Stephen Smoogen: Ramblings about long ago and far away

My first job outside of college in 1994 was working at Los Alamos National Labs as a Graduate Research Assistant. It was supposed to be a post where I would use my bachelor’s in Physics degree for a year until I became a graduate student somewhere. The truth was that I was burnt out of University and had little urge to go back. I instead used my time to learn much more about Unix system administration. It turned out the group I worked on had a mixture of SGI Irix’s, Sun Sparcstations, HP, Convex, and I believe AIX. The systems had been run by graduate students for their professors and needed some central management. While I didn’t work for the team that was doing that work, I spent more and more time working with them to get that in place. After a year, it was clear I was not going back to Physics, and my old job was ending. So the team I worked on gave me a reference to another place at the Lab where I began work. 
This network had even more Unix systems as they had NeXT cubes, old Sun boxes, Apollo, and some others I am sure to have forgotten. All of which needed a lot of love and care as they had been built for various Phd’s and postdocs for various needs and then forgotten. My favorite box was one where the owner required that nearly every file was set 777. I had multiple emails which echo every comment people come up with Selinux in the last decade. If there was some problem on the system it was because it had a permission set.. and until it was shown it didn’t work at 777 you could look at it being something else. [The owner was also unbelievably brilliant in other ways.. but hated arbitrary permission models.]
Any case, I got a lot of useful experience on all kinds of Unix systems, user needs, and user personalities. I also got to use Linux Softland Linux Systems (SLS) on a 486 with 4 MB of RAM running the linux kernel 0.99.4? and learn all kinds of things about PC hardware versus ‘Real Computers’. The 486 was really an overclocked 386 with some added instructions that had been originally a Cyrix DX33 that had been relabeled with industrial whiteout as a 40MHz. It sort of worked at 40Mhz but was reliable only at 20Mhz. The issues with getting deals from Computer magazines.. sure the guy in the next apartment worked great.. mine was a dud.
I had originally run MCC (Manchester Computer Center Interim Linux) in college but when I moved it was easier to find a box of floppies with SLS so I had installed that on the 486. I would then download software source code from the internet and rebuild it for my own use using all the extra flags I could find in GCC to make my 20Mhz system seem faster. I instead learned that most of the options didn’t do anything on i386 Linux at the time and most of my reports about it were probably met by eye-rolls with the people at Cygnus. My supposed goal was to try and set up a MUD so I could code up a text based virtual reality. Or to get a war game called Conquer working on Linux. Or maybe get xTrek working on my system. [I think I mostly was trying to become a game developer by just building stuff versus actually coding stuff. I cave-man debugged a lot of things using stuff I had learned in FORTRAN but it wasn’t actually making new things.]
For years, I looked back on that time and thought it was a complete waste of time as I should have been ‘coding’ something. However I have come to realize I learned a lot about the nitty-gritty of hardware limitations. A 9600 baud Modem is not going to keep up with people on Ethernet playing xTrek. Moving it to a 56k modem later isn’t going to keep up with a 56k partial T1. The numbers are the same but they are counting different things. A 5400 RPM IDE hard-drive is never going to be as good as 5400 RPM SCSI disks even if it is larger. 8 MB on a Sparc was enough for a MUD but on a PC it ran into problems because the CPU and MMU were not as fast or ‘large’. 
All of this later became useful years later when I worked at Red Hat between 1997 and 2001. The customers at that time were people who had been using ‘real Unix’ hardware and were at times upset about how Linux didn’t act the same way. In most cases it was the limitations of the hardware they had bought to put a system together, and by being able to debug that and recommend replacements, things improved. Being able to compare how a Convex used disks or an SGI graphics to the limitations of the old ISA and related buses helped show that you could redesign a problem to meet the hardware. [In many cases, it was cheaper to use N PC systems to replicate the behaviour of 1 Unix box but the problem needed to be broken in a way that it worked on N systems versus 1 box.] 
So what does this have to do with Linux today? Well mostly reminders to me to be less cranky with people who are 
  1. Having fun breaking things on their computers. People who want to tear apart their OS and rebuild it to something else are going to run into lots of hurdles. Don’t tell them it was a stupid thing. The people at Cygnus may have rolled their eyes but they never told me to stop trying something else. Just read the documentation and see that it says ‘undefined behavior’ in a lot of places.
  2. Working with tiny computers to do stuff that you do on a bigger computer these days. It is very easy to think that because it is ‘easier’ and currently more maintainable to do a calculation on 1 large Linux box.. that you are wasting time on dozens of raspberry pis to do the same thing. But that is what the mainframers thought of the minicomputers, and the minicomputers thought of the Unix workstations, and the Unix thought of Linux on PC. 
  3. Seeming to spin around, not knowing what they are doing. I spent a decade doing that.. and while I could have been more focused.. I would have missed a lot of things that happened otherwise. Sometimes you need to do that to actually understand who you are. 


Source From: fedoraplanet.org.
Original article title: Stephen Smoogen: Ramblings about long ago and far away.
This full article can be read at: Stephen Smoogen: Ramblings about long ago and far away.

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