I’m at an airport, about to board the first of three flights across the world, from timezone +8 to timezone -8. I’ll be in transit 27 hours to get to Seattle, Washington state. I’m leaving my wife and two young children behind.
My work has given me a days’ worth of leave under the Corporate Social Responsibility program, and I’m taking three days’ annual leave, to do this. 27 hours each way in transit, for 3 days on the ground.
I started playing in technology as a kid in the 1980s; my first PC was a clone (as they were called) 286 running MS-DOS. It was clunky, and the most I could do to extend it was to write batch scripts. As a child I had no funds for commercial compilers, no network connections (this was pre Internet in Australia), no access to documentation, and no idea where to start programming properly.
It was a closed world.
I hit university in the summer of 1994 to study Computer Science and French. I’d heard of Linux, and soon found myself installing the Linux distributions of the day. The Freedom of the licensing, the encouragement to use, modify, share, was in stark contrast to the world of consumer PCs of the late 1980’s.
It was there at the UCC at UWA I discovered Debian. Some of the kind network/system admins at the University maintained a Debian mirror on the campus LAN, updated regularly and always online. It was fast, and more importantly, free for me to access. Back in the 1990s, bandwidth in Australia was incredibly expensive. The vast distances of the country mean that bandwidth was scarce. Telcos were in races to put fiber between Perth and the Eastern States, and without that in place, IP connectivity was constrained, and thus costly.
Over many long days and nights I huddled down, learning window managers, protocols, programming and scripting languages. I became… a system/network administrator, web developer, dev ops engineer, etc. My official degree workload, algorithmic complexity, protocol stacks, were interesting, but fiddling with Linux based implementations was practical.
After years of consuming the output of Debian – and running many services with it – I decided to put my hand up and volunteer as a Debian Developer: it was time to give back. I had benefited from Debian, and I saw others benefit from it as well.
As the 2000’s started, I had my PGP key in the Debian key ring. I had adopted a package and was maintaining it – load balancing Apache web servers. The web was yet to expand to the traffic levels you see today; most web sites were served from one physical web server. Site Reliability Engineering was a term not yet dreamed of.
What became more apparent was the applicability of Linux, Open Source, and in my line-of-sight Debian to a wider community beyond myself and my university peers. Debain was being used to revive recycled computers that were being donated to charities; in some cases, unable to transfer commercial software licenses with the hardware that was no longer required by organisations that had upgraded. It appeared that Debian was being used as a baseline above which society in general had access to fundamental capability of computing and network services.
The removal of subscriptions, registrations, and the encouragement of distribution meant this occurred at rates that could never be tracked, and more importantly, the consensus was that it should not be automatically tracked. The privacy of the user is paramount – more important than some statistics for the Developer to ponder.
When the Bosnia-Herzegovina war ended in 1995, I recall an email from academics there, having found some connectivity, writing to ask if they would be able to use Debian as part of their re-deployment of services for the Tertiary institutions in the region. This was an unnecessary request as Debian GNU/Linux is freely available, but it was a reminder that, for the country to have tried to procure commercial solutions at that time would have been difficult. Instead, those that could do the task just got on with it.
There’s been many similar project where the grass-roots organisations – non profits, NGOs, and even just loose collectives of individuals – have turned to Linux, Open Source, and sometimes Debian to solve their problems. Many fine projects have been established to make technology accessible to all, regardless of race, gender, nationality, class, or any other label society has used to divide humans. Big hat tip to Humanitarian Open Street Map, Serval Project.
I’ve always loved Debian’s position on being the Universal operating system. Its’ vast range of packages and wide range of computing architectures supported means that quite often a litmus test of “is project X a good project?” was met with “is it packaged for Debian?”. That wide range of architectures has meant that administrators of systems had fewer surprises and a faster adoption cycle when changing platforms, such as the switch from x86 32 bit to x86 64 bit.
Enter the Cloud
I first laid eyes on the AWS Cloud in 2008. It was nothing like the rich environment you see today. The first thing I looked for was my favourite operating system, so that what I already knew and was familiar with was available in this environment to minimise the learning curve. However there were no official images, which was disconcerting.
In 2012 I joined AWS as an employee. Living in Australia they hired me into the field sales team as a Solution Architect – a sort of pre-sales tech – with a customer focused depth in security. It was a wonderful opportunity, and I learnt a great deal. It also made sense (to me, at least) to do something about getting Debian’s images blessed.
It turned out, that I had to almost define what that was: images endorsed by a Debian Developer, handed to the AWS Marketplace team. And so since 2013 I have done so, keeping track of Debian’s releases across the AWS regions, collaborating with other Debian folk on other cloud platforms to attempt a unified approach to generating and maintaining these images. This included (for a stint) generating them into the AWS GovCloud Region, and still into the AWS China (Beijing) Region – the other side of the so-called Great Firewall of China.
So why the trip?
We’ve had focus groups at the Debconf (Debian conference) around the world, but its often difficult to get the right group of people in the same rooms at the same time. So the proposal was to hold a focused Debian Cloud Sprint. Google was good enough to host this, for all the volunteers across all the cloud providers. Furthermore, donated funds were found to secure the travel for a set of people to attend who otherwise could not.
I was lucky enough to be given a flight.
So here I am, in the terminal in Australia: my kids are tucked up in bed, dreaming of the candy they just collected for Halloween. It will be a draining week I am sure, but if it helps set and improve the state of Debian then its worth it.