Fellowship Interviews

Fellowship Interview with Guido Günther

Guido Günther

Guido Günther joined the Debian Project while completing his degree in physics at the University of Konstanz. He helped with development of Debian for new processor architectures, and co-initiated Debian’s Groupware Meetings.

He also enjoys contributing to the GNOME project, and advanced Free Software virtualisation technologies. He works as a professional Free Software developer and consultant.

Chris Woolfrey: You’ve worked extensively on making Debian GNU/Linux run on MIPS computers: was that your first involvement with the project?

Guido Günther: My first involvement back then was packaging software that wasn’t available in Debian already. My first package was portsentry, if I remember correctly.

I first got involved, really, when I was a student. I’d noticed two SGI Indy computer workstations in a dark corner of the physics department. They were unused at that time, and just consuming power, so I wanted to put them into use again. I read something about a Linux MIPS port and tried to get it booted. Others were already working on a Debian userland, and so I joined the effort and picked up some lose ends, like a missing X server, for those machines, as well as some GNU C library components. Since I had little idea of anything in that field in those days, it was a very interesting experience.

CW: Is that when you got involved with Linux kernel development?

GG: Yes. We didn’t have a bootloader for the SGI Indy machines, either, and in order to get that working I had to understand how the kernel uses computer memory, how it gets initially started, and so on.

To boot the machines from hard disk I wrote Arcboot, based on ext2load. Ext2load already had all the basic routines to interface with the machines firmware called ARCS – a bit like a “BIOS“, but more flexible. Throw that together with e2fslibs (as known from e2fsprogs) to read files from ext2/3 filesystems, load the kernel to the correct addresses, build up the kernel command line, jump to the kernel’s start address and you have a simple, working bootloader – mostly by combining already existing Free Software.

“I wrote the missing bootloader for Debian MIPS by combining already existing Free Software”

For the initial installation process we needed another version that was able to do the same for kernel and initrd via network boot, using bootp. That was even simpler since the ARCS console does all the networking. I only had to extend the kernel so that it would read the initrd / initramfs ‘s start address from it’s kernel command line. We released the first version of the Debian MIPS port with Debian Woody (3.0) on July 19th 2002.

That’s the nice thing about Free Software: you can build on the work of others. Debian was the first Free Software project I contributed to. Since it had worked so well (compared to other distributions we’d tried in this physics department) I really wanted to contribute something back, so I started packaging things we needed at university that weren’t included.

CW: You happened to try Free Software out, it worked, and you just got going.

GG: Yes, exactly: got pulled in deeper and deeper and became a Debian Developer, eventually. I was thrilled by the opportunity to look into things in as much detail as I wanted and to change things as I needed them – without running into dead ends like in the proprietary software world.

CW: So has it always been a hobby for you?

“I was thrilled by the opportunity to look into things in as much detail as I wanted”

GG: The hobby turned into a profession. While working as a physicist writing computer simulations at the University of Konstanz I noticed on a mailing list that the German Ministry of Foreign affairs was looking for Debian Developers. I applied and moved to Bonn.

I worked there in Linux server and client development. Besides it’s locations in Germany the ministry also takes care of the IT in the embassies and consulates. This makes it a very unique IT network, with about 200 locations worldwide, some with excellent and reliable internet connections, others with very limited bandwidth and high latency. The plans to run this infrastructure with Free Software made this a very interesting place for me to work.

CW: Did the ministry promote Free Software, or was it merely a coincidence that they were using Debian?

GG: There were several reasons that they used it. On the technical side, Debian has a very solid update mechanism, all the tools for caching packages, and so on, are already there. It has a great software palette to choose from, and all of it receives security updates.

Also on commercial Linux distributions it’s hard to modify low level parts of the system without invalidating support contracts. So the decision was made to have local companies deploy and run Debian, and provide technical support for the ministry.

From a technical point of view this worked out very well. All the locations ended up running Debian based servers with a failovers setup, using drbd, holding the valuable data like mails and documents, running databases and application servers for web applications that, for example, allow you to order a new passport. The set-up allowed even for disconnected operation when the connection to Germany wasn’t available for whatever reason. By 2009 we had also migrated 2900 desktops and laptops to Linux and an updated Debian Lenny-based client was available shortly after the Lenny release, offering lots of usability improvements over the initial version.

“Our Debian system allowed citizens to do things like order new passports”

CW: So it was chosen more for its technical benefits than any political reasoning?

GG: Well, there was a great emphasis on avoiding ‘vendor lock-in’ of course, with the intention of reducing IT costs, and making the needed systems even affordable at all.

For me it was important to work in an environment wasn’t tied to one vendor; its features and update cycles. Having tax payer’s money invested in Free Software that’s available to everyone, instead of being spent on proprietary software license costs, was a big motivator. That, and being able to modify the software exactly to the end user’s needs, makes Free Software a perfect fit for the public sector. At least in my opinion.

Unfortunately the ministry decided to switch away from Free Software — even though two studies, by a well known consulting company, stated that the Open Source strategy was a valid one — so it was time to move on. I started my own company, http://godiug.net/, which supports customers with Free Software solutions.

CW: How is that going?

“The ministry decided to switch away from Free Software so it was time to move on”

GG: Things are going pretty well. The projects I’ve worked on so far use either Linux, Debian, libvirt or GNOME, so everything’s fine. Extending these and customizing things to the customers needs are my main focus.

CW: Are your customers generally people who are already involved with Free Software in some way?

GG: Usually, yes. Many of them are building Free Software solutions themselves and all of them are interested in getting their work included back upstream, usually both for political – contribute back – and technical – don’t want to maintain a fork – reasons, as far as I can tell.

CW: You’ve been involved with FSFE for a long time. Are you surprised by how far it’s come?

Very, very much. I’m very impressed with what the FSFE has achieved on the EU and national level. Back when I was working in the public sector I was able to glimpse the vast amounts of money that are thrown at lobbying for proprietary software and so called industry standards in Germany and the EU. It’s astonishing how the FSFE has still managed to get itself heard. Supporting this was one of my motivations for becoming a fellow.

FSFE is successful. Although it is a small counterweight by financial means, it has a very long lever to compensate for that, it seems.

CW: Would you say the same for Free Software in general, in terms of growth? Could you have started your Free Software consultancy business years ago?

“At CeBit this year Free Software was second in popularity only to video games”

GG: Since I’m mostly surrounded by people involved in Free Software, and have been for several years, it’s hard to say. But given the interest in Free Software at venues like the CeBIT, I think the interest is still growing. Besides the one with the games in it, the hall with Free Software was by far the most crowded this year.

Running a business would have certainly been possible earlier on, but I think fewer customers would care about the political goals of Free Software. I think these days, for more people, Free Software isn’t a cheap or free of charge second class citizen, as perhaps it used to be. Rather it is software with an added value: Freedom.

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