Interviewee: Alexey Rusakov
In this interview we talk with Alexey. In specific, we talk about:
- Tracing a history of involvement as a Linux contributor
- The rise of Free Software in Russia
- The role of ALT Linux in advancing Free Software
- The expansion of Free Software in schools and other Russian institutions
- The Russian government’s role in technological change
Sean Campbell: Alexey, please tell us a bit about your background.
Alexey: Around 1999, when I was a student at Moscow State University and working at a company where they used Microsoft Windows, I started to learn that there were other operating systems. At that time, almost every end user in our country believed that there were no alternatives to Windows for the desktop. System administrators (often called sysadmins), however, were aware of UNIX and OS/2, and some of them knew of a comparatively young system called Linux.
Some of my friends were working as sysadmins, and they introduced me to OS/2, UNIX, and Linux, which grabbed my interest immediately. My first Linux system was Red Hat Linux 5.2, if my memory serves me correctly. I learned of the UNIX way of doing things, and it was a new approach to working with the computer for me.
The idea of joining commands into pipelines that convert, process, and format data appeared to be very powerful, and it impressed me very much. I was very interested with this direction of computer technology, and I started digging deeper.
My serious experience with Linux started a year later, in 2000, when I signed a contract with a company that used SUSE Linux in their everyday work. They did work for some German institutions, developing a search and retrieval system that worked with biological data. This was my real start in Linux and my first exposure to the Linux kernel, Vim editor, GNOME, KDE, and other applications.
It was a very interesting experience. I have worked in that company for four years and learned Linux very deeply. In general, I liked it very much, but there were some very problematic areas in SUSE Linux, particularly in their packaging system and out-of-the-box configuration.
Sean: What was wrong with their packaging system?
Alexey: The packaging system was based on RPM and, concerning the command line, there was almost nothing to facilitate working with it. There were no applications or scripts that could help resolve dependencies, and I had to go through the entire process of installing RPMs almost on my own. There was, however, a graphical tool called YaST that somewhat eased the work of installing RPMs, but there was yet another problem–the lack of a consistent and fresh package repository.
Actually, it was not only a problem of SUSE, the problem of GNU/Linux package repositories was very common in those days. Even if a repository for some distribution existed, it was more or less a pile of packages, nothing more.
Sean: How did you become involved in ALT Linux?
Alexey: Well, I started searching for other distributions, and I learned more about Mandrake, Red Hat, and Debian, as well as our local Russian distributions–namely ASP Linux and ALT Linux. I tried ASP Linux first, but it didn’t impress me, and then I tried ALT Linux.
ALT Linux was quite peculiar in some ways. It started as just a Linux localization of Mandrake Linux, but the differences increased, and in 2001, ALT Linux became a separate distribution: a fork of Mandrake.
I installed that Linux on my home machine, started using it, and was very much delighted. The packaging system in ALT Linux was based on RPM, too, but the distribution authors added a framework over RPM, called APT. They borrowed it from Conectiva, the Brazilian Linux company, and Conectiva, in their turn, had taken APT from Debian, and adapted it to work with RPM instead of Debian’s dpkg. Conectiva was bought by Mandrake shortly afterwards; the result of this merger is now known as Mandriva.
I got very interested in the approach of ALT Linux to building distributions. They paid a lot of attention to what is actually delivered to the user. Besides that, they had a very strong, although not large, community, which used mailing lists for communication. By and by, I became more involved in talks about ALT Linux, its bugs and features, and, well, I think I fell in love with it. After two years of working with ALT Linux, I decided to become one of the package maintainers, which is our equivalent of a “Debian Developer”.
A maintainer is actually one of the people that builds packages within the community. He is responsible for building new versions, fixing critical bugs, and plugging security holes in it, although he is not paid by the ALT Linux company for this. I started maintaining one or two packages, and then I got more deeply involved. Eventually, one of the very prominent maintainers who was building GNOME packages for ALT Linux resigned from the project and asked if someone could build GNOME instead of him.
The project needed someone to build GNOME, and I volunteered, because GNOME was my main working environment (I’m still using it now). That was a very challenging experience, because there were 100 or more packages, and the project pays a lot of attention to the consistency of packages–they are almost hand crafted, I’d say. Besides, there were no tools that could really help work with a bundle of packages at once; they appeared later.
I managed several stable builds of GNOME, and one day I was contacted by directors at ALT Linux and started working there as an employee.
Now I’m not building packages much; I mainly work as a project manager. I’m also dealing with most of our international relations. GNOME is maintained by a team of volunteers now. I still build some packages once every week or two, just for fun.
Sean: You are the first person we have talked to in Russia who is involved in Open Source. Could you tell us more about Open Source’s general position in Russia? How prevalent is it, and how does ALT Linux fit into that?
Alexey: I’d like to use the term “Free Software” instead of “Open Source.” Open Source typically means that the source can be viewed, whereas Free Software gives anyone the ability to see the source code of the program, to alter it, and to distribute the altered form, if they wish. That freedom, of course, also carries the ability to run the software and to copy it without limitation. I’m a little bit picky about these terms, because it was quite common to misuse and even abuse them not so long ago.
Until 2004 or even 2005, Free Software was a fairly marginal concept in Russia, although there were Linux user groups (LUGs) spread out around the country, and of course, one could learn about various distributions over the Internet and get involved.
The Free Software community in Russia formed around a number of people, mainly system administrators and higher school students, who got together in LUGs, exchanged their experience, and got more proficient in creating better configurations. Ultimately, some of them took those configurations further, to the point where they started creating Linux distributions.
There were maybe a dozen notable projects that had created Russian Linux distributions by the end of the 1990s, although most of them are gone now. Most were discontinued within two or three years, but a couple of distributions outlived the others.
ALT Linux was originally both scientific and commercial. The Institute of Logic, Cognitive Science and Development of Personality, a nonprofit organization founded by the Russian philosopher Vladimir Smirnov, was a central institution associated with the scientific part. His son, Alexey Smirnov, is now the CEO of ALT Linux.
The commercial part involved IPLabs company, a computer hardware retailer. In 1998, they cooperated and created a Free Software project that was named IPLabs Linux Team. They started localizing Mandrake and other distributions, and publishing these distributions in Russia.
That team did great work improving core parts of Linux, including the kernel, RPM, X Window System, KDE, GNOME, and others. The project greatly influenced the future of Free Software and GNU/Linux in Russia, and its development model still works–and evolves–10 years later.
In 2001, IPLabs Linux team and another team of volunteers called Linux RuNet decided to join forces. The resulting company was named ALT Linux.
At the same time, a decision was made to fork from Mandrake altogether. The last distribution of IPLabs Linux team was Linux Mandrake 2001 Spring Edition. It was very different from the original Mandrake, actually. The hardware business of IPLabs was discontinued in 2001, and the main work of the new company was creating software. One of the first things to be done in ALT Linux was the creation of a consistent repository of RPM packages that still exists and evolves today.
That repository is called Sisyphus. The name is quite fitting, since Sisyphus is a figure in Greek mythology who endlessly pushes a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll down again. That unceasing work is something like what happens to the packages in this repository.
Our maintainers constantly build new versions of software and push them to the repository. The work never ends, because new versions of software are constantly released.
Of course, the main part of the work is done when a maintainer initially packages some software for the repository, and after that, the software is actually just rebuilt, with slight modifications of the building process from version to version. ALT Linux have made great strides in automating this process, and our infrastructure lets us tolerate even very serious changes in upstream projects.
The repository is forever “unstable”, meaning that it contains the newest versions of packages, which are not necessarily stable ones. This may cause problems if you use Sisyphus carelessly in everyday operations. Testing and bugfixing is actually performed by those who use Sisyphus as the source of packages for their systems (including maintainers).
Sean: When ALT Linux started to gain momentum as a distribution in its own right, I imagine that it must have had to create an identity for itself. How did that evolve?
Alexey: Since 2001, ALT Linux have been constantly promoting Free Software. We believe that Free Software is the only possible choice for government and other public formal structures. The reasoning for this position is that the government needs to have non exclusive rights to avoid being locked in to a single provider, and they need to have access to the source code as a matter of national security.
ALT Linux made great progress in promoting this point of view within Russia. In 2007, the Russian government started reviewing a document called “The Concept of Free Software Development in the Russian Federation”, and the accompanying Glossary.
In 2008, the Russian government approved this document. This approval enforced the term “Free Software” and some other terms legally, although the main license of Free Software, the GNU General Public License, still cannot be referred to by lawyers in Russia since there is no adequate and approved translation of this license to the Russian language.
Before that time, the terms concerned with Open Source and Free Software were often misunderstood, misused and even abused by software giants–they obviously did not like the Free Software movement. Particularly, Microsoft’s SharedSource initiative comes to my mind, as well as Sun’s license for Java 1.5.0 and former versions. The glossary has set things straight.
In 2007, the Sisyphus repository gained the very important ability of branching. Before 2007, we largely had to stop receiving new versions of packages, at least for major versions, before preparing a release. That problem was solved in 2007, so that we could speed up the release cycle and release distributions more often without stopping development on the main repository.
It was also very good for our community, because the community actually loved new versions. People who use Sisyphus really like to have the latest and greatest versions, and they get nervous about big freezes.
On the other hand, using stable branches for releasing distributions allowed other companies to release their distributions on these branches that have more or less predictable functionality. Actually, we’ve created a truly open model of Linux distributions development.
Sean: Was the government activity in the field of Free Software limited to approving strategic documents?
Alexey: Of course, no. Also in 2007, the government invited bids for a contract with companies who are willing to develop and deploy a Free Software suite in the schools of three Russian regions: Tatarstan, the Perm Territory, and the Tomsk Region.
Together with some other Free Software companies, under the auspices of Armada group, we won the competition. The Free Software Suite for Educational Institutions has been deployed to 1000 schools in the three regions. This suite actually consists of several distributions for different hardware and use cases, all created on the same stable repository branch.
The problem of outdated hardware is a very important one in our country.
Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, the two greatest cities in Russia, there is a lot of outdated hardware, especially in schools and other institutions that live on the state budget.
So, the distribution for the weakest configuration manages to work even on systems based on Pentium processors and 96 megabytes of memory (and it’s still a modern distribution, just a lightweight one). The next distribution is targeted at more powerful configurations, such as a Pentium II or Pentium III processor with 256 megabytes of RAM. The top distribution is intended for more modern systems. Yet another distribution was crafted to be used in terminal classes, and two Live-discs were supplied to help teachers and students try the Suite without installing anything.
This suite was distributed in these three regions. We got a lot of feedback that has allowed us to improve our distributions. The popularity of this project was so large that schools from other regions began to ask to participate in the project. So the Federal Agency of Education issued a letter that allowed schools from other regions, in addition to these three regions, to join the project.
In addition to the original 1000 schools, another 1000 schools from all over Russia got a box with the suite and deployed it. There are some plans to continue development and support of software for educational purposes in 2009 and in 2010.
Sean: There’s an interesting undercurrent in your responses about the interplay between change and stasis, in terms of the adoption of Free Software. How do socio-political forces in Russia play a role in governing technological change?
Alexey: Many things in Russia are started and led by the government, which I believe provides quite a conservative structure concerning public institutions. Local people aren’t apt to change something for themselves, but when the government suggests to institutions that something should be done, they tend to simply go ahead and make those changes, without necessarily thinking about it too closely. There are both good and bad consequences of that.
Anyway, since 2005 or so, the situation in Russia with regard to Free Software has changed quite a bit. It has changed toward awareness, first of all. The people have become aware, much more than before, about the existence of alternatives to the Windows platform, and about copyright issues too.
One story, which began in 2006 and ended at the very end of 2008, has added to this awareness greatly. Alexander Ponosov, a school headmaster, was accused of using pirated versions of Microsoft Windows, Office and some other programs installed on computers of his school. He got involved in a lawsuit, and he was even about to be prosecuted, but after several complaints the accuse has been dismissed completely.
This story became well-known to the public. Many people suddenly learned about alternatives to Microsoft Windows, because Ponosov started searching for something else, and found Linux. On the other hand, people also learned that failure to follow licensing requirements (which are sometimes rather intricate) can lead to legal issues.
Sean: What were the long-term effects of that series of events, beyond the initial increased realization by people of the potential consequences of software piracy?
Alexey: We believe that competition started to be fairer as a result. Before that, most people didn’t have an idea that copying software could be illegal. Hence, the scale of software piracy in Russia was enormous. But since 2005, various government structures started pressing the public very seriously (sometimes, as in case of Ponosov, too seriously) about using only licensed software, and people became more careful to do so.
As a result, people started thinking more carefully about exactly what software and functionality they need. They found that high-end software like Photoshop or Microsoft Office was overkill for most people. They could buy a lot less functional programs which are not so expensive and be fine with them.
Another way out appeared to be using free alternatives that, however, might be not fully compatible with their closed-source rivals. So people began to discover Mozilla, OpenOffice.org, GNU/Linux, and other programs that were not only free of charge (as in “free beer”) but also free to modify (as in “free speech”).
They started using this software first of all because they didn’t have to pay for it–not because it was Open Source and could be changed and distributed. But then many of them discovered added value in the form of helpful community and ability to fix simple bugs in software or at least ask someone to fix them without long unfruitful waiting for attention from a large software vendor.
The success of GNU/Linux in Russia was very much concerned with these ideas that software should be obtained legally and that some software can be distributed and modified legally. Copying or fixing something for each other is a usual thing in Russia, and Free Software fits better to our mentality.
At the present time, there is already a serious movement toward Free Software in areas where there is not much money. These areas are very significant, including medical, educational, and other government-controlled institutions.
Business structures also started adopting GNU/Linux, mainly because it gives more freedom in copying and installing as well as in changing and customizing it as needed.
Sean: We’re running short of time, but thank you for talking to us today.
Alexey: It was my pleasure.