Interviewee: Helio Chissini de Castro
In this interview we talk with Helio Chissini de Castro. In specific, we talk about:
- The open source environment in Brazil
- The strengths of Mandriva Linux
- Organization and maintenance of Mandriva
- The future of open source software in Latin America
Sean Campbell: Can you tell us a little bit about your background, both with open source and outside of that?
Helio Chissini de Castro: Sure. I started in open source 10 years ago, when I finished university in a computer science major. I joined a company that works on desktop development called Choose, which works with ILOG tools. They work on Windows and UNIX C++ software, and they really have nothing to do with Linux and open source at all.
At the end of my time there, they started moving things toward Linux, and I worked a little bit with it. Then I was invited to Conectiva, where I worked with Linux as a typical system developer for companies. Conectiva was bought by Mandriva, so I’m working for Mandriva right now.
I work now as a KDE developer, and at the same time, I do debug consulting for a GIS company called ECOS. So, I’m a full time employee of Mandriva, working mainly on open source applications, mostly desktop and KDE.
Sean: What’s the general impact of open source in Brazil? Where do you see it having its greatest success?
Helio: There are two main views of open source in Brazil. The first view is that government is moving it forward, by embracing open source and simply dropping commercial software. This is not entirely accurate, because government does a lot of talking, and after five years or so, they finally start to make some progress–it’s slow moving.
On the other side, some companies are working very hard on open source, like banks for example. The largest bank in Brazil, Bank do Brasil, was already using some Linux machines, and so the major goods sellers in Brazil started using Linux as well.
Many people think that government is pushing open source in Brazil, but companies are pushing more strongly than government, because government was too slow.
But, the most important move by government in open source was approving a project that allows companies to move forward. Computers were quite expensive, but now they can come with Linux and be sold at a lower price. This allowed companies like Mandriva and some others like Itautec to provide OEM distribution, and many big companies like HP and Positivo in Brazil are selling large numbers of computers with Linux installed.
People in Brazil are now keeping their machines with Linux and open source software, rather that just exchanging them for some proprietary system. This is quite good, because now we are starting to see people talking about and using Linux, including universities.
Sean: What are the factors that increase the cost of PCs in Brazil?
Helio: Mostly, the issue is taxes. Imports in Brazil typically cost about 60% above the base price of the product, including the delivery tax. A computer selling legally by a shop inside Brazil that you can buy for $500 in the US can cost about $1500 in Brazil just because of government taxes and other things like that.
Sean: I would assume that in Brazil it’s even more important than elsewhere to make sure that the hardware you have lasts as long as possible, since future hardware is going to cost a lot more compared to another country. Linux would have advantages there, in the sense that it can run on older or lower-cost systems.
Let me ask you a bit about the Mandriva project. What do you think are some of the major differences between Mandriva and other distros? What do you think its particular strengths are?
Helio: Mandriva supports both the KDE and GNOME desktop systems, and you can mix and match services as you like. We have good support of hardware, more than the usual distribution.
Since the release in 2007, we have made strong changes to make very good configurations with base core libraries. You can have a stable base system with a strong desktop and almost all kinds of possible hardware recognized by Linux.
The desktop is growing again, and I encourage people to compare our desktop with others.
Sean: In terms of device support, I noticed on the Mandriva blog recently that you guys were blogging about having support for Blackberry and Windows Mobile 6 devices.
I’m interested to hear what you have to say about device support, because that’s often the problem users run into. For instance , you may be able to get 802.11g to work with Ubuntu, but you might not be able to get 802.11n with the latest Intel chipset. Or you can, but it will take a little bit of extra time.
It sounds like you guys have made a specific investment there, so what things do you think in particular Mandriva handles better than others in terms of device support?
Helio: We take a lot of devices and work directly with companies in various places like China. In terms of drivers, you have to support more and more things every day, and so we work very hard to keep up with the hardware.
For example, in getting the first UMPCs up and running, we were able to do in one week what others did in one month. We have a strong understanding of how things work, and even more important, we are a small team, so it’s easy to talk with each other when you have fast things to do.
Sean: Would you tell me a little bit about how Mandriva’s maintained?
We’ve talked to people from KDE, Apache, and other projects, and it seems that everybody has a slightly different way of bringing community support in, of flowing patches in, and of validating the security and the usability of those patches and so forth.
Helio: Our repository, our packages, and everything we do centralizes in the supervisional server. it’s one of the largest supervisional servers ever–around a hundred gigabytes of database. It has the history of all packages and patches and branches and solutions, and it’s open for everyone that’s using the computers, so they can see what is changing in every part, every time.
The most amazing thing is that you can easily port and push patches and make it available for everyone without having the harsh part of, “OK, You need to pick the package that others wish and unpack it and see what is inside and then do the patch and apply for it.” It’s open, and it’s easy to see.
Our policy is similar to the policy KDE has. Everyone who has an account for our distribution, from distributors to the main developers, can access every kind of package inside the distro. So, if you see a small bug that you can fix, like a translation bug, there’s no one you need to call to ask permission to change the package or the bug. You can just change it, and the next distribution, you can see it’s working.
Most distributes are automatic, so you just say to the system, “OK, please compile this package and this version,” and they do it for all the architectures. Actually, we are supporting now just 64-bit and 32-bit Intel, so basically, this system makes everything for you. You have a linked control too, that can do some cleanups for you, so this is the way to do most developer things.
Most of the guys there have direct contact with some project, and they’re talking about projects, and how you handle the next one. For example, I am currently on the KDE project, and I have been for like eight years. I’m a KDE developer, and most of the guys on the KDE team are KDE developers too.
So, we can just pick the different issues, and the patch is back-ported directly from the main tree, tracked with KDE, just for Mandriva. At this moment, we’ve just finished our last KDE 3 distribution ever, but everything is open, and every KDE distro can look in and watch what we are doing.
I know some Gnome developers too, and they do exactly the same with backporting things and talking with people to debug and so forth. We prefer to keep things in the trunk and push them upstream, instead of keeping things for us and trying to convince everyone to use us. It’s a different approach.
We put it upstream because it’s better for the developer and everyone, to get the upstream things.
Sean: What’s the process for making decisions in the project? What if somebody wants to include something and somebody else doesn’t, or if somebody thinks that a particular patch isn’t secure enough yet, or needs changes?
I know, for example, that Mozilla has various layers of people that essentially kick back patches or changes to the distro. What’s the governance model the way you operate it–how do you approach it, if there is a decision to be made about where the distro’s headed?
Helio: The core team usually decides what things we want to push in the next distribution. Everyone, all the contributors, are allowed to change it and push in patches, because we have a cooker, which is the unstable development. You can jump in there and you can see things when they’re broken down and help to fix them.
Then, three months before a distribution, we freeze the distribution and start to set the dates for things, and you have selected freezes and regular projects for software. It becomes more and more selective, until you get to the last stage, and it’s the project manager that decides whether to enter it or not.
Sean: So the project manager is the main gatekeeper, if it requires that type of activity?
Helio: Yes, but just in the last stage. Of course, things change if there’s something critical like core libraries, like GLIBC or kernel–not only from Mandriva, but all the things from Manbo Labs. Turbolinux and Mandriva use exactly the same packages.
Sean: I know there was an agreement signed with Turbolinux recently. Tell me a little bit about what benefits you think that brings to Mandriva and what kind of future benefits you think will arise out of the partnership.
Helio: It brings a larger user base, and you can adopt exactly the same things for both distros. They don’t have to charge too much to the developers for this, and we know exactly what is running everywhere. We don’t have to have three or four different distributions, in our case, to import and send bugs and try to find the same bug at the same time.
You remember in the past with United Linux, they tried to do the same. It was a different approach. But, now we have shared packages, shared core packages, that can reduce the burden of maintenance.
Sean: Let me ask you about unique features of open source in Brazil. There’s obviously some universality with any technology, and there will be some things that are similar both in Brazil and elsewhere, but do you think there are unique aspects to the open source community in Brazil? Are there things that you pay a little more attention to or put a little more focus on? Are there particular distributions and packages that are more popular as opposed to other regions of the world?
Helio: The curiosity and the way that people speak here is unique in Brazil, because people have advocated strongly for open source for years in Brazil. Things are changing now, and in a few years, you will probably see a lot of strong developers here.
You can see the growth of the community in software forums like FISL, which has become a major conference in the world. There will be 4000 people present at the conference next week, and there will be more than 100 talks. This is part of building technical feasibility.
Sean: What do you think are the biggest challenges open source has in Brazil, at the moment? Do you think that it just needs to grow over time, or are there certain areas that are under-serviced? For instance, is there a lack of consulting organizations that support open source, or do you think that you just need to grow an larger community to form a base for developers, or does it need to have even a larger impact on the university system?
Helio: There are two main challenges, and I would refer to them really as current and not future ones. One of them is about government and getting new hardware and things for development; even companies and universities have trouble in getting enough donations or machines to develop with. We need to be able to access technology without paying too much in taxes and being held back by bureaucracy. This issue is really limiting our progress on the development side.
The other challenge is that companies have to become more trustful of open source. This is changing a little bit, and we have two banks now using open source, but some people still feel mistrustful.
The momentum needs to come from a few big companies who will break the cycle, and then we may see many of the Internet providers and telephony companies getting involved. Today, though, the main web sites in Brazil don’t put their full faith in open source systems.
Sean: In South America, government has been a strong advocate of certain technology solutions, and it has gotten a little more involved in attempting to push a particular type of solution than in many other places.
That is the case not just in Brazil, but also in Columbia and a lot of other countries, the government has made fairly significant pronouncements leaning toward one side or the other. What do you think is driving government to get so involved at that level?
Helio: First of all, cost is a significant factor. Governments in South America place a very high value on cost savings. Second, it’s good for the image of the government.
Sean: Where do you think the limit should be with government involvement? At some point, at least in a typical free market economy, government has a role, but they also stand back. Do you think there’s a place where the government should stand back and let the open source community drive things? Do you think there are places where they should not be involved, or do you see their involvement as a net positive?
Helio: First of all, making the government involvement strong is like trying to move a huge elephant when they decide to sit and rest. Sometimes, they wake up and move. So, you need to just push and push and push, and sometimes things work.
The government also usually tries to get help for the community, in the form of money to do the real work. This is important, because you can’t just ask the community to do the work for free, because they don’t have free time every day. Now the government has started to approach development with companies. They discovered the magic of asking companies to give their support in exchange for lowering taxes.
Sean: Normally, toward the end of these interviews, we like to ask the person we’re interviewing if there are some final thoughts you wanted to add in.
Helio: First off, the Brazilian government did wrong in the past. They didnt really know how it is supposed to work, but they are doing right now. The future depends on how the country’s situation develops.
The other thing is that we think our next distribution of Mandriva, already out in the market, was one of our great achievements and one of our best distributions ever.
I also think KDE 4 will be the next step for the big desktop, but I’m a little biased. [Laughs]
Sean: Thank you for taking the time to talk. Have a great day.
Helio: Thank you.