Linux Inside: Canadian Open Source Projects
by Gene Wilburn
(The Computer Paper, January 2000. Copyright © Wilburn Communications Ltd. All rights reserved)
Marshall McLuhan would have had a field day with the Open Source movement. Talk about "global village": Linux was born in Finland. LyX is centred in France. The SuSE distribution of Linux is based in Germany and TurboLinux was developed in the Far East. FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD (close relatives to Linux) evolved out of the creative vortex of the University of California at Berkeley while Richard Stallman's GNU Project started out life at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, near Boston.
Canada itself is home to some energetic open-source activities. Ottawa, Ontario-based Corel Corporation previously released Corel WordPerfect 8 for Linux and has now released an entire Linux distribution called Corel Linux. A Corel associate company, Rebel.com, has introduced small self-contained, easy-to-administer Linux boxes based on the StrongARM processor. A Vancouver, BC startup company, Stormix Technologies Inc., has released a distribution of Linux called Storm Linux. And Calgary, Alberta, is the home of OpenBSD, the open-source OS that some security analysts consider the most secure Unix distribution available.
Corel Corporation (www.corel.com) endeared itself to the Linux community when it released Corel WordPerfect 8 for Linux and made a basic version (minus extra fonts and graphics) available at no charge.
Corel WordPerfect 8 was the first mainstream desktop application available for Linux and it was a success from the instant it hit the wires. Over a million people downloaded it from the Corel website within a few months of its release, and it is now included in nearly every commercial distribution of Linux. Que has already released a book devoted to it: Using Corel WordPerfect 8 for Linux, by Roderick W. Smith, 1999 (ISBN: 0-7897-20329 $59.95).
More recently Corel has released its own distribution of Linux called Corel Linux. Based on the reliable Debian GNU/Linux (www.debian.org), Corel Linux adds ease-of-use features aimed at new users. Centred on the KDE interface, Corel Linux includes a graphical installation akin to Caldera OpenLinux 3.2 and Red Hat Linux 6.1. Following the trend of recent commercial distributions, it includes a graphical management tool for configuring and customizing the system, plus a feature for updating the system via the Web.
Corel's involvement with Linux runs deep. Seeing a potential market for its flagship WordPerfect product as well as its full office suite, Corel has been contributing valuable coding efforts to the open-source Wine project (www.winehq.org). Wine is a Windows compatibility layer that allows users to run selected Windows 16-bit and 32-bit applications directly from their X Window System environment. The Wine project has been making steady progress through the effort of volunteer programmers, but the Corel input has given the project additional impetus.
What Corel is assisting with in particular is a Wine API layer that will allow Corel's native Windows office suite to run in Linux, without having to maintain separate Windows and Linux development streams. If successful, this could benefit Linux users and Windows developers alike, forming a bridge between Linux and Windows programming.
Linux Netwinder Boxes
Corel's initial involvement with Linux began with a hardware initiative. It developed a small (about desk-dictionary size) Linux box built around the StrongARM RISC processor. It created three versions of the box, called the Netwinder: a small-department server, a developer's box, and a thinnish-client end-user version.
Before bringing it to market, however, Corel sold off its hardware division to an Ottawa company called HCC (Hardware Canada Computing). Shortly after, HCC changed its name to Rebel.com (www.rebel.com), a company that bills its Netwinder product as "hardware with an attitude." Rebel.com's aim is to take Linux and add value for various markets: business, government, schools, etc. Corel still maintains a relationship with Rebel.com.
Running the StrongARM processor, the Rebel.com Netwinders use very little power and generate very little heat. The setup and administration of the pre-loaded Linux takes place via a remote PC running Windows and a Java-based Web browser. Hence you can simply pop them into a corner or into a server rack without a monitor or keyboard attached. The Netwinders have network cards built in (the server has two of them) and you can almost use them as plug-n-play Linux. These very nifty, bitty, inexpensive boxes appear to have a bright future.
Vancouver startup company Stormix Technologies Inc. (www.stormix.com) is dedicated to Linux and open-source solutions for business and home users. The company has released Storm Linux, a distribution based on Debian GNU/Linux. As with Corel Linux, Storm Linux sports a graphical installation procedure (plus the option of a text-based install), and SAS (Storm Administration System), a set of controls for system admin and maintenance. SAS comes in both graphical and text flavours. Storm Linux includes StarOffice 5.1a as part of the distribution.
The primary goal of the company is to make Linux easier to use. It is contemplating things like tutorials and wizards embedded into the distribution.
What is interesting is that both Corel Linux and Storm Linux are building on the excellent but lesser known Debian GNU/Linux base. Both companies are attempting to make Debian easier to use. Storm was started by three developers: R. Garth Wood, Kevin Lindsay and Atsushi Ikeda.
If you've been using Linux for awhile, you've probably encountered references to the BSD (Berkeley Systems Division) family of open-source operating systems. They bear a strong resemblance to Linux, but their heritage is different. They evolved out of the historically fascinating Unix developments at the University of California at Berkeley, the place where, among other important advances in OS design, the TCP/IP protocol was developed. There are three open-source members of the BSD family--FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD--plus a commercially supported release--BSD/OS. All are direct descendents from the original "Berkeley Unix."
OpenBSD is the BSD branch that specializes in security. It is the only OS in which nearly every line of code has been audited for security. In addition, it includes strong encryption programs that cannot be legally exported from the U.S. due to the export laws of that country (encryption is considered a military secret). OpenBSD is based in Calgary.
The OpenBSD CD proudly proclaims "Made in Canada: land of free cryptography." The chief organizer and maintainer of OpenBSD is Theo de Raadt, who serves as the central figure for the OS in the way that Linus Torvalds represents Linux.
OpenBSD has been picking up press lately for its solid performance and tough security. Unlike most distributions of Linux, which tend to be a bit careless about security in their out-of-box installations, OpenBSD claims to have not been cracked in an out-of-box installation for over two years.
OpenBSD is finding its way into firewalls, routers and web servers. In a ringing endorsement, Network Security Technologies Inc., a leading U.S. provider of e-security, has decided to offer commercial support for OpenBSD to its customers.
A number of corporate sites are beginning to mix Linux and OpenBSD servers, using OpenBSD for gateways and firewalls. OpenBSD is also popular for creating Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) between sites for corporate Extranets. If you use Linux in a corporate environment, you may want to check out what supplementary services OpenBSD can offer your corporation or organization.
I can't help but think that Marshall McLuhan would have approved of OpenBSD's highly Canadian profile that tweaks the rigid, outdated encryption export laws of the US. In this area at least, Canada is much more in tune with the global village than is the village of Washington, DC.
Sidebar: Canadian Linux Users' Exchange
If you're a serious Linux user in Canada, you should be aware of the Canadian Linux Users' Exchange (CLUE). The goal of CLUE is to promote the use of Linux in Canada and to provide services to Canadian Linux users. Part of its mandate is to support the efforts of local user groups and to "coordinate events, corporate sponsorships, and publicity at a national level".
Joining a local user group (LUG) is one of the fastest ways to progress with Linux. Monthly meetings highlight technical subjects and the implicit peer support is a great way to get help with any problems you're having. And, not least, the Unix tradition is to wrap up each meeting with a trip to the nearest local pub. The CLUE website (www.linux.ca) maintains a national list of local user groups.
In addition to coordinating local user groups, CLUE has undertaken an initiative that may be the first of its kind. CLUE has started a project called "Learnux", a Linux educational outreach program. The Centre for Social Entrepreneurship is supplying CLUE with used 486 and low-end Pentium computers. CLUE members are installing Linux and a variety of educational applications, then distributing the computers to underprivileged students and educational organizations.
In conjunction with the Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Starnix, CLUE has also opened the CLUE Linux Centre in Toronto. It provides a showcase, research centre, and classroom space "for all things Linux". (Photos of the Centre and directions for getting there are included on the CLUE website.)
CLUE offers two levels of membership--Friends and Full. A non-voting "Friends of CLUE" membership is free. A full voting membership is $35 annually, and full members receive the latest version of Caldera OpenLinux, a tee shirt, and various other incentives, including an email address of firstname.lastname@example.org. CLUE provides an excellent way for you to support Linux.
Gene Wilburn (email@example.com) is a Toronto-based IT manager, musician and writer who operates a small farm of Linux servers.