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Which Linux Distro Is The Most Popular?

About six years ago, I had a hankering to dig deeper into Linux distros. I took an old desktop (and when I mean old, I mean like dated circa 2000!) and went through the long and painful process of installing Gentoo on it. I then installed apache and movable type and pretty soon I had this desktop box running 24/7 at home powering my site. By today’s standards, the h/w specs of the box meant that it would have comfortably been beaten by my iPhone blindfolded and with two hands tied. Yet, because Gentoo insists on compiling the entire distro from scratch per installation, it actually performed its web hosting duties pretty well. Ultimately, I ended up moving the site over to an ISP but only because such a setup provides things like 24/7 power and net access, something not possible at home then due to the PG & E imposed rolling blackouts in the SF Bay Area.

The next time I had to consider Linux distros in any meaningful way was when I had to start moving the services in our startup to Amazon. I ended up picking Ubuntu for our AMI. It seemed to have the biggest footprint and support. Gentoo didn’t really enter the picture at the time. Since then, I’ve seen, at least post acquisition at Limelight, the slow supplanting of Ubuntu and Debian by CentOS, certainly for server installs.

Imagine my surprise when a friend recently updated his FB status thus: “Setting up gentoo linux. It’s really designed for self torture.” Did people still use Gentoo? So, I did a bit of digging and found a site, DistroWatch, that offers various distro downloads and keeps track of their popularity. According to them, the top five are:

  1. Mint
  2. Ubuntu
  3. Fedora
  4. openSUSE
  5. Debian

Gentoo comes in at 18. To be honest, I never really had heard of Mint either. Apparently it is a desktop distro that is:

an Ubuntu-based distribution whose goal is to provide a more complete out-of-the-box experience by including browser plugins, media codecs, support for DVD playback, Java and other components. It also adds a custom desktop and menus, several unique configuration tools, and a web-based package installation interface. Linux Mint is compatible with Ubuntu software repositories.

I would imagine DistroWatch is targeted at desktop downloads, hence the skew. Interesting nonetheless.

Here’s a post at Geektrio dated nearly two years ago listing the then top ten from DistroWatch. The top five at that time:

  1. Ubuntu
  2. Fedora
  3. openSUSE
  4. Debian
  5. Mandriva

Mint is at 6 and Gentoo comes in at 9. The trend for these two would seem to be pretty clear. Mandriva (also known as Linux Mandrake) has now dropped to 17. Fascinating stuff for Linux enthusiasts.


The Case for an Open Source As Service Platform

In his article on Steve Jobs (The Tinkerer), Malcolm Gladwell gets to the core of what made the UK dominate the industrial revolution:

They believe that Britain dominated the industrial revolution because it had a far larger population of skilled engineers and artisans than its competitors: resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them—refined and perfected them, and made them work.

Similarly, Steve Jobs, as per Isaacson’s biography:

But Isaacson’s biography suggests that he was much more of a tweaker. He borrowed the characteristic features of the Macintosh—the mouse and the icons on the screen—from the engineers at Xerox PARC, after his famous visit there, in 1979. The first portable digital music players came out in 1996. Apple introduced the iPod, in 2001, because Jobs looked at the existing music players on the market and concluded that they “truly sucked.” Smart phones started coming out in the nineteen-nineties. Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, more than a decade later, because, Isaacson writes, “he had noticed something odd about the cell phones on the market: They all stank, just like portable music players used to.

And so on. This observation does give rise to a question – if Jobs could rise to such exalted heights by mere ruthless refinement, what hope is left for the rest of us mere mortals? What the article does not say and should be obvious to anyone in the tech industry is that we’ve been living through the golden age of tweaking. After all, what is open source if not tweaking unleashed? I don’t need to go through the sheer quantity and variety of tools, programs, methods and systems that open source has produced. There is an open source equivalent for pretty much every functionality you can think of. Yet, I wonder if we have already lived through its golden age and are moving on to something else.

What I mean is that in the past ten years or so, we have moved from the paradigm of software as executable to software as service. It is not enough to produce a program or system. You have to run it as well and keep it running. Hence websites, search engines, social networks and pretty much everything else in our grand world wide web. This leads to the next question: while there is an open source equivalent to pretty much any software from Microsoft or Adobe, where is the open source as service (OSaaS) equivalent to Google or Facebook? Nutch doesn’t count – it’s code that has to be installed and run. Doing so is nontrivial and illustrates some of the issues facing OSaaS:

  • cost of machines to run the service and supporting services
  • cost of bandwidth
  • storage costs
  • operations costs

I would argue Wikipedia is a good example of a OSaaS – and it is continually in fundraising mode. Furthermore, eiven Google and Facebook’s masive scale, it’s impossible to produce any kind of competing system the traditional way without massive amounts of money. So much for open source purity! While it is true SaaS and PaaS providers often make available APIs and platforms on a tiered basis with the first x or so requests being free and hence is a great way of getting started with your app, you have to pay after you exceed a certain level of usage. Again, non scalable and sure to discourage the next budding Steve Jobs toiling away in his/her garage.

I think the success of the SETI project (not in finding aliens but in getting people to contribute their spare cycles) or even what I saw at Looksmart when we acquired Grub indicates there might be another way. Grub was an open source crawler that users could download and install on their computers. It showed nifty screen savers when your computer needed to snooze and crawled URLs at the same time. We were surprised by Grub’s uptake. People wanted to make search better and were happy to download and run it on their own computers. We had people allocating farms of machines devoted to running Grub. We used it for nothing but dead link checking for our Wisenut search engine – but even that made people happy to contribute.

One possible lesson from this could be that if it is possible to develop a framework/platform for effectively partitioning the service amongst many participants, each participant would pay a fraction of the total cost. Of course, as BitTorrent shows, load balancing has to be carefully done. People that host too many files leech too much ISP resources and get sued. Grid computing and projects like BOINC are certainly promising but seem to be specialized for long running jobs of certain types like protein folding or astrophysics computations. It’s not clear whether they can provide a distributed, public, OSaaS platform. Such a platform, if carefully engineered, could pave the way to many interesting applications that could provide alternatives to the Facebooks and Googles of the world and ensure tinkering in the new millenium remains within the reach of dreamers.


Gesture Recognition And Music

Despite Farhad Manjoo’s assertions that a week at CES is essentially a week wasted (“The Most Worthless Week in Tech”), I found this LA Times article talking about gesture recognition vendors at CES to be particularly interesting:

Competing examples on display were from PrimeSense, the Israeli designers of the microchips that power Microsoft’s popular controller-free Kinect gaming accessory, and Softkinetic, a Belgian rival that powered an interactive billboard in Hollywood last summer for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The former relies on an approach called structured light — a projector fills the area in front of the display with beams of infrared light, then a sensor detects how the beams are distorted by moving objects. The latter takes the so-called time of flight approach, which detects motion by projecting light in front of a display and measuring how long it takes to bounce back.

PrimeSense has a considerable head start in the gesture recognition field thanks to the inclusion of its technology in Kinect — Microsoft sold some 8 million units of the device in 60 days. But games are “just the tip of the iceberg,” said Uzi Breier, executive vice president of PrimeSense. “We’re in the middle of a revolution. We’re changing the interface between man and machine.”

PrimeSense is focused on living room devices, while SoftKinect is also active in display advertising and medical applications. Breier said other possible uses include automobile security and safety, robotics, home security and rehabilitation.

To this list of uses, I would add another: music. Anyone who has played air guitar, air drums and/or the theremin would agree, I think. Percussion, in particular, would be a natural fit. Perhaps, in the future, conducting itself would be the actual performance and the orchestra would not even be there!


Brave New World Of Oversharing

From the New York Times:

“Ten years ago, people were afraid to buy stuff online. Now they’re sharing everything they buy,” said Barry Borsboom, a student at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who this year created an intentionally provocative site called Please Rob Me. The site collected and published Foursquare updates that indicated when people were out socializing — and therefore away from their homes.

In this day and age of Too Much Information (TMI), the only real security, it would seem, would be the “security through obscurity” variety. If everyone flooded the web about the minutiae of their day to day lives, chances are it’s going to be tough to single out anyone in particular. That approach, however, puts early adopters at risk. No longer would they be just a face in the crowd. Comes with the territory, I guess.

That being said, websites making said TMI possible should probably realize there are still some boundaries best left uncrossed.

Recruiter LOL


The picture says it all really. For the record, the full subject line from the recruiter was “Data Analytics Architect Opportunity – NOT SPAM.”