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Linux Is Transforming More Than Just Operating Systems | Rob Hirschfeld, RackN

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Guest: Rob Hirschfeld
Company: RackN
Show: Let’s Talk

With Linux turning 30, we’ve all had plenty of time to ruminate on how the operating system has evolved over the years. But what about how the platform has changed other systems and how it made other industries rise and prosper?

Rob Hirschfeld, CEO and Co-Founder of RackN, has plenty to say on the subject. He boldly states, “Linux has not just transformed operating systems, but it really has transformed the way the industry works together. It’s created whole new opportunities.”

In Hirschfeld’s eyes, Linux has made it possible for businesses to find software that is a common building block in everything they build. He even says, “It’s really impossible to escape Linux and the Linux Kernel specifically in any application system, machine, computer, or phone that we’ve built. And that footprint is remarkable. It’s taken a long time to get here, 30 years is a good run. And there’s no doubt with the trajectory that we’re on, it’s going to continue to have a tremendous impact on the industry.”

One of the first industries that Hirschfeld mentions is the cloud, which wouldn’t exist without the Linux kernel. That kernel, according to Hirschfeld “…allowed the x86 platform to become general-purpose systems, and they changed the cost dynamics dramatically. When the LAMP stack was introduced, all of a sudden people had a way to buy commodity systems and do work that had been trapped by Solaris and Oracle.”

This changed the economics that we take for granted today within the realm of the cloud. With all of this in place, major vendors were able to take commodity infrastructure and use open-source software as the underlying pieces to build huge footprints of managed infrastructure. That was transformative. And it shows up everywhere, right from stock markets, space vehicles, and phones to IoT devices.

As for RackN, Linux has been essential to what they build. The company does infrastructure automation and provisioning and, according to Hirschfeld, “the fact that we can interact with systems at the Kernel level and in a consistent way is essential to us building successful scaled out provisioning.” Even when provisioning other operating systems, the type of control and consistency they get with Linux is “the essence of building stable, repeatable processes.”

Hirschfeld has some pretty keen ideas where he believes Linux should be heading. First off, he says, “We need to see a lot more hardware change, hardware innovation, new technologies, and approaches coming in. And that’s going to put a lot of stress on how the Kernel gets built and managed, as with such a big community.

One very important issue Hirschfeld thinks could be addressed is ease of use. He believes ease of use and accessibility of Linux needs to become much, much higher. Hirschfeld believes that “…people could actually start seeing Linux show up on their devices and not worry about having to understand how to manage and maintain it. It’s progressed dramatically in the last 10 years. And I think we will continue to see ease of use and more adoption in more user-facing applications.”

In the end, Hirschfeld says, ” I think Linux has really forced us to ask what happens when we don’t have the corporate governance, the profit motives driving every decision? And that’s been a really positive thing, I think, not just for the IT industry, but also society as a whole.” He adds, “I think Linux is going to end up allowing us to continue to push innovation and ownership of technology deeper into user’s hands. Right now we’re in a wave with the cloud where things have really been moving back into big centralized corporate control, and Linux has created a benefit in doing that. But fundamentally, the goal here is that people can own their own technology, manage their own technology. And the trajectory that Linux is on, will continue to drive that forward.”

The summary of the show is written by Jack Wallen


Here is the unedited transcript of the show…

Swapnil Bhartiya: Hi, this is your host, Swapnil Bhartiya, and welcome to a special edition of TFiR: Let’s Talk with Rob Hirschfield, CEO and Co-Founder of RackN. And today we are going to talk for about 30 years of Linux.

Rob, if I ask you to reflect on these 30 years of Linux, the way I see it as it has paid part for a lot of Open Source technologies where commercial players got comfortable with Open Source. Otherwise, they were kind of distancing themselves from Open Source. Though, there are also fact that a lot of companies like Microsoft, they were doing a lot of Open Source, but they hated Linux back then. But their Open Source was more or less like you can see the code, but you cannot do anything else with the code. So talk about how do you see these 30 years?

Rob Hirschfeld: Linux has not just transformed operating systems, but it really has transformed the way the industry works together. It’s created whole new opportunities. It’s really found ways that we can find software that is a common building block in everything that we build. It’s really impossible to escape Linux and the Linux Kernel specifically in any application system, machine, computer phone that we’ve built. And that footprint is remarkable. It’s taken a long time to get here, 30 years is a good run. And there’s no doubt with the trajectory that we’re on, it’s going to continue to have tremendous impact on the industry.

Swapnil Bhartiya: I mean it’s kind of hard to say or visualize how the world would look like without Linux, or whatever it is. But if you do look at Linux and today’s world, all the way from Facebook servers to our Ring bell, to our Android for phone, or webOS powered TVs, even it is on Mars, the world would have been a totally different place. So if I asked you that what are the industries that you see, in a way, would not even exist if there was no Linux Kernel?

Rob Hirschfeld: Yeah, I mean, the simplest one is cloud as a whole would not exist without the Linux Kernel. I mean, you have to rewind 30 years, we had Linux or we had Unix systems, but they were very closely affiliated with the vendors and tied to the hardware. And so each company that was making a Unix flavor had hardware and those things were very tied together, very similar to the way apple is today. And the introduction of Linux slowly broke that apart. It really allowed the x86 platforms, they’re really popular as PCs, to become general purpose systems, and they changed the cost dynamics dramatically. When the LAMP stack was introduced, all of a sudden people had a way to buy commodity systems and do work that had been trapped by Solaris and Oracle.

And that completely changed the economics of running the infrastructure that we take for granted today in cloud. And the major vendors built on top of that, right? The idea that they can take commodity infrastructure, Open Source software as the underlying pieces and build huge footprints of managed infrastructure is transformative. And you’re right, it shows up in everywhere from stock markets and space vehicles to our phones and IOT devices. That’s a huge range.

Swapnil Bhartiya: And if we just quickly zoom in and look at RackN, and how are you folks leveraging Linux and the Kernel?

Rob Hirschfeld: Linux has been really essential to what we build. We do infrastructure automation and provisioning, and the fact that we can interact with systems at the Kernel level and in a consistent way is essential to us building successful scaled out provisioning. Even though we’re provisioning other operating systems too, the Windows and Vmwares, the idea that we have the type of control and consistency that we get with Linux is the essence of building stable, repeatable processes. And that’s been absolutely essential to being able to build repeatable process. I mean, we see this over and over again across the industry, Linux isn’t the fastest moving most… It’s not taking advantage of every feature. It’s not always the best, but it’s good enough in every category. And that means that we can build on top of it and rely on our ability to get in, fix, inspect, change. It’s really been essential.

Swapnil Bhartiya: As the saying goes, it’s better to be a Jack of all trades than a master of one, that’s what Linux says in a way. Linux kind of, as you gave some example, dominates the… I think, I was talking to [inaudible 00:04:55] and I say that initially Linus’s email will have signature line, Linus got [inaudible 00:05:02] fast world domination. Linux kind of dominates the world today, but what are the areas that you still see, “Hey, these are areas that are still untouched and that’s where Linux should be going.”

Rob Hirschfeld: Yeah. Linux, we’re sitting on a wave of new hardware innovation. There is no doubt in my mind that we’re seeing new types of chips, new architectures, new approaches to building infrastructure, and actually much more integrated infrastructure into our daily lives. And so, for that to work, we have to have consistent control processes for them, and that starts at the Kernel and then works its way up. It’s challenging, right? We need to see a lot more hardware change, a hardware innovation, new technologies and approaches coming in. And that’s going to put a lot of stress on how the Kernel gets built and managed, as with such a big community. And this is where Linus and his stewardship… I wouldn’t call it world domination, this is stewardship because everybody’s using this platform to innovate, to add, to extend, to solve their needs. And they can do it without his permission. But ultimately, they want what they’ve done to be added back into the system.

And as that process continues, then that means that we all benefit across the board on how these things go. And that’s sort of purposefully deliberate, things don’t flip and jump around really fast, but that’s what makes Linux such a powerful platform, it’s predictable. We have very good community governance, we can see what’s happening, we have ways that people can add to it. And even beyond how Linux is formed, that sort of tempo and Open Source community governance has been a critical component on how things go. And this is one of the things that Linus has been saying about what happened in his career, right? The introduction of Git, which was done to make Linux a more community sustainable operating system, in and of itself revolutionized how we operate together as communities. And it’s almost as important an innovation in collaborative community development, even corporate development.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Since you brought this topic, so I do want to ask a few things. There are a lot of ways, where Linux is unique. Number one is the way they are writing Linux code, it’s still being done on mailing lists, even though Linus created Git to solve the versioning problem. There in post-pandemic world… During the pandemic, we talked about remote work, distributed workforce, that for Linux Kernel has always been… The Kernel community is all across the globe, the contributions are coming from everywhere. We talk about diversity, this is also one of the most diverse communities out there. We also talk about meritocracy in the Linux Kernel. All you have to do is go open the mail, send a patch. If it is good, it will be accepted. It’s not good, it will not be accepted. You will get some feedback. So it already set a path for a lot of communities that we talk about, “Hey, remote culture, remote work.” What do you think about the culture impact? We don’t talk about it as much.

Rob Hirschfeld: Yeah. I think that it’s easy to accept Open Source’s status quo today. It’s important to realize that it wasn’t at all. It was an experiment. Even 20 years ago as Red Hat was starting to come on the scene to make these things work. And corporations paid a lot of money to Red Hat because they were afraid of being sued for using Open Source code. So it is, without a doubt, very much a piece of how we have transformed working together and building things together. And it’s given companies who want to use Linux and other Open Source projects, a lot of authority to feel like they understand how the processes work and that they can collaborate on it.

It’s interesting, as much as what you’re saying is true about how easy it is to get into the Kernel, there’s two things that are really important about this. One is, it’s not that easy to get into the Kernel, and it’s supported by the fact that there are so many people testing and verifying what the systems are behind the scenes, and that a Kernel change doesn’t break all of the different use cases, right? That level of testing and integration is an important piece.

But one of the things about the Linux Kernel is, most people don’t contribute. It’s widely contributed, it has a very diverse base, but most people treat it as an operating system, right? It’s locked, they don’t mess with it any more than they would expect to reverse engineer Windows and contribute back to Windows from that perspective. And some people in Open Source communities see that as a negative thing. I actually see that type of wide defacto use part of the success factor of making it happen. We don’t have a burden with Linux of spending a lot of time trying to hack the Kernel or make device drivers work anymore, or things like that. We’ve been through all that over the last 30 years.

And one of the things I hope, as we look forward into the next 30 years, is that ease of use and accessibility of Linux becomes much, much higher that we can actually… Linux on the desktop, which is perennial joke for a lot of us, is something where people could actually start seeing Linux show up on their devices and not worry about having to understand how to manage and maintain, and things like that. It’s progressed dramatically in the last 10 years. And I think we will continue to see ease of use and more adoption in more user-facing applications.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Now, since we are looking at 30 years of Linux, and we talked about how it contributed to human society, actually I look at a very big picture, but there may also be some gray areas where you think, “Hey, things could have been better with the Kernel.” What would that be?

Rob Hirschfeld: One of the trade-offs that we make in Linux is that it is good enough and it’s a community system, so it’s very difficult for one company to run ahead, to have a new hardware type, or a new idea, IPv6, or an improved security mechanism, and get that into the system. A Solaris had zones way before we had containers and segmentation. So one of the things that we’ve had as a trade-off is to have a common, stable platform that people could innovate on. We have also been moving in a much more measured pace than we would if we had forced people to pick individual vendors and lock into that technology stack. We also are beholden to individual vendors, and so I think that the trade off, which I think we should make deliberately, has been one of the ones that we can scratch our heads and say, “There are things that we have not moved as fast on.”

Apple, in innovating the hardware and the software together, has done a lot to move things forward. But at the same time, you can scratch your head and ask, “Is the walled garden worth what we’ve built for it?” And I think Linux has really forced us to ask what happens when we don’t have the corporate governance, the profit motives driving every decision? And that’s been a really positive thing, I think, not just for the IT industry, but society as a whole.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Before we wrap this up, I do want to, of course, one thing that the pandemic has taught us is don’t talk about things in future tense that, “Hey, what things will look like in five or six years?” So just tell me what you think about tomorrow, that’s the best thing we can ask. But if I ask you, looking at the trajectory, especially as you mentioned the cloud and all those things, where do you think things are heading? Do you have any predictions for Linux?

Rob Hirschfeld: I do. I think Linux is going to end up allowing us to continue to push innovation and ownership of technology deeper into user’s hands. Right now we’re in a wave with cloud where things have really been moving back into big centralized corporate control, and Linux has created a benefit in doing that. But fundamentally, the goal here is that people can own their own technology, manage their own technology. And the trajectory that Linux is on, will continue to drive that forward. And I’m very optimistic that we’re going to be building on top of Linux in ways that return power and control and destiny of people’s daily infrastructure, their daily lives back to the individuals who are doing that. And that’s only possible because of the type of community, the type of reach, and the type of culture that Linux has built. So I’m very optimistic about the future of technology in general. And Linux is a core part of making that possible.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Rob, thank you so much for looking back 30 years how Linux changed the world around us and how it will continue to change it. Thanks for sharing those insights. And of course, I’ll have you back on the show. Thank you.

Rob Hirschfeld: Thank you, Swap. Talk to you soon.

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