Looking back

Published on: 2005-11-24

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Looking back


Reading Swaroop's account of his involvement with Linux in college made me look back to my college days. I joined the Model Engineering College, Cochin as a B.Tech student (CS) in 1992. The PC had not yet become mainstream in India and there were just a few guys in class who had even seen a computer before. We got started with MS-DOS and simple programs in Turbo Pascal (running on real 8086 machines) - I still remember a cute program which plotted a sine wave on the screen using the `*' character! If I remember it correctly, it was during our second year in college that we got to see Windows for the first time - that too on a huge monitor which was used for doing some kind of CAD stuff! It was quite impressive for us newbies - one memory of this period is a thick book on Windows programming with the `OWL' (Object Windows Library) - for some reason, I didn't quite like the stuff written in that book. We had a Unix lab which ran on a big 486 machine - the OS was SCO. Lot's of dumb terminals were connected to the server and we had a good time playing tetris and writing stupid little shell scripts. The Unix lab was mostly used for teaching compiler construction (LeX/Yacc) and systems programming (IPC, shared mem, semaphores etc). Some seniors also used it for doing database projects with Ingres. The college management was at that time quite liberal when it came to purchasing equipment; around the same period we got introduced to Windows, there arrived in the lab a Silicon Graphics workstation (running the amazing Irix operating system) and a DEC Alpha system. The SGI machine was real cool - it came with a small movie camera - you could take your photo and put it up on the photo login page - click your photo to log on to the machine! Most of us guys who were really interested in computers soon realized that the `Windows' stuff was absolute crap and there were *much* better things in the world. One day when we tried booting a machine in the lab, it simply displayed two character on the screen:

We ran to our teacher Prof.Jyothi John and informed him of this mysterious behaviour - he told us that he had tried installing something called `Linux' which he had obtained from IIT Madras - the installation had failed, maybe we could try repeating it. He gave us a bunch of about 40 floppies. After some effort, we had `Linux' successfully running on our machines. We found this new OS quite interesting. Nobody had worked on it before and it was fun to discover things by trial and error and experimentation (something which I believe many `new-generation' students are unwilling to do in the age of `Googling'). There is one bookshop in Cochin called `Mindstorm' whose owner was an enlightened chap - he arranged us a book which was a collection of documents taken from the Linux Documentation project - we had something to go by. We soon had a small network running and tetris gaming shifted to machines on this network. We had a mini project coming up - networking was something fascinating at that time and we decided to do some TCP/IP stuff using the new OS. I had read an article in IEEE Computer about `Computer Supported Co-operative Work' - the idea is that you share things like a whiteboard over the network - you draw something,others on the network can see it real-time. We learnt a bit of Xlib programming and some socket stuff from the amazing Steven's book and cobbled up a program which was trivial but impressive in its output. I got hooked to h/w interfacing with Linux when I wrote a simple user space driver to interface an ADC card and read data from it - this was originally done as an exercise in the hardware lab on MS-DOS but soon got `ported' over to Linux. The networking craze even made us write a `networked' CRO which acquires data from the card and distributes it to clients over the n/w. Simple stuff, but thrilling to a beginner. The main project was an `extension' of the mini project - we decided to add some audio and video to our earlier program. The video data was obtained from the camera on the SGI machine and was distributed to client Linux systems over the network - our knowledge of X was feeble and we found that the display couldn't update itself fast enough. Then we used some kind of mmap trick to gain direct access to the video mem - the plotting was now quite fast! Looking back, it was an absolutely stupid program, but at that time, we were quite excited about it! Coming back to Swaroop's article, I note that the single most important point in our favour at that time was a teacher who was good enough to let his students experiment with new things. Prof.Jyothi John was a pioneer in this regard and helped us set up perhaps the first Linux lab in Kerala. I have (unfortunately) lost all contact with Model Engineering College, but I hope the current group of students are as passionate about GNU/Linux as we were in those `good old' days!

Gagan B. Mishra

Fri Dec 28 05:14:08 2007

Almost similar is the story at NIT Hamirpur (H.P). It was our second year of B-Tech, when we first got to encounter with GNU/Linux. Honestly speaking, we didn't even know how to pronunce Linux. We pronunced it as Ly-nux. One of my batchmate first installed it in his PC and somehow managed to install MPlayer and play movies and songs. That quite amazed us (around 4/5 people). Though later on , the guy who started with Linux became less interested in it and became a big fan and worshipper of Microsoft, we guys carried on with Linux. It started as a hobby among us and was totally confined to ourselves. We tried different versions of RedHat, Fedora, Debian etc. Learned new things and we finally completely shifted to GNU/Linux. I first started with Fedora, then used SuSE for a few days and then moved to Ubuntu, and now I am using ArchLinux. Nothing was planned, and we finally decided to form a group to develope and spread the GNU culture. So the GLUG-NITH(http://glug-nith.org) took birth in 2005/06. Without any considerable support from the administration we carried on with it. More than 90% of the credit for all these goes to my friends Debarshi Ray and Arjun Shankar. And it was 2006, when RMS was there at NITH for a lecture on free software ethics. We completed our B-Tech this year (2007) and left college, but it didn't stop there. It is now being run by present students. To add more.. GLUG-NITH hosted the first official Fedora mirror (http://fedora.glug-nith.org/linux/) . It's indeed a great work by the glug-nith group. And at present, Debarshi Ray (http://debarshiray.multiply.com), who started using Linux around 3 years ago, is now a fedora developer, with his projects Songanizer, Opyum etc. He was also there as a speaker at FOSS.IN 2007 to talk about Opyum that was selected by Google SoC and then as a Fedora Project. Rakesh Pandit (another glug-nith member) has also got selected in Google Soc for the project of Gnowsys, and now working on developing a English to Kashmiri translator (I don't know the exact details). All it needs is a little zeal, enthusiasm and optimism. Someone had to initiate it, and we did it!

Gagan B. Mishra

Fri Dec 28 05:16:21 2007

When I said First Official Fedora mirror, I meant to say First in INDIA.

Pramode C.E

Sat Dec 29 03:58:23 2007

That's a nice description - thank you! It's great to know that you are managing a Fedora Mirror in India!


Mon Feb 11 05:52:05 2008

"but I hope the current group of students are as passionate about GNU/Linux as we were in those `good old’ days" !hi pramode....happened to see your blog...i am a student of MEC(6th sem ECE)....as you hope, we people are really interested in linux....it is too interesting to learn the history of linux in our college... linux here, has grown to such an extent that there is an official Debian mirror in our college lab...and the our labs are running xclusively on linux...all congrats and thanks to you people who pioneered the work of linux here in Model Engineering College..you can visit mec.ac.in to know more about FOSS developments in our college.


Tue Apr 15 19:59:04 2008

Hi I am Vivek 3rd yr CSE in Model Engg College.We started Linux Week and other events from this year onwards. I was FOSS in charge for the year 2007-08. Thanks to you guys and Jyothi John sir,MEC is the dream spot of Tux Fans. Visit www.mec.ac.in/linux for a brief report

vinod sarma

Mon Feb 2 17:03:03 2009

Dear Pramod, it is really interesting to read your summary of the lab days. I could see the replay in my mind while I read your post - I can see you guys sitting at the corner desktop with Mayjo peeping over your shoulder and I can feel the same excitement we had when we saw you guys do the video transmission. And you are so right, when I look back, it turns out that we having prof. Jyothi john sir to guide us those days was an important thing. I've not become a geek programmer, but in my current job, any time I have a decent success in understanding and designing programming systems occasionally, I am thankful to the thought process he instilled in us....vinod.