Sunday, August 24, 2008

Free Software, Open Source and Linux

The essence of the free software and open source movement is that the users are treated like co-developers and therefore have access to the source code of the software. Furthermore users are encouraged to submit additions to the software, code fixes for the software, bug reports, documentation etc. Having more co-developers increases the rate at which the software evolves. Linus's law states that, "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow."

But what are these movements really? The rest of the article should clear the picture for you.

Closed source or propriety software implies that the producer of such software has set restrictions on the use, modification, copying, or republishing of the software. This involves restriction in the source code access often through copyright and patents.

The free software movement aims to promote user's rights to access and modify software. It aims at giving the users freedom by replacing propriety software under restrictive licensing terms with free software. Richard Stallman the pioneer of this movement maintains that ‘free’ here stands for freedom to distribute rather than freedom from cost. The problem that this ideology faces is that companies consider such software as anti-commercial since they are available at zero cost.

The open source movement in contrast maintains that some intellectual property law needs to exist to protect cultural producers. It is the same as free software in concept; however, the various licenses that exist often makes it difficult to understand the legal implications regarding the privileges and restrictions of using open source software. Commercially, however, open source is more accepted than free software.

What is commonly referred to as Linux is actually more appropriately a GNU/Linux operating system. The GNU Project uses the Linux kernel developed by Linus Torvalds and supported by thousands of programmers worldwide for its operation.

The Debian Project have made common cause to create a free operating system. This operating system is called Debian GNU/Linux, or simply Debian for short. Work is in progress to provide Debian for other kernels, primarily for the Hurd which is produced by the GNU project.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Cuckoo's Egg - Book Review

The Cuckoo’s Egg by Clifford Stoll is an entertaining account of a true life experience that made the author an American hero. The story is about Stoll, an astronomer turned programmer who tracks down a hacker through the labs of Lawrence, Berkeley (where he is stationed) all across the USA and then across the Atlantic into Germany where he finds his hacker nemesis. The origin of all this is an accidental spotting of a system accounting error of a mere 75 cents on the server that Stoll is assigned to maintain. Determined not to let the matter go, he snoops around and locates a user named ‘hunter’ and then starts tracking his every move by simply printing his keystrokes. 

He watches the hacker enter from Tymnet, copy a Trojan horse program (ie the Cuckoo’s Egg) onto the computer through a gaping hole in the Berkeley Unix system, waits for the system to run the Trojan horse and gain super-user privileges. And through the Berkeley System he goes on to hack into systems like Milnet that contain crucial information about the US military and Navy.

This book is a landmark in itself since it prompted the US government to start taking the matter of Computer security seriously as the hacker turns out to be an agent working for the KGB. This is apparent from the fact that even though organisations like the NSA and CIA seem interested they claim its not under their bailiwick to start an investigation. The FBI don’t seem interested since the case doesn’t involve a ‘half a million dollar’ loss. The story is well woven with Stoll’s description of his everyday life, the fact that he bakes chocolate chip cookies and that he is a ‘master sulker’. A must read for anyone who loves networking or cares for computer security.


When things magically happen,
they always seem wrong.