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You can (and should) slow down and learn how things work – Interview with Dru Lavigne by Luca Ferrari

Luca Ferrari: Dear Dru, first of all, it is a pleasure to have you on this magazine. You are a well know BSD-Guru, but could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 13.18.12Dru Lavigne: I’m a Canadian citizen currently living in the Midwest of the US. I’ve been using, documenting and teaching BSD operating systems since 1996. For my day job, I manage the end-user documentation for the PCBSD, FreeNAS, and TrueNAS operating systems and the Lumina desktop. I’m also a volunteer Director at the FreeBSD Foundation, and Founder and Chair of the BSD Certification Group, and as I find time, I’m a doc committer for the FreeBSD Project. When I’m not on a computer, you’ll find me trialing new vegetable varieties in my backyard garden.

Luca Ferrari: How did you get interested in the FreeBSD world. Why did you choose to stay with BSD instead of other Unix-like operating systems?

Dru Lavigne: In the mid 90s, I went back to school to learn network and system administration. As graduation grew near and I startedlooking for a work, I noticed that all the interesting jobs wanted Unix skills. Wanting to increase my skills, and not having any money, I did an Internet search for “Free Unix”. The first hit was freebsd.org. I went to the website and started reading the Handbook and thought “I can do this”. Since I only had access to one computer and wanted to ramp up my skills quickly, I printed out the installation and networking chapters of the Handbook. I replaced the current operating system with FreeBSD and forced myself to learn how to do everything I needed to do on that computer in FreeBSD. It was a painful (and scary) few weeks as I figured out how to transition the family’s workflow to FreeBSD, but it was also exhilarating to learn that “yes, I can do this!.  Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to try out or administer the other BSDs, several Linux distros, SCO, and Solaris. I found that the layout, logic, and release engineering process of the BSDs makes the most sense to me and I’m happiest when on a BSD system.

Luca Ferrari: You seem to be deeply involved with FreeBSD, do you also use other BSD systems? If yes, can you please enumerate and briefly describe your experience with them?

Dru Lavigne: I tend to use PCBSD for desktops, FreeBSD for servers, and OpenBSD for firewalls. As part of the ongoing maintenance of the BSD certification program, I keep up with the release notes for each of the BSDs and perform test installs of each new release as preparation for the semi-annual update to the BSDA Study Guide.

Luca Ferrari: What do you suggest to a BSD user to keep up-to-date with the whole community? Do you recommend attending conferences, reading papers, books, manuals, or something different?

Dru Lavigne: There are quite a few resources for keeping up with the BSD community. BSDNow.tv has a weekly podcast where they discuss BSD topics. Every episode has been archived and the website also has tutorials. BSD Talk (http://bsdtalk.blogspot.com/) has an archive of interviews of people who working and using BSD. Both allow you to get caught up on with what’s going on and who is doing what, if you have time to watch or listen.

If you are lucky enough to have a BSD conference come to a location near you, I highly recommend that you attend it. It is amazing to meet the people behind the IRC handles and email addresses that you run across in the BSD community in person. While as a first-time attendee you may initially feel that you’re “just a user” or that the content will be over your head. I have yet to meet an attendee that didn’t feel welcome in BSD community. I was glad that they attended, and was already making plans to attend another conference. If you can’t make it to a BSD conference, you can still access the technical content, as presentations are archived at Youtube (search for the name of the conference).

Luca Ferrari: How many BSD-related conferences do you attend in a year?

Dru Lavigne: I attend a dozen or so open source and BSD conferences each year, where I help to staff the FreeBSD Foundation and PCBSD or FreeNAS booth. I often present as well, on subjects such as ZFS and documentation. This year I attended the following conferences: FAST, SCALE, AsiaBSDCon, BSDCan, Essen DevSummit, vBSDCon, womENcourage, EuroBSDCon, LISA, and Fossetcon. I missed SELF, TLF, OLF, and the OpenZFS DevSummit this year due to scheduling conflicts.

Luca Ferrari: As an instructor, what is the most common difficulty people have in learning the Unix culture and, particularly, the BSD culture?

Dru Lavigne: Students who haven’t been exposed to open source before are used to thinking of technology in terms of a purchasable brand consisting of “black boxes” that are supposed to “just work”, without having to think about how they work. You can (and should) slow down and learn how things work. It can be a mind shift to learn that the freedom to use and change how something works does exist, and isn’t considered stealing. And that learning how something works, while hard, can be fun. BSD culture, in particular, is well suited for those who have the time and temperament to dive into how things work. With over 40 years of freely available source and commit messages, you can dive as deep as you want into learning how things came to be, how they evolved over the years, how they work now, and how they can be improved. There is a diverse range of stuff to choose from: from user tools to networking to memory management to hardware drivers to security mechanisms and so on. There is also a culture of sharing and learning and encouragement for users who demonstrate that they have done their homework and have their own ideas to contribute.

Luca Ferrari: Many universities, high schools, and middle schools are embracing Unix-like operating systems. This sounds good because students get in touch with the Unix culture and the Open Source world. What are your thoughts on this?

Dru Lavigne: I’m all for any program that encourages people to think, try things, figure things out, share ideas, and contribute their results. I’m also a big believer that people (of any age) should be introduced to a wide variety of technology, so that they can learn which technologies best meet their needs. This is especially important for students, so that they are aware that technology is more than just what happens to be in their classroom or what they see in advertisements.

Many schools also have programs or can partner with volunteer organizations that allow parents, older students, and technology professionals to assist in events, labs, and courses for introducing students to new technologies. I encourage readers to see what is available in their geographic area and to sign up for a volunteer event.

Luca Ferrari: What is the role of the FreeBSD Foundation and how can users contribute to the growth of the FreeBSD operating system through the Foundation?

Dru Lavigne: The FreeBSD Foundation is a US-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization, which supports and builds the FreeBSD Project and community worldwide. The Foun- dation receives donations from companies and individu- als. Those donations are used to help provide hardware and infrastructure support for the FreeBSD Project, travel grants for FreeBSD contributors to attend conferences and DevSummits, project management and developer funding for specific development projects, and legal support for the Project and its logo, trademarks, and copyrights. As an individual, there are several ways you can help the Foundation support the FreeBSD Project. You can make a personal donation through the Foundation website, see if your employer has a donation matching program, or ask your employer if it is interested in making a corporate donation. If your business or employer uses FreeBSD in their product or infrastructure, contact the Foundation for assistance in writing a testimonial or case study on why you use FreeBSD. Let the Foundation know if you are doing interesting things with FreeBSD and would like to write an article for the FreeBSD Journal—they can assist you through the editorial process. If you are speaking about FreeBSD or staffing a FreeBSD booth at a local event or teaching a FreeBSD class, let the Foundation know so that they can help you spread the word. More information about the Foundation’s activities, how to donate, and how to contact the Foundation can be found at freebsdfoundation.org.

Luca Ferrari: The BSD Certification Group aims at providing two levels of BSD certification, affordable to anyone. Could you please provide our readers some information about these certifications, and why it is important to become certified?

Dru Lavigne: The BSDA is an entry-level certification for BSD system administrators. It is available in English and Japanese as a multiple-choice exam which can be taken either at an exam event, such as a BSD conference, or at a testing center. The BSDP is an advanced certification for more experienced BSD system administrators. It is still under development and will be a 2-part exam with a lab component as well as a multiple-choice exam. More information about each exam is available at http://www.bsdcertification.org/certification/.

Both exams undergo a rigorous, psychometric assessment in order to provide value to both certificants and the employers who hire them. The exams are based on tasks that were deemed important by employers and the Certification Requirements document for each exam details the tasks covered by that exam. Achieving a certification assists system administrators in achieving a common base of knowledge. It can be used to fill skill gaps and to gauge which activities are important to employers. It also helps to grow the BSD community and demonstrates Certification that BSD is a viable enterprise solution and that skilled administrators are available for administering BSD systems.

Luca Ferrari: PCBSD is a young project that is gaining more attention. What is your role in this project and why would you suggest to new users to try this operating system?

Dru Lavigne: I’m the editor and lead writer of the PCBSD User Guide, which is published with each version of PCBSD. I also assist in testing new features and beta versions, reporting bugs as I find them. Recently, I started the Lumina Handbook for the Lumina desktop which was created as part of the PCBSD Project.

I’ve been using PCBSD as my desktop since Kris Moore announced the Project in 2005. At that time, it provided a graphical installer and an alternate method for installing FreeBSD applications. Over the years, a Control Panel of graphical utilities was created for performing administrative tasks on the system—this was needed as most open source administrative tools were designed for Linux and did not understand FreeBSD device names, user management, firewall management, and so on. Once the tools were caught up, the Project started working on some interesting things, many of which take advantage of the ZFS filesystem. For example, with Life Preserver it is trivial to schedule automated ZFS snapshots (think backup of your files) and to timeslide between previous versions of files in order to restore a deleted or modified version of a file. These snapshots can also be scheduled to be replicated (backed up) to another system. If my main system blows up or I want to recreate it, I simply boot a PC-BSD installation disk on another computer, connect to the backup system, and restore the selected backup. Other cool tools include PersonaCrypt for logging into an encrypted USB stick (so that I can securely travel with my important files), switching to Tor mode for anonymous browsing, and safely updating the operating system or packages without fear that the update will break existing software. Should an upgrade be problematic, I simply reboot and select to boot into the version of the operating system before the update occurred. The backup, restore, and safe updates are features that I find necessary for my own desktop and which I miss when I’m not on a PCBSD system. In this day and age, why aren’t all filesystems and operating systems doing this?

Luca Ferrari: FreeNAS is another FreeBSD-based project which shares some PCBSD technology, such as PBIs for example. What is your experience with this community and how does it compare to other FreeBSD-based project communities like, PCBSD?

Dru Lavigne: This is a very large community and many of its users are new-comers to FreeBSD-based technologies, ZFS, and documentation that is updated and published with each release. There tends to be a learning curve for users to realize that the benefits of ZFS, particularly for storage, far outweigh the hardware requirements and that one should refer to the documentation first, rather than scouring the Internet for outdated, and often incorrect, howtos. The community seems to be mostly comprised of an even mix of Windows users and Linux users.

PCBSD users traditionally tended to be Windows users looking for an alternative that was free, secure, and virus-free. We are now starting to see a lot of long-time Linux users who are looking for an alternative to systemd and who are curious about ZFS.

Luca Ferrari: What do you believe the BSD is still missing with regard to other operating systems?

Dru Lavigne: Visibility. The BSDs have a lot of cool, thoughtfully designed and well-implemented features that are either missing or poorly done in other operating systems. Some of today’s buzzwords are based on technologies that have been available on BSDs for years. The perception is that functionalities are not available in the BSDs because they are called and implemented differently.

Luca Ferrari: What other projects are you currently involved in?

Dru Lavigne: I currently don’t have the time to contribute to other projects, but there are other projects that I use. I recently converted the documentation I’m responsible for from wikis and OpenOffice to Sphinx (sphinx-doc. org). We also use other open source components in our doc toolchain, such as git for repository control, Jenkins (jenkins-ci.org) for continuous build integration, and Pootle (pootle.translatehouse.org) for managing both UI and documentation translations.

Luca Ferrari: In the endless battle amongst the text editors, what do you choose: Emacs or Vi? Dru Lavigne: Definitely nvi (not vim).

About The Author:

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 13.18.00Luca Ferrari lives in Italy with his wife and son. He received a PhD in Computer Science by University of Modena and Reggio Emil- ia, has been co-founder, member of the board of directors and president of Italian PostgreSQL Users’ Group (ITPUG). Luca loves Open Source software and Unix culture, uses GNU Emacs, Perl, zsh and FreeBSD along with a lot of other cool tools.

Interview comes from BSD Mag 09/2015

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