The real cost of open-source software

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Age: 54

Family: Single, never married. 'I do have about 500 children though, made up of former students, free-software writers. ... Not all software writers are ancient like me.'

Favorite Web site: SourceForge (

Cars driven: 1989 Jeep Wrangler with New Hampshire plates that read 'Unix-Live Free or Die,' and a 1970 Volkswagen bug convertible for days at the beach

Personal mottos: 'Live Free or Die' and 'Have Fun'

Personal heroes: Abraham Lincoln, Samuel Clemens

Jon 'Maddog' Hall, open-source enthusiast

Rick Steele

Although Linus Torvalds may be the person most people associate with the Linux operating system, Jon 'Maddog' Hall, with his hippie-length white hair and Santa Claus beard, is a close second as the public face of the open-source movement. As executive director of nonprofit Linux International, he travels the world talking about the value Linux and open-source software can offer to large enterprises.

Prior to joining Amherst, N.H.-based Linux International in 1995, Hall worked in engineering and marketing capacities for Digital Equipment Corp. (later acquired by Compaq Computer Corp.), VA Linux Systems (now VA Software Corp.), and AT&T Corp.'s Bell Laboratories (now part of Lucent Technologies Inc.). He also served as computer science department head at Hartford State Technical College in Hartford, Conn. Hall has a master's in computer science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a bachelor's in commerce and engineering from Drexel University.

GCN associate writer Joab Jackson spoke with Hall after a presentation he gave at a Washington D.C. Beowulf Users Group meeting in Arlington, Va.

GCN: How did you get started in the computer business?

Hall: As a student, I worked for Western Electric in Baltimore. That was where I started in the software aspects of computers. The company had a correspondence course on how to program an IBM 1130 [Computing System, introduced in 1965]. So I learned how to punch cards and program in Fortran. Eventually, I did a project for them to do multiple-regression analysis, trying to relate physical characteristics of wire to electrical characteristics.

After that, I went to work for Bell Laboratories as a systems administrator, and that is where I learned Unix and became very much a fan of Unix. Then, when Digital started its engineering group and wanted some engineers to help them help develop a product, I went to do that. I had a lot of respect for Digital. [At college,] there were times I just had no money and my computer was broken, and they came in and fixed the problem and I never saw the bill.

GCN: You started as executive director for Linux International while you were still with Digital Equipment Corp. How did that work out?

Hall: Oh yeah, there was a little bit of conflict of interest there. Here I was, a technical marketing manager for Digital Unix, walking around asking everyone 'Have you seen this Linux thing?'

But what I found out was that by working with the Linux community, I actually got more visibility for Digital. I would tell people that if they could buy a system with Linux that solves your problem, then God bless. But if it doesn't have what you need, then why not take a look at Digital Unix?

These days it would be a harder sell, because Linux has a lot of the things that [commercial Unix offerings] have. There are some things still missing, such as very good hardware error reporting, but I think it will be a relatively short period of time before the Linux community develops those.

At Digital, I also became more aware that commercial software was failing. Problems that were taking Digital engineers two or three weeks to fix were being fixed in the open-source community in four or five hours. You couldn't get the support you needed any more. You call up a company and you'd stay on the support line for two hours. I saw that with open-source software, they could fix it themselves.

GCN: Fixing your own code is great if you have talented programmers, like NASA or the Energy Department does. But many agencies don't have such in-house experts.

Hall: Oh, but they could hire them. This isn't something where you'd necessarily keep people on staff. You just need someone you trust.

GCN: So open source is not really about free software, it's about choosing to hire people to support your software instead of buying commercial software.

Hall: Exactly. This is the way that I see open source being developed in the future. Instead of putting down $1,000 a copy for 300 copies of software, just pull down large amounts of open-source software from the Internet and change it to fit your needs. You have $300,000 to play with'that is a very good software engineer for two years.

If you buy the software, you also have to think about maintenance charges. You have a thousand copies of that software, you need to think about how much the software maintenance will cost you every year. That may be enough for a junior programmer to keep up that software.

GCN: But federal agencies are trying to move away from customizing software or writing it anew, and instead rely on commercial software that will be updated by the vendor. ...

Hall: Yes, I know that the government has taken that philosophy, but it may be that the philosophy is wrong. It may be that the philosophy developed because agencies were used to buying software off the shelf that didn't meet their needs.

What are they giving up because they don't want to change the software? My vision of software development in the future is that it will become a service industry, not a product industry.

GCN: Microsoft argues that once you factor in the costs of hiring an engineer to support free software, the total costs of ownership can actually be higher.

Hall: That argument is irrelevant, and I'll tell you why. Say I just went out and bought a piece of software for $500. I bring it back to my company and it doesn't do anything I want it to do. It is worthless to me. The TCO of that software is $500 but the value of software is zero.

Now let's say I bought a similar piece of software and it also costs me $500. I install it, and it solves all my problems. It saves me a million dollars, it runs all the coffeepots in my organization. The software does everything I want it to do, so to me that software is close to infinitely valuable.

So which piece of software is better? The one that is infinitely valuable. Total cost of ownership is a non-issue. The question is, 'How much is that software worth?'

You can't be blinded by just a TCO study. You have to have the highest-value solution, not just the lowest cost. It has to be a lifetime study.

Open-source code gives you control. If a project leader of a particular open-source project dies, you can make a business decision to switch to something else or hire someone to maintain that package until you're finished with it. With closed-source software, that business decision is taken away from you.

GCN: Is there a way an agency can tweak open-source software to its own mission and still take advantage of the software's upgrades?

Hall: Yes, they should take their tweaks and, as much as possible, give them back to the open-source community. Hopefully, the open-source community will find the changes they are making useful for a wide variety of people.

GCN: Isn't open-source software less secure, because vandals can see the code and write exploits that will take advantage of the program's weaknesses?

Hall: If looking at the source code was the way to find the holes in a program, then Microsoft wouldn't have any problems, would they? It's quite obvious that holes can be found even in closed-source proprietary code. My firm belief is that there is no guarantee that it is easier or harder to have a secure system using either closed-source or open-source software. The only way you have a secure system is through constant diligence'looking at the logs, and looking for what holes are being reported on and fixing them as quickly as possible.

GCN: Where did you get the nickname Maddog?

Hall: Let's just say that I have had arguments too hot for mad dogs and Englishmen. I am not English.


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