done so. One can track the progress of one's bugs.

  2. Documentation is more detailed than for any other distribution.

  3. It is policy-driven. This means that if a file is found in a particular place there is a reason for it. If the system administrator wants to over-ride it it can be done systematically.

  4. We can participate in the development process. Sad to say we have not done much so far.

  5. Stability. Since IMSc was a priori a Solaris/Irix place, it was important to ensure that "PC's crash frequently" and "things often don't work" do not take hold as reasons to continue buying expensive hardware.

  6. Takes its DFSG seriously. In particular, this ensures that any work put into the systems remains available to everyone everywhere.

Why I would like to be a Debian Developer

Again in no particular order:

  1. To live up to (4) above. More specifically, if there are packages that we use here regularly that are in need of help we should provide it.

  2. There are very few DD's sitting out here in India. On the other hand (when I taught an O/S course for example) I find a number of young students who could easily contribute if ... I have in mind some form of an infrastructure to get them involved.

  3. To simplify the upload of the package (tex4ht) that I maintain and others (elvis, mancala) that I am thinking of adopting.

  4. To formalise my involvement with Debian so I can justify spending more time developing it.


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